The Skagit Transit Board of Directors voted Wednesday to accept about $11 million in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding after a moral debate over taking money the agency doesn’t strictly need.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton, who sits on the board, said this latest funding is simply not necessary, and accepting it would only encourage more irresponsible spending on the part of Congress.
Sexton said this money, combined with the approximately $7 million in relief Skagit Transit has already received, is significantly more than the budgetary impact the pandemic has had on the agency. He said $18 million is roughly equivalent to a year and a half of the agency’s expected annual sales tax revenue.
“We have been made more than whole during COVID,” he said.
While he acknowledged $18 million is small compared to the federal debt, he said declining this funding would send a message that lawmakers should think twice before passing large spending packages.
The money is coming from stimulus packages approved by President Donald Trump in December and President Joe Biden in March.
Sexton was the only member of the board to vote against accepting the funding.
Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, who also sits on the board, said while the money is not crucial for basic operations, it will be used to support a long-term investment in the community.
Adding more routes and trips helps those who rely on buses, she said. It also reduces the number of cars on the road, reducing their impact on climate change.
Earlier pandemic assistance is allowing the transit agency to build a new headquarters.
Janicki said the existing facility is cramped and vulnerable to flooding. The new facility will be more spacious, allowing staff to work more efficiently.
Skagit Transit Executive Director Dale O’Brien said the $18 million in relief funding will cover regular operations, personal protective equipment and days off for staff who weren’t needed during the pandemic.
This allows him to reallocate local money to the construction project, avoiding the need for loans or requesting a local sales tax increase, he said.
Other board members, including Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau and county commissioners Ron Wesen and Peter Browning, said they agreed in principle with Sexton’s comments.
However, they said declining this money wouldn’t even be noticed by members of Congress, and it’s more practical to use the money to improve things locally.
“If we returned this money, I don’t think it would make any impact on the federal government,” Boudreau said. “I wish it did, but it won’t.”