With Skagit County receiving $25 million in COVID-19 relief funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, county leaders are prioritizing money for mental health, disaster preparedness and economic recovery.
The county commissioners have been meeting regularly over the past several months to decide how best to spend the money.
They have received $32 million in funding requests from county departments and have approved funding proposals with placeholder values totaling about $20 million.
Formal adoption of a spending plan is necessary before funding is dispersed.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to really lean into this economy and into the health of the people to really make a difference and strengthen our community,” Commissioner Lisa Janicki said. “We all recognize what a unique opportunity this is.”
County Administrator Trisha Logue said the relief funding is unique not just in its amount, but in the relative lack of restrictions on its use.
“Any time we’ve asked a question about eligibility, they’ve been fairly broad or inclusive of what those things are,” she said. “It’s new and different, but then so is the pandemic.”
According to the American Rescue Plan Act, funding must be allocated by 2024 and used by 2026.
While the specifics are changing as federal agencies deliver updated guidance, the commissioners’ broader priorities appear to be eligible.
A full $5 million has been allocated to county Public Health, money the commissioners say will finally address the department’s inadequate working space.
Throughout the pandemic, when the community was relying on Public Health to trace COVID-19 cases, run a drive-thru testing site and operate a massive vaccination clinic, staff were working on top of each other, Janicki said.
“In Public Health, they created working spaces in hallways,” she said. “They can’t have everyone back (in the office) because there’s not enough space for them.”
Investing in a modern office would help the department prepare for and respond to the next crisis, Commissioner Peter Browning said.
Commissioner Ron Wesen agreed, adding the department that worked to keep the community safe during the pandemic deserves a comfortable, functional workspace.
“They’ve done outstanding work, and we want to make sure it’s a pleasant place for them to keep working,” he said.
Smaller allocations were made to support the ongoing vaccination effort, according to county documents.
One of the earliest ideas for this funding was the creation of a medical reserve corps, which would manage a group of volunteer doctors and nurses. According to county documents, $300,000 has been proposed.
Janicki said her focus with the relief funding has been on the mental health issues caused by the pandemic on county residents, and she’s pushed for a number of investments that address that.
“How do we help the community heal from the mental aspects of what we all went through?” she asked.
As such, another $5 million is being earmarked for community health efforts to be determined by the Population Health Trust, an advisory group of health professionals.
Community Health Analyst Kristen Ekstran said trust members are collecting public input during community forums.
So far, she said calls for housing assistance has topped the list. While this isn’t a new concern, the pandemic forced many out of work and in need of help.
Things such as a continuation of existing pandemic rental and mortgage assistance could possibly be funded with the trust’s allocation, Ekstran said.
The pandemic also exposed a massive need for child care. This is an issue that has also come up in community meetings, she said.
“Lack of affordable child care is coming up across different community groups,” Ekstran said.
The commissioners have committed funding for other areas of behavioral health, including $1.3 million toward bringing mental health professionals into public schools and $300,000 for the creation of a services hub facility.
“Right now, the whole community seems to be looking for a consolidated place to access services,” Ekstran said.
The trust focuses on addressing the social determinants of health, or things in one’s environment that have an impact on their well-being — things such as financial stability, access to health care and education.
Starting in August, Ekstran said members will start to draft the goals and strategies of the plan. The completed project is expected by the end of the year.
She said this process is designed to take time, so the members of the trust can ensure their proposals are sourced with data and the input of underrepresented communities.
“We need to ensure it’s not just our vantage point, and we are really hearing and doing the planning around community voice,” Ekstran said.
Browning said one of his priorities is to focus on preparing the county for its next crisis by supplying the Department of Emergency Management with the support it needs.
About $1.5 million has been committed to the department, which Browning said he wants to use to get it more space, training and funding for disaster planning.
“We’ve never funded (disaster planning) adequately or pushed for it,” he said.
