Thursday, August 11, 2022
Aug. 11, 2022

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Washougal mulls best use of federal funds

City debates how to spend millions from stimulus bill


CAMAS — The city of Washougal has a multimillion-dollar decision to make.

The city has received half of the $4.5 million it will receive from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March to speed up the United States’ recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession.

“The city is grateful to receive these funds,” City Manager David Scott told the Post-Record.

“The council’s goal is to utilize them to provide the most lasting impact to the most people.”

Scott said in May the city could use some of the funds — about $143,000, according to Scott — to invest in 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.

“There’s some dynamics that we’ve identified around low- or no-contact services and adequate space (to prepare for) the ‘new normal.’ We think these (options) would be, in our opinion, ‘mission critical’ COVID response-type dynamics,” Scott said in May. “And I don’t know how many restrooms we have where the fixtures are broken, and they’re basically shuttered. It’s important to have restrooms for public health.”

Scott also told council members they could choose to invest in mandated sewer infrastructure enhancements at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to offset required future bond financing and help mitigate wastewater rates throughout the city.

Engineers currently estimate the expansion project will cost between $12.5 million and $14 million, according to Trevor Evers, the city’s public works director. Construction will begin in early 2023 and finish by mid-2024, Evers said.

Even if the city uses some of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the expansion, it is unknown if wastewater ratepayers would see rate relief immediately or in the future.

“It is very difficult to know for certain if there will be potential utility rate relief provided by the ARPA package or if it will mitigate additional increases in the future,” Evers said. “It really depends on the bids we receive in the first quarter of 2023. It also depends on where the city council wants to invest the ARPA funds and at what level for each project or initiative in the community.”

Council members voiced their unanimous support for Scott’s recommendations during the May 17 city council meeting.

“For my money, it just seems like our wastewater treatment plant, while a very unsexy topic, would definitely impact the most people — residential, commercial, everybody,” said Washougal Mayor Molly Coston. “Even though it doesn’t impact the rate significantly, I think cumulatively it does (help).”

“(Water and sewer) rates have always been an issue for a lot of people,” Councilwoman Julie Russell added. “I think (the staff’s recommendation) impacts the most people in the community.”

Council members were expected to discuss the ARPA funds and possibly vote to approve the city facility upgrade investments during meeting on Monday.

The city will receive the rest of its ARPA funds in the summer of 2022.

“There are limitations on what types of expenses are allowed with the ARPA funds. They cannot be spent on anything that the council might consider,” Scott said. “Also, these are ‘one-time’ funds. They will not be received on an ongoing basis, so use of funds for ongoing program type costs — staffing, for example — is not really sustainable as the expenditures would have to be reversed when the ARPA funding is expended and gone. Rather, investments in ‘one-time’ expenses is more likely a preferred approach.”

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