June 16 update:
In a letter sent out Thursday, the county says it’s being shorted $61.5 million by the state
CLARK COUNTY — The Clark County Council this week is sending a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, state legislators, and the state’s federal delegation, urging them to reconsider their disbursement of CARES Act funding for local governments.
In the letter, the council notes that Spokane County in eastern Washington received $91.2 million in disbursements from the federal assistance, while Clark County, with a population just 35,000 people smaller, received only $26.8 million.
“Even though Spokane County’s population is only 7.2 percent larger than Clark County’s,” the letter reads, “Spokane County received 3.4 times the CARES Act funding.”
The letter says only 30 percent of the CARES Act funding intended for smaller governments in Washington state has been dispersed by the Office of Financial Management (OFM), resulting in a net loss to Clark County of $61.5 million, and $79.4 million if all local governments inside the county are included.
“The inequity in CARES Act funding is about more than just a number. It is about ensuring that every citizen in the state is covered by the same level of CARES Act funding, regardless of where they live,” the letter continues. “These funds are required to fund immediate needs in Clark County, ranging from critical public health services, to support for our vulnerable populations, and to assistance for our small businesses negatively affected by the COVID19 pandemic.”
Under current guidelines provided by the U.S. Department of Treasury (DOT), CARES Act funding for smaller governments is available only as a reimbursement for COVID-related expenses, with an Oct. 31 deadline to apply.
“Your ability to make decisions with those moneys that the Department of Treasury has said Clark County is supposed to receive is being diminished very rapidly,” said Larry Stafford, audit services manager for the county, during Wednesday’s Council Time meeting. “Not only because of the process being used, but by that October 31 deadline on the back end.”
An example raised was funding requested by the prosecutor’s office to expand courtroom facilities, to allow for jury trials to resume with sufficient space for social distancing.
Stafford said the process to create such a proposal would take months to complete, making it unlikely the county would be able to seek reimbursement of the expenses from the state.
County Finance Director Mark Gassaway added that the system being used to disburse the CARES Act funding has also limited the way the county can work to assist businesses, or prop up other sectors against the impacts of the pandemic.
“If there were more funding available, there were different decisions that could be made,” noted Gassaway.
The councilors unanimously noted in their letter that the current distribution of CARES Act funding from the state does not represent “equitable treatment among local governments.”
“Under the DOT guidance, Clark County should receive $88.3 million,” the letter reads. “The full and complete appropriation to smaller local governments is critical to ensuring every corner of Washington state, including Clark County, has the greatest resources possible under the CARES Act to fully respond to the immediate public health needs and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
In its guidelines for states on disbursing CARES Act funding to local governments, DOT said states could retain 55 percent of the money, with the remainder distributed to smaller local governments with fewer than 500,000 residents, which didn’t receive a direct federal appropriation.
“These funds for smaller local governments are intended to be distributed at the same per capital allocation as was given to larger local governments; this has not happened in Washington state,” the letter reads.
While Clark County is still working to determine the full economic impact of the pandemic, an estimate provided to Clark County Today last month estimated a general fund loss of between $5 million and $13 million for the remainder of this year.
But the council argues that the full $88.3 million should be made available immediately.
“The intent is to give the money to local governments and out into the community,” said Gassaway, “and that intent, to me, it’s apparent is not being followed.”
Gassaway added that state Sen. Ann Rivers (R-Vancouver) has expressed interest in bringing the issue up during a special session of the state legislature, which Republicans have requested this month.
The U.S. Senate is also considering legislation making the DOT guidelines for the CARES Act funding distribution by states mandatory.
The county noted that attempts to receive clarification on the issue with OFM have been unsuccessful, prompting the letters, which a number of cities also intend to submit, in whole or in part.
“Clark County, and all local governments under 500,000 in population, would like to see these funds appropriated quickly and put to direct use in our communities,” the letter concludes. “Returning these funds to the federal government would be unacceptable; there are critical needs in Clark County and across the state today.”