Facing enormous need, county grapples with critical deadline

Council members say residents are struggling now as they weigh saving money for 2021 relief efforts.

EVERETT — As the pandemic continues to deal financial blows to local residents and businesses, Snohomish County leaders are scrambling to determine what to do with more than $26 million in federal relief funds that the government has less than two months left to spend.

Officials said this week that they expect logistical hurdles will keep departments from meeting the legal deadline to use the money on public health, social services and other efforts it’s meant for. Department directors also warned the County Council that existing local relief programs will cease on Jan. 1 without more government assistance.

County Executive Dave Somers wants the county to spend the balance — roughly 20% of the $143.5 million in CARES Act funds the county received last spring — on sheriff’s costs and earmark an equal amount of the general fund to finance emergency programs next year.

That plan would allow the county to continue vital pandemic-related efforts into the new year, Somers says, including initiatives that provide protective gear for frontline health care workers, help trace the spread of COVID-19 and feed and shelter those in need.

“You have a critical decision to make,” Somers wrote in a memo to the council, which will soon decide where the remaining money goes. “If we spend all of the remaining CARES Act dollars on programs now, we will be unnecessarily hampered in our local efforts to combat the pandemic come January 1.”

The U.S. Treasury Department has clarified that the federal money can legally be spent on public safety.

Somers’ proposal is also less likely to draw scrutiny from auditors than allotting the money to new programs just before the federal deadline, the executive’s staff said this week.

The council fulfilled part of his request on Tuesday, when it voted 4-0 to allocate $5.6 million in CARES Act funding to the sheriff’s office. Council Vice Chairwoman Stephanie Wright abstained, saying that the executive’s office should have alerted the council of the unspent CARES Act funding when budget talks began early this fall.

Wright, along with council members Jared Mead and Megan Dunn, contended that at least some of the remaining funds should be spent on those who need assistance now.

“I can’t tell the citizens that we, shrug, did the best we could,” Wright said at a council meeting on Monday. “Because we can do more, and we have time to do more.”

She floated the idea of using other excess county funds to keep relief programs running into 2021.

Analysts project that the county’s primary operating fund will end this year with an “uncommitted” balance of $40.2 million, according to county spokesman Kent Patton.

Other counties, too, are struggling with the end-of-the-year deadline, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties. The organization has lobbied federal lawmakers to not only pass another relief package, but to extend the time allowed for governments to spend CARES Act dollars.

“We need this whole set of resources well into 2021,” Johnson told The Daily Herald on Friday. “We’re running out of time to make good planning decisions.”

So far, CARES Act funding funnelled through Snohomish County has fueled the county’s emergency response, including an isolation and quarantine facility that the county is required by the state to operate. The money has also paid for grants for local businesses, rental assistance for struggling tenants, hotel and motel vouchers for homeless people and meals for hungry families.

Roughly half of the some 2,400 businesses that applied for the county’s small business grant program have been awarded funding, according Patton. By the end of 2020, the program — coined R3, for “Relief, Recovery and Resiliency” — will have distributed more than $20.2 million, Patton said.

Mead questioned whether the county could spend more of its CARES Act money on grants for the rest of the businesses that applied for the program.

“I do think that if we really wanted to get the money out to these businesses, we could get the money out to these businesses,” he said.

But Workforce Snohomish, which administers the program, needs ample time to vet applicants, secure contracts with grantees and ensure that businesses understand the reporting requirements that come with the grants, said Ken Klein, one of Somers’ top staffers.

COVID-19 has laid bare community needs in other ways, too.

Local food banks have seen unprecedented demand.

In Everett, homeless camps have cropped up and been dispersed by city and county authorities as COVID-19 restrictions have reduced bed counts at local shelters.

County Human Services Director Mary Jane Brell Vujovic estimated in late September that more than 500 people were living on the streets without shelter.

This week, Brell Vujovic warned that more than 150 homeless people who are now benefiting from hotel or motel vouchers will have to return to the streets if contingency funding isn’t available starting in January.

She’s also bracing for the impact of the end of a statewide moratorium on evictions, now set to expire at the end of the year.

“Right now, we know we have tens of thousands of people in Snohomish County that are behind on rent that we cannot reach no matter how much money we put out there,” Brell Vujovic said on Monday. “We don’t have enough money to put out to address all those needs.”

Dunn, who has been in regular contact with human services organizations throughout the pandemic, proposed that the county double-down on efforts to advertise available programs and reach out to vulnerable individuals.

“There’s a lot of people who are falling through the cracks — people we’re missing,” she said.

The number of residents seeking financial help to afford groceries, utilities and other essentials continues to surge, said Cory Armstrong-Hoss, the director of communications and marketing for Volunteers of America of Western Washington.

The organization, which has received federal relief money from the county and other local jurisdictions, has provided food to more than 100,000 people and doled out nearly $13 million in rental assistance in recent months.

From the beginning of July to the end of October, about 3,700 households in Snohomish County received money for rent from the human services agency, Armstrong-Hoss said. That’s more rental assistance than the organization provided in the previous seven years combined, he said.

“We’re always happy to find ways to support those families who are in poverty, and CARES Act funding has allowed us to do that,” Armstrong-Hoss said. “The more support we can get, the more funding we can get, the more vulnerable families we can serve, keep out of homelessness, and keep fed.”

The council will continue its discussion on the rest of the CARES Act money during its Monday meeting, which starts at 10:30 a.m. and will be held via Zoom. Information on how to join the meeting online is available in the meeting agenda, posted at snohomishcountywa.gov/2288/Meetings-Webcasts.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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