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Camas, Washougal city councils mull best uses for $11.3M American Rescue Plan funds

City leaders will reach out to community members this spring, summer to discuss best uses for federal pandemic-relief money

The cities of Camas and Washougal are set to receive a total of $11.3 million from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021.

Both cities received the first half of the dedicated ARPA funds in June 2021, and will receive the second half this summer. In total, the city of Camas is set to receive $6.8 million in ARPA funds, while Washougal will receive a total of $4.5 million.

Leaders in both cities say they will reach out to community members before deciding how to use the majority of the pandemic relief money.

Camas allocates $80K for utility assistance

The city of Camas will receive the second of its two $3.4 million ARPA installments on June 27.

Camas officials have already OK’d the expenditure of some ARPA funds, including a little more than $80,000 to help residents struggling to pay their utility bills. City officials also have indicated the city will likely spend about $1.4 million from the federal funds to cover some of the costs associated with replacing the city’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software system that helps Camas staff manage the city’s day-to-day operations.

Camas Finance Director Cathy Huber Nickerson updated the Camas City Council on the latest ARPA news during the council’s March 7 workshop, and said the federal government’s new “standard allowance” rule would allow Camas and other small cities with fewer than 50,000 people to declare up to $10 million in ARPA funds under a single federal reporting category. Using the allowance could save staff time and expenses related to complex audits.

“(It provides) greater simplicity for reporting compliance for federal government and state auditors,” Huber Nickerson said. “We say, ‘This is the amount we’re declaring — and we could do the whole ($6.8 million) — as our standard allowance’ and then … we don’t have to go through every single line item. It saves staff a lot of time.”

Taking the standard allowance would not change how the city will allocate its ARPA funds, Huber Nickerson said.

“This isn’t to circumvent how council is … going to the public and working with department heads for recommendations,” she added. “It just provides us an opportunity to work with the federal government. We can still use (the ARPA funds) for responding to public health emergencies, vaccination programs, adapting buildings to mitigate COVID going forward, assisting households, homelessness … we can still help travel, tourism and hospitality industries and communities impacted disproportionately by COVID.”

Huber Nickerson said she will revisit the idea of taking a standard deduction during the council’s April 4 workshop.

“We’ll come back with some ideas and flesh out what council would like to do,” she said. “The goal is to come back with ideas on April 4, have a resolution on April 18 and report to the federal government by April 30.”

Huber Nickerson said staff is considering a proposal that would place $6 million under the standard allowance and save $800,000 for “areas that may fall outside” of (what’s allowed under that standard deduction.

“You can still use the $800,000, but would just report (it) differently,” Huber Nickerson told city council members on March 7. “If it’s a project over $1 million (and the city decides to not use the standard allowance option) there’s an incredible amount of work we need to do to say why we picked that project over all others. The requirements are so tight. You either meet the requirements or you don’t. And if you don’t, you have to pay it back. That’s why we’re protected under that standard deduction.”

Once city officials have decided how much of the ARPA funds they would like to include in a standard allowance deduction, city leaders will begin to reach out to the community to gauge what is most important to Camasonians when it comes to spending the ARPA funds.

The city has until April 30 to decide on the standard allowance deduction, but does not have to appropriate the funds until Dec. 31, 2024, so there is plenty of time for community members to weigh in on how the city should spend its pandemic recovery money.

The city will use its online tools, including the Engage Camas website and Balancing Act program, as well as in-person events like Camas Days in July and the weekly Camas Farmers Market, to reach out to Camas residents and get their thoughts on how to appropriate the city’s $6.8 million in ARPA funds.

Under the federal rules on ARPA, the pandemic recovery funds can be used to help a city respond to public health emergencies; mitigate the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community; provide premium pay to essential workers; make up for a jurisdiction’s revenue losses; and/or for projects related to water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

During her March 7 report to the city council, Huber Nickerson provided examples of the types of things the city could do with its ARPA funds, including:

  • Vaccination and vaccine-incentive programs
  • Improving ventilation in congregate settings
  • Supporting COVID-related medical care, testing, contact tracing and access to healthcare
  • Provide more support for congregate living facilities
  • Adapting public buildings to implement COVID-mitigation tactics
  • Providing food, rent/mortgage, utility and cash assistance to households negatively impacted by the pandemic
  • Providing emergency assistance for burials
  • Improving internet access or digital literacy assistance
  • Supporting city programs, small businesses and nonprofits with loans or grants to make up for financial hardships suffered during the pandemic or to help prevent or mitigate future COVID surges.
  • Providing aid to tourism, travel and hospitality industries, which were likely to have suffered during the pandemic
  • Addressing communities disproportionately impacted by COVID by addressing health disparities; building stronger neighborhoods by supporting housing for people experiencing homelessness and having more affordable housing in the community; addressing education disparities exacerbated by COVID; and promoting “healthy childhood environments” through childcare and other programs for families with young children
  • Providing back-to-work incentives and public jobs programs
  • Improving outdoor spaces such as parks and public plazas, which may have seen increased use during the pandemic

Washougal will reach out to citizens this spring

City of Washougal leaders are planning to gather community input that they will use to determine how to spend $4.5 million in pandemic assistance funds.

The city received about $2.25 million from the United States government’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Biden to speed up the United States’ recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021, and expects to receive another $2.25 million this summer.

The city will reach out to citizens, possibly via online survey or mailer, this spring to determine how they should use the majority of the funds, according to Washougal City Manager David Scott.

