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Monday, December 11, 2023
Dec. 11, 2023

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Clark County Council weighs how to use $44.6M remaining from COVID stimulus

By , Columbian staff writer

New funding requests for American Rescue Plan Act funds sitting in the county coffers are scheduled for a hearing before the Clark County Council on Aug. 16. Among the requests are $1 million for small-business grants, $1 million for nonprofit grants and $2.5 million for a new North Country EMS station.

When the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package was passed in 2021, $350 billion was set aside to help state and local governments mitigate the fiscal shock of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clark County received $94.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, about 15 percent of its annual revenues. By comparison, Washington received $4.4 billion and Vancouver, the only city in the county to directly receive American Rescue Plan Act funds, received $33.1 million.

It has now been more than a year since the first allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds was distributed. What has the county spent, how much is left and how will the remaining dollars be used? Those and other questions were the focus of an Aug. 3 county council meeting.

According to Finance Director Mark Gassaway, the county council has approved about $50.2 million in allocations for specific projects. Only about $8.2 million has been spent, though.

“From the time funds are committed, it takes time to set the expenditures in motion. In most cases, the county uses community service providers to actually deliver services. That means the program has to be set up, applications taken and evaluated, bids awarded, contracts written, etc.,” Gassaway said in an email Thursday.

One example, he said, is the recent $2 million allocation to the Community Grant program for nonprofits.

“It has taken about six months to develop priorities, scoring requirements, communicate to the community, take and evaluate applications, present recommendations to council, and make awards,” Gassaway said. “Right now, we are in the contracting stage and hope to be disbursing funds sometime this month.”

Gassaway also said federal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Treasury have to be followed and are very explicit, adding, “the county needs to make sure we don’t run afoul of the rules.”

While it’s not a rule, Gassaway said county policy is to use the funds for one-time expenses.

“There is not explicit prohibition for ongoing expenses. However, using (American Rescue Plan Act) funds for ongoing expenses, or creating new programs with ongoing expenses is not advised. The county considers (American Rescue Plan Act) funds one-time money, and the projects will be for specific amounts and then end,” he said.

Of the total funds allocated, Community Services received the largest share — $15.5 million. With just $1.1 million spent, the county has until December 2026 to spend the remaining $14.4 million and all other American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Gassaway said the county will have no problem committing the funds by the required deadline.

“The council wants to be sure to address major areas of need including public health, homelessness/affordable housing, sustaining local businesses impacted by the pandemic, addressing needs of underserved communities and adapting county facilities to new standards of ‘doing business,’ ” Gassaway said. “Examples of how business has changed in the past two years is the need to support remote workers, design spaces for safer/healthier face-to-face interaction with the public, more efficient use of public building space, use of technology for more efficient processing in the courts, etc.”

Community Housing and Development Manager Michael Torres explained to the council how the funds were used to increase capacity for the homeless crisis response system. Torres said $4.4 million was allocated to outreach services, $5 million for shelters, $800,000 for motel vouchers, $300,000 for data collection or coordination, $2.5 million for rapid rehousing and $2.5 million for permanent supportive housing.

“The intent behind this request was to help address the increases in homelessness and the stresses on the homeless system that was brought on by the pandemic,” Torres said.

Torres also said the entire $15.5 million has been contracted with service providers. Because the American Rescue Plan Act funds are being used to offset impacts from the pandemic, Torres said some services should naturally shrink back by the time the extra funds run out.

The county’s Information Technology department was allocated the second-largest share, a combined $10 million through two funding requests. Information Technology Manager Mike Sprinkle said one request was for network infrastructure, and the second request was for a cybersecurity program.

“The network infrastructure makes up about $8.7 million of that total. Part of the reason the spend is so low to date … is due to supply chain issues,” Sprinkle said.

He said some, but not all, of the equipment ordered has been delivered, adding many vendors don’t invoice the county until everything is in hand.

It’s the one allocation that Councilor Gary Medvigy has buyer’s remorse over.

“When we’re looking at policy decisions to parcel out this money — where to allocate it, what are the priorities — cumulative projects become problematic. Not that we’re wrong about that $10 million for IT, but had I seen the $10 million in one lump sum I might have said, ‘Well, that’s too much to invest in IT right now,’ because we have so many other needs,” Medvigy said.

With about $44.6 million left to be allocated, the county has received several new funding requests. One item Medvigy and Councilor Richard Rylander Jr. are eager to see approved is a $1 million request for the development of a YMCA aquatics center in Battle Ground.

Rylander suggested conditions should be set in place before approving the request, including participation by the city of Battle Ground and that state and federal funding for the project be lined up by December 2024. The total cost for the project is estimated at $13 million.

“This allows the Y(MCA) to not only continue the discussions with the city of Battle Ground, showing the county’s public-private partnership support, but also gives them a leg up in talking with the state and federal funding sources,” Rylander said.

“That was No. 1 on my list,” Medvigy said.

Medvigy said he has been working with the YMCA on the project for years. In April 2021, he joined an ad hoc committee studying the proposed project.

“All along, this (American Rescue Plan Act) money was going to be a quick impact, short term, something that was not necessarily going to be sustainable in the long run,” Medvigy added. “This public-private partnership falls squarely within that.”

But there are more requests for funds than there are funds available. This means not all will be approved, or approved in full. For example, a $40 million internal request for modifications to the Public Service Center and Children’s Justice Center is likely to receive some funds but not the full amount requested. The council also suggested shelving a $4.6 million request to expand broadband internet access into rural areas until a later date.

For links or an agenda for the Aug. 16 council meeting, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.

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