Local leaders have less than two months to spend the approximately $1.57 million left in federal funds for Sammamish’s COVID-19 relief efforts. But city council members are still uncertain of how they will make it happen by the Oct. 31 deadline.
Sammamish received $1.93 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March as part of the federal government’s assistance plan to help mitigate COVID-19’s negative economic impact.
More than five months later, Sammamish has only approved at most $365,000 in related expenses.
Emergency Manager Andrew Stevens promised council members at a Sept. 1 virtual City Council session that he would provide a plan with a clear path forward for spending the remaining CARES Act funds at the next council meeting on Sept. 15.
Councilmembers Jason Ritchie and Pam Stuart are skeptical of how effective that plan could prove, with 56 days remaining before Sammamish has to submit its expenditures to the Washington State Department of Commerce for reimbursement.
The Council has been working to address the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges, but the divide between some council members’ concern for detail and other members’ frustration at the group’s pace has yielded slow progress overall, Ritchie said in an interview with the Sammamish Independent.
Sammamish has spent $43,000 on basic needs assistance and $322,000 to help local small businesses respond to impacts from the pandemic. The Council also approved raising the original $5,961 grant amount to $10,000 for each eligible business that applied for the city’s small business grant recovery program at its meeting on Sept. 1.
At an earlier meeting, most council members emphasized the need to make fully informed decisions about spending the funds instead of using them immediately.
“We do have people that are in need,” Mayor Karen Moran said at the Sept. 1 council meeting. “We do need to be addressing that need. I just don’t know to what extent to where they are and the services they are using.”
The aid process should be based on demonstrated need and requests instead of functioning as an arbitrary act of charity, Councilmember Ken Gamblin said.
Councilmember Chriss Ross agreed, adding that it would be best to consider Sammamish’s return of investment on the funds so that the city can use the money more strategically.
“Simply increasing service delivery does not necessarily mean you are successful,” Ross said.
Councilmembers Stuart and Ritchie both disagreed with the council majority, stressing the urgency of the situation.
Many people are hurting from COVID-19’s impact now, the cost of which extends into their everyday lives as they lose jobs, and need rental assistance and access to basic supplies like food, Stuart said.
“What is it this council needs to be able to get enough information to feel comfortable with spending some of the dollars that are meant to help people in their time of need?” she asked.
Eleven local nonprofits that serve areas of basic needs experienced increased demands in the year’s second fiscal quarter, according to a recent Sammamish grant report.
Sammamish received more funds through the CARES Act than neighboring cities, Stuart said. Despite this, Sammamish is still lagging behind neighboring cities in terms of spending available CARES Act funds.
Federal funding is allocated on a per-capita basis. The city of Issaquah received $1.13 million in aid and already allocated $500,000 to small businesses and $300,000 to basic needs. Redmond, which is eligible for $1.98 million, allocated $1.71 million for small business recovery and $270,000 for human services. The City of North Bend has spent 90% of its available funds so far.
Ultimately, the City of Sammamish has not done enough, Ritchie said.
The funds would be better put to use in assisting food banks and homeless shelters, he said, since Sammamish has the resources to do this and the appetite for aid is there.
Stuart encouraged city staff to start looking into details for a second round of funding for small businesses in the Sept. 1 meeting.
In the meantime, Stevens, the emergency manager, said he hoped for the council to consider his plan to bank some of the city’s CARES Act funds for later use with Eastside Fire & Rescue, a local emergency services agency, to eliminate the October deadline.
Stevens said he is in communication with the Washington Department of Commerce, who “looked at what they [City of Sammamish] proposed to do and okayed it,” he said. Stevens did not elaborate on how the process would work.
Simply banking CARES Act funds without direct ties to COVID-19 expenses would not be possible according to U.S. Treasury Department guidelines, said Tony Hanson, deputy assistant director for the local government division of the Washington State Department of Commerce.
The department is currently working with the Office of Financial Management to extend the Oct. 31 deadline for local governments to Nov. 30, he said.
It has been challenging to monitor the situation because everything is so new, Hanson said. The whole experience has kind of felt like building an airplane in flight.
“That’s kind of what it feels like right now,” Hanson said. “We’re still trying to figure out what this is and how we can best manage this and make sure we accomplish a lot of good by getting these resources out there into the hands of the local leaders.”
Regardless of its next step, the City will have to act fast, Ritchie said. Taxpayers have already invested in COVID-19 relief because the CARES Act is federally funded ― sitting on the money would be a mistake, he said.
“We should have been acting on these things months ago,” Ritchie said. “We should have spent these dollars as soon as we knew we had them.”
Since our interviews for this article, Governor Jay Inslee announced an increase in coronavirus relief funds for cities in Washington state. Sammamish will be allocated an additional $966,150 for a total of $2,898,450. The deadline to spend this allocation remains October 31, 2020.