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News / Clark County News

Clark County allots CARES Act funding

Finance director says there’s flexibility in plan, hopes for more funds

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: September 1, 2020, 6:05am

Clark County has a plan to spend most of its CARES Act funding, but county officials warn they may lack the ability to address the COVID-19 outbreak when it likely continues into later this year and next year.

An agreement with the state Department of Commerce tapped $26,857,500 in federal funding to help the county respond to the outbreak. The county has incurred about $12.9 million in expenses and has planned $13.6 million in expenditures through the end of the year, according to the Clark County Auditor’s Office.

But an Oct. 31 deadline to finalize the plan, disagreements over whether the county has received its proper allotment and the uncertainty of the virus’s future spread have created uncertainties.

“There is flexibility in there, still, and we’re hoping for more,” county Finance Director Mark Gassaway said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we know.”

In accordance with state and federal requirements, the county has categorized incurred and proposed expenses into five categories: public health expenses ($13,798,273), payroll expenses for public employees dedicated to COVID-19 ($6,522,571), expenses to facilitate compliance with COVID-19 measures ($3,978,362), economic supports ($2,117,850) and medical expenses ($29,268). There remains about $400,000 the county hasn’t yet designated to specific categories.

The public health expenses are primarily supporting COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing efforts. Clark County Public Health Department has hired or contracted with more than 80 staffers to do that work.

The process for contact tracing is similar for most communicable diseases, but the COVID-19 response is substantially more labor-intensive, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said.

“This isn’t anything new,” Melnick said. “The difference now is the sheer volume of it.”

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The “expenses to facilitate compliance” category refers to the expenses needed for the county to foster social distancing in public areas and transition county staff to remote work.

The county spending plan only covers one CARES Act funding stream, called Title V. More than $5 million in other federal grants have been accepted for specific needs such as local courts and homelessness services.

“It touches all kinds of aspects of operations,” Gassaway said.

Continuing to evolve

The CARES Act allows states to retain 55 percent of the federal funds, with 45 percent for smaller local governments, defined as jurisdictions with populations under 500,000. Clark County’s population narrowly missed the threshold for direct federal funding.

The state Office of Financial Management imposed the Oct. 31 deadline even through the county’s COVID-19-related expenses are reimbursable through Dec. 30. In May, Gassaway and the Clark County Council held a conversation about the deadline, warning that it might require extensive guesswork due to the unpredictable nature of the virus.

“It really limits us,” Gassaway said. “We may have a significant need to continue the things we’ve been doing, and every indication is that we will.”

While a deadline extension is possible, the state is hoping to make sure that all of the CARES Act funding given to Washington is expended by the end of the year, OFM Director David Schumacher wrote in a July 22 letter.

In June, the county council also sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, arguing that the county should be eligible for $88.3 million in reimbursements — more than three times its current Title V allotment.

Spokane County, for example, has a population of more than 500,000 people but just 7.2 percent more residents than Clark County. The eastern Washington county has received over three times Clark County’s funding.

County officials cite Department of Treasury guidelines written about two weeks after the state announced allocation amounts, that say that the amount of funding to smaller governments should be distributed at the same per-capita rate as larger governments.

But in the July 22 letter, Schumacher, citing a vagueness in federal guidance, wrote that Congress had intended the 45 percent of funds to cover all local governments in the state, leaving less money for smaller governments after considering the direct funding provided to larger ones.

Schumacher also wrote that the state is sitting on an additional $240 million for local governments to address future needs.

Gassaway said that the county reached out to the state weeks ago about the additional money but has not heard back.

“The conditions for this funding are continuing to evolve,” Gassaway said.

So far, the county Public Health Department has received sufficient funds and should be OK through the end of the year, Melnick said. “Given what was available, yes, the (county) council provided us what we thought we needed for our response.”

But Melnick said he expects that the county will need to continue its virus response into next year, including the dozens of staffers committed to contact tracing.

“I’m concerned about the burn rate there,” Melnick said. “This isn’t going away. I wish it were.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter