Clackamas County is set to receive $81 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in March.
County commissioners received an update Tuesday, March 30, from Disaster Management Director Nancy Bush and Government Affairs Specialist Trent Wilson on what the funding might be used for, as Clackamas County and the region continue efforts to climb out of an economic stupor caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns.
According to Wilson, the bill gives the U.S. Treasury Department 60 days to issue at least half of what the county is owed, meaning Clackamas County will be seeing as much as $40.5 million by May 11.
But Wilson said that until the feds issue guidance on exactly how that money is to be spent, the county will not be spending a dime. Wilson also said the county expects to engage in a robust public-engagement process in order to verify what needs should be met in order to support Clackamas County's economy, make up for lost tax revenue, provide funding for necessary infrastructure improvements and mitigate impacts of the public health emergency posed by COVID-19. The funds could also be used to provide premium pay to county residents working on the frontlines of the pandemic. One of the few things precluded in the act is that the county cannot transfer the funds into any pension-fund program or offset reductions in the county's net tax revenue resulting from changes in law. The county has until 2024 to spend the $81 million or give it back to the federal government.
"The use of this funding is intended to be very flexible, but the question that everyone is wrestling with right now is how flexible," Wilson said. "We don't know for sure if the funds can be used retroactively. We've heard some say you can, we've heard some say you can't."
Wilson stressed the fact that the county will need to wait to make any moves until the U.S. Treasury Department clearly defines proper use of the funds the county receives from the Rescue Plan, and recommended the board take a "cautious approach."
Commissioner Paul Savas said he hopes that, between now and the time when the county receives its allocated funds, the county will establish some metrics to better understand what it can do to meaningfully help those businesses which truly require support.
Savas suggested putting together a survey or questionnaire regarding what the county can do to stimulate businesses and get them back to full employment.
County officials are currently working with chambers of commerce to do the exact type of survey he suggested.
Savas also asked whether or not there were any restrictions on the funding being used to purchase property the county views as at risk of displacement or gentrification.
Wilson said that the Rescue Plan does specifically call out "shelters" throughout its language, suggesting that there is certainly some opportunity for the county to use this funding to purchase properties.
"It doesn't get into the weeds, and I think that's intentional," Wilson said. "It doesn't really talk about readiness, so much or, you know, displacement, but those can certainly be values that the board incorporates into how our committee looks at this funding in this approach."
County Chair Tootie Smith mentioned that she is somewhat concerned about the capacity of nonprofit organizations in the county who are relied upon to distribute many of the social services the county funds and could fund with this $81 million. Smith suggested that the county take a hard look at the financial status of some of the county's nonprofit partners before deciding which services should be funded with a portion of the funds made available by the Rescue Plan.
"I think some may have weathered the storm, so to speak, better than others. I know a couple that have not weathered very well," she said. "I think there's an analysis of that, too, that needs to happen."
Smith noted that some of the funds could be used for emergency preparedness, potentially a specific commitment to an early warning communication system for natural disasters and other such events like the pandemic.
Bush and Wilson will be returning to the board at least once a month until an allocation is made to update the board on the county's public-engagement efforts and federal guidance in spending Rescue Plan funds.
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