Skagit County leaders convened digitally Monday to discuss the continued challenges of addressing COVID-19 and its sweeping impact on the community.
The Skagit County Board of Commissioners raised concerns about limitations on meetings and public access under statewide rules issued in March by Gov. Jay Inslee.
“I think we should get back to work and get our job done,” Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said. “With the current budget shortfalls and economic disaster we are facing we need to be meeting, we need to be making critical decisions.”
Skagit County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Melinda Miller said the state’s rules for government meetings during the pandemic prohibit in-person public meetings, and limit governments from taking action on anything that’s not necessary or routine, or in response to the public health emergency.
The commissioners want to start convening more routinely in order to fulfill more of their duties as elected officials.
“We need to be able to start meeting and so does the planning commission and all of the other advisory boards in a platform such as this for the public to participate,” Commissioner Lisa Janicki said over the GoToMeeting webinar discussion.
The commissioners sent a letter to Inslee in April requesting more flexibility.
“The work of governing must go on. We have priorities to tackle, such as planning for earthquake retrofits on facilities, discussing the use of surplus county property for affordable housing, and adopting priorities for the upcoming legislative session,” the April 16 letter states. “We need to be able to take these important matters up now. This crisis is going to continue for some time, and we must continue the business of local government.”
The commissioners said Monday they were disappointed nothing had changed.
“We need to be meeting and I think the governor needs some sort of plan moving forward,” Commissioner Ron Wesen said. “We have all this technology we can use.”
The commissioners also heard Monday from staff about how grant funding can be used. Dahlstedt said focusing on business recovery could have the greatest impact.
“Our small businesses are just out here struggling. ... If we don’t get those businesses back online then our economy won’t improve and we will have bigger financial problems down the line,” he said.
Skagit County Finance Director Trisha Logue said there are restrictions and deadlines attached to certain funding sources.
“We need to be careful and deliberate about how we are spending that funding,” Logue said.
Jim Mickel of Skagit County Public Works said the county has been approved for funding from a FEMA public assistance program that will reimburse certain emergency expenses. The county last received funds from this program following a flood in 2009.
Now, the county is working to tally everything that has been spent on COVID-19 response in order to submit a reimbursement request to FEMA.
“We’re going back to the very beginning of this event and documenting every expense spent locally. ... We will only know how much they are going to reimburse us for when this project application is completed,” Mickel said.
Looking ahead, county leaders are also concerned about how long needs will persist.
“It is much different than an earthquake or flood event just given how long we are going to be looking at these needs,” Janicki said.
Dahlstedt said he’s also worried about a swell in demand for behavioral health and legal services.
“With people being home there’s a lot of information coming out about behavioral health, substance abuse, domestic violence and other issues,” he said. “There may be a need for (increased) counseling and counselors in schools (when they reopen). ... We are going to have a huge wave in the law and justice system because of this. We need to be looking at all of that.”