Local economic relief programs to get $4.5 million infusion

The new cash will go to small businesses via city grant programs and Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

EVERETT — Snohomish County will pump another $4.5 million into local economic relief efforts in an 11th-hour bid to spend remaining federal funds meant to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of that sum, $2.5 million will be funneled through more than a dozen cities, to be doled out to local businesses via programs those localities have already established in response to the coronavirus crisis. The money will be distributed based on population, with Everett set to receive the most — about $641,500.

Some of the municipalities will allow more businesses to apply for their economic relief programs. Other cities will award the money to applicants that have already requested funding but have not received any. And some will do both.

As of Wednesday, the following cities planned to accept new applications: Everett, Mountlake Terrace, Monroe, Stanwood, Bothell, Arlington, Snohomish, Marysville and Mill Creek, according to county spokesman Kent Patton.

On the other hand, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mukilteo and Lake Stevens planned to spend the funding entirely on prior applications, Patton said.

The county will give $2 million of the CARES Act money to Economic Alliance Snohomish County, which will provide the funds to qualifying businesses that applied for grants earlier this year. The economic alliance has already awarded grants to some applicants with the help of the Washington State Department of Commerce, said Chris Mefford, interim president and CEO of the alliance.

“We are not taking new applications, since we have between 200 and 300 small businesses in Snohomish County that applied unsuccessfully for the earlier grants. We aim to serve those businesses with the county’s CARES dollars,” Mefford said in an email.

The county has spent the majority of the nearly $145 million it received last spring from the federal package, known by the acronym for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. Officials have been weighing what to do with the remainder, which must be spent by Dec. 30.

Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t passed another stimulus bill — a lapse that has left local governments on their own in determining how to keep funding vital public health and emergency assistance efforts beyond Jan. 1.

County Executive Dave Somers has proposed that the county council allot the balance, now pegged at some $13 million, to the sheriff’s office this year and earmark an equal amount of the county’s 2021 general fund to relief efforts. His staff have argued that this plan will reserve contingency funding for next year without drawing scrutiny from federal auditors. The U.S. Treasury Department has said that public safety is a legal use for CARES Act funding.

Council members have expressed support for reserving some money to continue relief programs in early 2021. The council is poised to pass a budget revision in mid-December that will clarify how much, exactly.

If no more funds are budgeted for next year, county department leaders have warned that vital efforts would cease, including rental and food assistance. Hotel and motel vouchers that are now providing shelter for more than 150 people would expire, forcing those individuals onto the streets in the winter. The county would no longer have the resources to help provide child care for essential workers or protective gear to those on the front lines of the pandemic, county department leaders have warned.

“It would be imprudent to not have some money to handle the needs that we know are going to happen in 2021,” said Ken Klein, a former county councilman who is now one of Somers’ top staffers.

If no more money is saved for next year, a state-mandated quarantine and isolation facility at Monroe’s Evergreen State Fairgrounds would also have to be scaled down or shut down entirely, officials have said. The facility has so far typically provided a safe place to stay for a few people at a time who have COVID-19 or could have the illness; at one point, it was needed to shelter about 50 people after an outbreak hit a local homeless shelter, Patton said.

The council’s most recent allocation to economic relief programs came after several members insisted that some of the remaining CARES Act funding should be spent before the end of the year because so many families and businesses are struggling now.

“This is a product of a lot of conversations and the council’s understanding of how important and how vital these dollars are to get out the door to our communities, our businesses, our citizens — right now,” council Vice Chairperson Stephanie Wright said at the Nov. 16 meeting.

Another deadline looms. Washington’s eviction moratorium is set to expire at the end of the year. Meant to prevent people from becoming homeless in the midst of a worsening public health crisis, the moratorium has been in place since March. Gov. Jay Inslee has extended it several times.

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.

Locally, the need for rental assistance has outpaced the funding available to offset rental costs.

From July 1 to mid-November, more than 6,300 people asked for rental assistance in phone calls to North Sound 2-1-1, which helps connect people with basic resources, Armstrong-Hoss said. During that time period, Volunteers of America of Western Washington enrolled roughly 4,500 households in its homelessness prevention program. Not all of the 211 callers seeking assistance met the program’s eligibility requirements, Armstrong-Hoss noted.

The human services agency, which has received CARES Act money from the county and other local jurisdictions, provided rental assistance to more households from July through October of this year than the previous seven years combined, he said.

Volunteers of America of Western Washington has also helped feed more than 100,000 people in recent months as local food banks continue to face overwhelming need, Armstrong-Hoss said.

As businesses grapple with heightened restrictions and public health officials confront the grim prospect of crowded hospitals this winter, Inslee and other governors across the country have begged for more help from the federal government to continue combating the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden is pushing for federal lawmakers to pass another stimulus bill before he takes office in January. But with President Donald Trump’s administration heading for the door and Congress hobbling its way through a lame-duck session, there are doubts about whether a deal is possible.

“We watch the headlines,” said Patton, “Just like everybody else.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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