Skagit County could receive about $25 million in federal COVID-19 relief, and county leaders are beginning to discuss priorities for that funding.
Money earmarked for state and local governments makes up about $350 billion of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package awaiting consideration in the U.S. Senate.
According to the National Association of Counties’ analysis of the bill as it was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, counties would split $65.1 billion in direct federal payments, allocated based on population.
This money could be used to respond to the pandemic, to reimburse the county for unexpected expenses, and as replacement for lost revenue, county Commissioner Lisa Janicki said at a meeting Tuesday with several department heads.
Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson said the pandemic has pushed her department to directly administer medical services in the form of COVID-19 testing and vaccination, after spending years transitioning away from that model.
Throughout the last year, she said Public Health has had to step in to offer care and guidance to underserved communities.
“(The pandemic) has shown more than ever the equity gap,” Johnson said.
She said the department needs to be equipped to provide services to those left behind by private health care providers, and suggested funding for more mobile services. This would allow staff to bring some health care services directly to marginalized communities, both during and after the pandemic.
Janicki said the details of the bill are still subject to change, but she said determining priorities early will help the county take a disciplined approach to spending.
“We passed a (2021) budget that has a $9 million deficit ... knowing we could only do that once,” Janicki said. She asked that department heads think about what this funding could be used to supplement.
Johnson said support for homelessness prevention programs will be crucial going forward, saying there are many in the community who are on the cusp of eviction, but who could stay in their home with some one-time assistance.
Bob Dolhanyk, county chief of Emergency Management, said the pandemic has stressed the limits of the county’s Emergency Operations Center, a space his department shares with Skagit 911 and the Emergency Medical Services department.
Having a dedicated space for emergency response would improve efficiency and situational awareness, he said.
Commissioner Peter Browning said he would want to prioritize help for nonprofits such as Skagit County Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, which is short on donations during a time when need for its services is on the rise.
He also said medical providers have been warning about increases in substance abuse and alcohol consumption, adding some funding should be aimed at treatment for people self-medicating to deal with the stress of the pandemic.
“I think it will be far more widespread than we think,” Browning said.
Kayla Schott-Bresler, deputy county administrator, said cities and nonprofits may receive their own funding in the stimulus package, and the county will need to coordinate with them to use it efficiently.
She said any spending plan should incorporate input from the public, and from nonprofits and community groups who have assisted in pandemic response.