Clark County leaders growing increasingly frustrated with state over Coronavirus Relief Funding

More than a month after announcing more funding was on the way, the state says details are coming next week

CLARK COUNTY — Help may be on the way for local governments in Washington state, whose budgets have been stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June, the state’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) announced it was distributing nearly $300 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF), part of nearly $3 billion received by the state as part of the CARES Act funding approved by congress last March.

As part of that initial distribution, Clark County received $26.8 million, but officials quickly noticed that Spokane County, with a population just 7.2 percent larger, had received more than three times as much funding.

That prompted a June 11 letter from Clark County Councilors to Gov. Jay Inslee, urging him to look into the matter, as well as a follow-up letter from Rep. Vicki Kraft, signed by most of the Southwest Washington Republican legislative delegation.

The Clark County Public Service Center. File photo
The Clark County Public Service Center. File photo

Both argued that, if OFM had followed the formula the Dept. of Treasury (DOT) used in direct disbursements to governments with over 500,000 people, Clark County should have received more than $88 million.

OFM Director David Schumacher, in a letter dated July 22, maintained that the DOT guidance had been “ambiguous,” and left the state with a high degree of flexibility in how it distributed the $2.23 billion in CRF dollars remaining after larger governments received their share.

OFM’s position has been that DOT guidance was that the states “should” use the same formula, but it wasn’t mandatory, leaving them discretion in how to allocate the funding.

“Our attorneys, along with attorneys for the Legislature agree that it isn’t a requirement,” stated Hayden Mackley, deputy communications director for OFM in an email to Clark County Today.

Still, in that July 22 letter, Schumacher said he was directing his department to begin work on disbursing another $247 million CRF dollars to local governments, though no details were provided on how the money would be allocated, or when it would be made available.

Mackley later said OFM was working with the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), as well as the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) to determine the best use of the money.

At their meeting on Wednesday, Clark County Councilors again expressed frustration at the lack of urgency coming from the state.

“We are hanging by our nails,” said Clark County Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien of businesses in the area, “and we need help.”

Interim County Manager Kathleen Otto said there have been conversations with OFM, as well as the Department of Commerce, regarding the list of needs the county has, and ways they would like to spend the money.

“Unfortunately, we’re not receiving any response from OFM regarding our proposed spending. plan for the additional money,” Otto said. “But we are using opportunities, being proactive, as well as responding, and keeping that conversation going as much as we can.”

Councilors said they would favor writing another letter to Gov. Inslee, as well as Schumacher, urging them to act sooner, rather than later.

“There’s a long list of needs that we have, that we can identify right now, to spend that $66 million on,” said Councilor Gary Medvigy, who has been among the most vocal critics of the state.

Among them are restaurants. Last week, the Clark County Council approved $1.36 million to provide a small amount of relief to food establishments and catering companies impacted by the ongoing shutdowns and limits on the industry due to the pandemic. 

Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant and Bar, as well as Warehouse ‘23, also sent a letter to the council and other elected officials, urging them to make changes to allow his industry to “take responsibility for the safety of our community by applying a commonsense approach to guidelines around restaurants.”

“I don’t think anyone’s crying wolf in the restaurant business,” Medvigy said on Wednesday. “If they comply with all the rule changes and rules in place, most likely, most of them will close.”

“I’m really in favor of trying to do what we can to help our restaurant industry survive,” said Councilor Julie Olson. “They are really being hit hard by this.”

Late Wednesday, Mackley responded to a request from Clark County Today, saying OFM is finalizing details on additional relief funding for local governments.

“We’ll be modifying our inter-agency agreements with the Dept. of Commerce and Dept. of Health, so they can disburse the funds to cities, counties and local health jurisdictions,” Mackley wrote in an email to Clark County Today. “The exact amounts aren’t quite finalized yet either — we expect the local governments to be notified of funds starting next week.”

Despite the change, county officials worry it could be too little, too late. The state still has a deadline of Oct. 31 for local governments to apply for reimbursement from their allocation of the relief dollars, which leaves little time to create budget amendments, spend the money, and then apply to receive compensation from the state.

Schumacher has said OFM is willing to be flexible on that date, but the agency hasn’t released details on how any extension would work.