Salem, Ore. (AP) — Democratic and Republican lawmakers lawmakers say county governments should directly receive tens of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, rather than having the state government funnel them to Oregon communities.
The Legislature has debated how to spend $1.4 billion in COVID-19 money for months but last week more than half of Oregon’s lawmakers signed a bipartisan letter — addressed to Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland – requesting a $200 million pay out that they say they say had been promised to local governments.
“By keeping a disproportionate amount of the funds, the state has created inadequate resource distribution with significant statewide inequities in the amount of aid provided to local governments to help their communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter, signed by 47 of 90 lawmakers, read.
In April Oregon received $1.39 billion through the federal CARES Act.
The bipartisan letter specified that according to United States Federal Treasury guidelines, 45% of the funds must be given to local government – about $625 million.
The state’s Joint Emergency Board allocated $450 million for state expenses, $415 million for local governments and indigenous tribes, and the remaining $525 million was placed in reserve, according to the Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services.
Of the funds for local governments, state lawmakers divided up $215 million for reimbursing local governments and tribes and $200 million for local governments to pay for COVID-19 expenses such as personal protection equipment, contact tracing and testing.
In a letter by the Oregon League of Cities, to Brown, only $46 million has been released to cities, counties and districts to date.
Lawmakers said in their recent letter that the “need in many jurisdictions far exceeds the resources allocated from the State of Oregon.”
They letter further stated that a number of cities, including Seaside, Brookings and Medford, have already used the funds allocated as counties continue to address childcare, shelter, economic and public health needs of the community.
Lawmakers are asking that the state allocates an additional $200 million “that the state had previously promised for local governments.”
Frustrations were reignited Monday when Oregon’s Legislature’s Emergency Board met and approved of using $105 million of the funds for the state to buy and distribute personal protective equipment to Oregon cities and counties.
Legislative leaders had heard the request earlier in the month and denied it – several lawmakers, at the time, had complained that their counties and cities had not received their share of federal aid.
“The counties want to know, can we have money to spend on our priorities, not the appropriations that the state deems we need?‘” Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, asked during the Aug. 5 meeting.
However, during Monday’s meeting, the request was approved 12-7, not without some expected backlash though – specifically concerns about urban areas such as Portland and Washington and Multnomah counties reaping the greatest benefits.
“I cannot wrap my arms around why over the last several months we have not been able to reach consensus over this issue and other issues with our cities and counties,” said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who voted against the proposal. “I view our cities and counties as partners, not as constituents.”
In a letter from Senate Republicans, it outlined that the city of Portland and Multnomah and Washington counties were given $247 million directly from the federal government.
Brown, Courtney and Kotek all signed a joint letter in May asking the city to spend at least 75 percent of its CARES money on “public health purposes” related to COVID-19.
“It just is grossly unfair,” Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said during the meeting.
In a news release , Girod said the approved funds should not be used to pay for Portland’s or Multnomah and Washington counties’ personal protective equipment since they already received “generous” funds.
Courtney responded, relating to the frustration that his own county, Marion, has struggled.
“My county is struggling mightily and has from day one and yet I can’t say that the state has ignored my county,” Courtney said. “I feel like I’ve been beaten over the head about this issue over, and over, and over again.”
But, at the end of the day, Courtney said the state is working with the federal funds it was allotted.
“I’m not God. I don’t have some magic dust,” Courtney said. “I don’t think anything has been done intentionally to hurt counties or to hurt cities at all.”