“We have not made a final decision about the methods of outreach,” Scott told the Post-Record, “but I suspect it might include both of those means.”

The city used about $143,000 of its original allotment to purchase a keyless entry system for City Hall, expand the service counter and add a public conference room and mail slot at the city’s permit center, and repair and upgrade the city’s public restrooms last summer.

City employees are currently compiling a list of possible projects from the city’s existing capital facilities plans and other areas, and will evaluate them against the council’s goals and other criteria that they are still developing, according to Scott.

“The (council) would like to advance projects for which we can leverage our ARPA funding as a match for other grants from the state and federal government, to stretch the funds as much as we can to multiply the benefit,” Scott said.

City staff members will share the results with the council’s public works committee, which will then narrow the list to a portfolio of possible projects. City leaders will then reach out to the community to receive input that will be used to help the public works committee, and ultimately the full council, prioritize and select which projects to advance with the ARPA funding.

“We are hoping to engage with the public works committee (soon),” Scott said. “I anticipate the city seeking input from the community sometime during the second quarter, but there is no specific timing established yet.”

In July 2021, the council reached an informal consensus that the remaining funds would best be used for capital projects, which they determined would provide the “most transformative” and “long-lasting” impact for the entire community.

“And that’s kind of where we left it,” Scott said during a workshop session on Monday, Feb. 14. “The council was sort of leaning toward this, but wanted to think about it, let some time go by, see what the final rule from (the United States Department of the) Treasury said, and then take it from there. Well, we are now there. There is a final rule.”

The “final rule” from the Department of the Treasury introduces a “standard allowance” provision for cities that report a revenue loss of less than $10 million, Scott said.

“Previously, there was a required, very rigorous algorithm for determining your revenue loss. We have not sought at all to undertake any analysis in the context of that rigorous algorithm for determining revenue loss, and we may not have a substantial amount of revenue loss over the course of the program,” he told the councilors. “But now, instead of having to perform and document, through this rigorous algorithm, your revenue loss, you can just make an assumption of a $10 million revenue loss for the duration of this ARPA program, which is about four years. The key here is there is no revenue loss calculation required. There’s no documentation required. You can just make that assumption.

“The guardrails have definitely changed, and we can spend our allocation on any government service,” he continued. “The timing could change, but theoretically we need to make this election in April when we have to submit our first report, and the election that we would have to make is that we’re choosing the standard allowance vs. calculating the loss. It’s a no-brainer for us because our allowance is less than $10 million.”

Scott called the change “fantastic news” for the city of Washougal.

“It’s exciting to have something like this,” he said during the workshop session. “It doesn’t happen every day where a community has $4.5 million and essentially (can provide) any government service with it.”

“This is quite a unique opportunity for us as a city,” council member Ernie Suggs added. “I think there are some outstanding opportunities for us. Anything we can do to leverage the funding that we have to go forward would just be a boon to our community. I know there are things out there that would be able to get done and appreciated by our citizens, and I think that’s the important part. Onward and forward.”

Scott recommended that the city council members adopt a collaborative process to determine how to use the rest of the funds by presenting community members with either a list of specific projects or a broader set of categories to consider.

“In ‘Option A,’ we’d come up with this list of projects from all of our various facilities plans — transportation, parks, streets, sidewalks, utilities, facilities — and share it with the community and invite their engagement on which projects should receive funding,” Scott said. “With that preliminary work of the public works committee or full council and some initial scoring and ranking, supplement it with input from the community, the council would then stir that together and make a final decision on where to use the funds.

“The other approach is similar but adds a little bit on the front end,” he continued. “Again, the council or public works committee would identify the categories of capital needs — streets and sidewalks, parks, downtown revitalization, utilities, etc., and then invite the community to provide input in terms of prioritizing the categories, but not specific projects. With that feedback, the council or public works committee would jump into that ‘Option A’ scenario, where you’d do some scoring and ranking of the projects in those high-priority areas and solicit feedback again about which projects should receive funding and make the final decision.”

Mayor Rochelle Ramos and council member Michelle Wagner voiced their approval for the first option.

“I feel like ‘B’ is very broad, and that we need to come to the people with the grants and matching projects in hand to give them a choice of what the city staff thinks is going to relieve the pocket of everybody the most instead of leaving it as a free-for-all of ‘I want a garden’ or ‘I want a dog park’ or this that or the other,” Wagner said. “I think it would be chaotic, and you’re not going to get good data out of it. I think the city needs to come with the projects that can be leveraged the best to save the most money for the taxpayers since the funding is to alleviate some of the pain that communities have felt because of COVID-19. To me, that’s what’s coming out of everybody’s pocket.

“That’s what I would like to see — the city narrows down what’s going to be the most impactful for the different capital projects on the individual rate payers and taxpayers. Otherwise, we’re just going to get everything, and we already have everything because of the millions of surveys that we’ve done over the last 10 years that I’ve been on council. I know what people want.”

Council members Molly Coston, David Stuebe, Janice Killion, Julie Russell and Suggs indicated a preference for the second option.

“I think we can do it in a way where we can be efficient with our time and our money and still connect with a great group of citizens,” Coston said. “I think it’s great that the staff is making this recommendation because it’s extra work on their part.”

Federal rules require cities allocate ARPA funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and complete expenditures by Dec. 31, 2026.

“This gives us time to be thoughtful and deliberate in which projects we choose,” Scott said.