Struggling local governments in Southwest Washington are finding out how much federal money will come their way for coronavirus relief, but the funds won’t rescue them from all financial woes.
Clark County will receive $26 million and Cowlitz County will get about $6 million, according to county officials. Their biggest cities — Vancouver and Longview — will get $5.5 and $1.14 million, respectively.
The funds are part of the CARES Act, the federal relief package meant to help public bodies weather the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials say they are still trying to figure out exactly what they can spend the money on. The money can cover expenses that counties and cities have had to pay as part of their response, such as to help pay for more remote working or for janitors to more thoroughly disinfect public spaces.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” said Natasha Ramras, Vancouver’s chief financial officer. “At this point, we don’t have exact details about what would be eligible.”
But officials say that means the money can’t be used to make up for the economic blows they’re being dealt.
After the coronavirus arrived and residents were told to stay home, local governments have seen tax revenues wither, especially those more reliant on sales and business taxes.
The city of Vancouver anticipates losing $45 million from its general fund, officials say. Clark County, likewise, expects it could lose up to $13 million. Leaders in Longview said Thursday they expect a $4 million toll, The Daily News reported.
This week, Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes announced at least 300 city workers will have to take temporary pay cuts.
Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz said the federal money will at least stop some of the compounding effects of the virus. It helps the county avoid a scenario of looting other funds to pay for virus-related costs, she said.
“What we can do is not have to assault the other work of the county by robbing those funds, in order to pay what we had to do to mitigate COVID,” Lentz said.
Counties received higher shares of the money because they are in charge of public health responses. Lentz said she expects much of the money will go toward the county’s public health department, especially as it expands efforts to monitor the virus’s spread.
For example, the county plans to hire about 65 people who could help ramp up contact tracing, which would cost about $367,430 per month and another $122,447 for start-up costs. County officials said they wouldn't be able to pay for that without state or federal aid.
“Contact tracing is going to be crucial to how we effectively manage reopening the county,” Lentz said.