Oregon legislators voted Monday to spend $105 million to buy personal protective equipment that will help cities and counties around the state battle COVID-19 this fall. Cities and counties did not appreciate the gesture.
With the move by the Legislature’s joint emergency board, lawmakers have allocated much of $400 million in federal aid set aside for local governments earlier this year. But the state’s approach has infuriated local officials, who for months have been lobbying not only for more money, but for more say in how they get to spend it.
“We are extremely concerned with the proposed expenditure… and urge you to allocate these funds directly to counties and other units of local government as intended,” Gina Firman Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
Lobbyists with the AOC and League of Oregon Cities met with top legislators Monday morning on the issue, but could not convince the committee’s Democrats, as spending approach passed largely on party lines. The committee had shot down the same proposal less than two weeks prior, citing concerns from local governments.
The state’s Department of Administrative Services plans to use the $105 million to buy items like N95 masks, face shields, surgical gowns and other equipment that can be shipped around the state from a Wilsonville warehouse. DAS says it has worked for months to develop purchasing strategies for the equipment, and argues buying PPE on behalf of local entities makes far more sense than localities venturing out on their own.
That has not quelled criticism from cities, counties and others who take issue with how Oregon is spending its $1.4 billion allotment of the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by Congress in March.
Under the act, as much as 45% of funding to states is supposed to flow to local governments to help them pay for COVID-19 response needs. Cities and counties say that means they’re owed more than $600 million, which they should be relatively free to spend to address the pandemic. Since Portland, Multnomah County and Washington County all received individual payments under the CARES Act, that $600 million would be distributed throughout the rest of Oregon.
But Gov. Kate Brown and top lawmakers have pursued another strategy. They created a $200 million fund that is available for cities and counties to seek reimbursement for COVID-related expenses. And they designated another $200 million that the state will use to purchase necessary materials directly for cities and counties, such as the PPE expenses approved Monday.
“The state has spent months sourcing, buying, and stockpiling PPE for Oregonians across the state,” Liz Merah, a press secretary for Brown, said in a statement. “We have prioritized providing PPE to counties at no cost — an approach unlike that of many other states where counties must procure their own.”
That arrangement has drawn criticism from lawmakers in both parties.
“It just is grossly unfair,” said Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, who on Monday voiced concerns that the Portland area was receiving a disproportionate amount of the money.
Girod and a bipartisan group of 46 other lawmakers signed on to a letter to Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and Senate President Peter Courtney raising questions about the arrangement, and requesting that more money be given directly to localities.
“By keeping a disproportionate amount of the funds, the state has created inadequate resource distribution with significant statewide inequities in the amount of aid provided to local governments,” the letter said. “As a result, most Oregonians will see less benefit from local programs to address the health and economic effects of the pandemic than what Treasury intended.”
At Monday’s hearing some of the lawmakers who signed onto the letter asked pointed questions about how the state was spending the money it was retaining. But two of three Democratic signers on the committee voted in favor of the expenditure. The exception was state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, whose many concerns included a question about whether the state was reserving enough money to obtain testing equipment.
While that question was not directly answered, Johnson didn’t get much heartening news from Brown’s administration.
“We have increased testing capacity but we are concerned we do not have capacity for the fall,” said Nik Blosser, Brown’s chief of staff, who added that Oregon is “not a priority” for receiving testing supplies. “We’re still in the top 10 or 15 states in terms of managing the virus.”