Wesen agreed, saying space constraints impacted emergency management staff throughout the pandemic. Staff were using meeting and training rooms as a emergency response center, meaning those spaces couldn’t be used for anything else since early last year.
“There will be some other emergency in the future, and we want to make sure we have adequate office space and room for trainings,” Wesen said.
However, Logue said it’s unclear how much of the department’s needs will be eligible. The federal guidance on disaster preparation indicates work related to COVID-19 should be eligible, but that it needs to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
In terms of economic recovery, the county is looking toward partners in the business community for guidance on how to spend money.
Browning said while the state-imposed restrictions on business were necessary, they caused damage that restaurants, gyms and others have yet to recover from.
“They were the unwilling recipients of a kick in the teeth (and) they deserve some respite,” he said.
Browning envisions a system similar to the grants given out throughout 2020. Business owners would apply for relief by demonstrating a pandemic-related loss of income, he said.
Of the American Rescue Plan Act funding, $1 million will be directed toward business recovery, and the county has commissioned a report from the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County to determine how best to target these funds.
Wesen said businesses are struggling even after COVID-related restrictions were lifted.
“It’s disturbing to me to see all those help wanted signs,” he said. “Is it because (people) don’t want the job or they don’t have the skill?”
Restaurants and retail stores might be the most visible struggling to hire workers, but Wesen said higher-skill positions in the trades are also dealing with understaffing.
Depending on the result of EDASC’s report, he said the county could invest in job training by partnering with Skagit Valley College.
EDASC CEO John Sternlicht said EDASC is at work on its recommendations. So far, responses have centered on workforce development, support for entrepreneurs and concerns about pressure to increase wages, he said.
Sternlicht said he’s heard about a variety of factors that may explain the slow employment recovery.
“It’s too easy to say people aren’t going back to work because of an extra $300 in unemployment benefits,” he said.
Many of these issues are compounded by factors distinct from business funding and policy, Sternlicht said. Things such as the cost of housing, the community vaccination rate and the absence of affordable child care all make it harder for people to work in Skagit County.
Women specifically have left the workforce in large numbers, as they’ve returned home to take care of their children while schools were closed. He said he’s hoping the return of in-person education in the fall will allow some of these parents to return to work.
Sternlicht has also heard from those who had unstable jobs offering poor wages and benefits before the pandemic, and who don’t want to return to that kind of work.
It’s possible EDASC could look at offering grants to businesses struggling to fill positions, so that those businesses could offer higher wages.
Sternlicht said he expects to have a completed plan to present to the commissioners by fall.
Another $1 million is earmarked for commercial landlord support, and yet another $1 million to extending the county’s broadband network, according to county documents.
Cities and towns have also been given American Rescue Plan Act funding, and mayors have been meeting monthly with the county to cooperate on mutual priorities.
While Browning said he sees a need locally for this funding, he has mixed feelings about this level of federal spending and its impact on the budget deficit.
“At some point we are going to have to take more from the American people to pay this back,” he said. “I don’t want it to be a loan to ourselves.”
Wesen said while he agrees in principle, it wouldn’t make sense for the county to try and return the money.
The funding bill was passed and the money has been allocated, meaning taxpayers here will be paying for it regardless of how the commissioners use it, he said. His responsibility now is to make sure it’s spent on responsible and effective proposals.
However, he is concerned that the county could end up committing to fund new programs that outlast the funding, and will have to find some other way of maintaining them.
“From my perspective, we want to remember it’s one-time money,” he said. “It doesn’t do us any good if we’re not able to maintain (a new program) going forward.”
An issue that affects every resident on Fidalgo Island is the rapid depletion of open, undisturbed habitat that maintains the health of all the ecosystems present here. In addition, the character of Anacortes as a hometown, working person's seaside paradise is quickly giving way to large, expensive Seattle-style houses, with no character, and now, new hotels and resorts. Why not use some of the money to buy up as much of the undeveloped property as possible and leave it undeveloped. Otherwise, every inch of this beautiful island is going to be under cement and asphalt.
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