As Washington continues to shoulder large costs in response to the novel coronavirus, a federal stimulus package to help state and local governments appears to provide a path for only the nation’s largest cities and counties to get the money — leaving local leaders of smaller jurisdictions to fear their communities will suffer the most.
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Relief Fund allows cities and counties with a population of at least 500,000 to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for critical funds needed to compensate for the loss of sales revenue and other impacts from the pandemic. However, it doesn’t include guidance for smaller cities and towns: The Associated Press reports that while further guidelines are expected to be released by the Treasury Department this week, midsize and small jurisdictions may have to lobby for a portion of the funds sent to state governments.
In King County, Seattle is the only city that meets the population threshold to apply directly for federal relief, which leaves the future uncertain for the county’s 38 other localities.
One such city that could be affected is Kirkland, the earliest epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak and one of the Washington cities hit hardest by the pandemic.
The midsize Eastside community has already spent nearly $700,000 on the virus response, said Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett. He projects the city will lose $500,000 per month and incur a $6 million total loss in 2020. In Triplett’s eyes, it is critical that smaller cities receive federal funding considering the loss of sales-tax revenue and overtime costs for first responders.
“If we don’t have the resources to provide the services, the whole system is going to break down,” said Triplett.
Washington will receive a maximum of $2.95 billion for state and local disbursements from the relief fund, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The state is uncertain how much of that will go toward the jurisdictions above 500,000 — the counties of King, Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane, and the city of Seattle — said Gov. Jay Inslee’s federal liaison, Casey Katims.
“We are working diligently to develop an equitable and transparent process for distributing funds to smaller local governments,” said Katims, adding that no decisions have yet been made between Inslee’s office, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties as the state awaits federal guidance.
The federal resources will help the state cover critical expenses such as procurement of personal protective equipment, quarantine sites and testing supplies, Katims said.
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, who represents Washington’s 8th Congressional District, which includes the eastern portion of King County, said the majority of the cities she represents are experiencing hardship from the loss of sales-tax revenue.
Schrier said she is writing letters to her congressional colleagues to ensure there are no size restrictions on the next federal stimulus plan.
“In the next one, we will go to bat for small towns,” Schrier said.
But the next funding bill can’t come soon enough for some small cities such as Tukwila. The city of about 20,000 projects to lose $6.1 million through the end of May, said Mayor Allan Ekberg.
“During normal times we are a significant economic engine in our state, bringing in more sales tax for the state of Washington than 29 of the state’s 39 counties,” Ekberg said, owing to the city’s role as a regional entertainment, dining and shopping hub. The city’s food bank has already seen a rise in participation from about 60 families to 600.
Kent Mayor Dana Ralph compared planning for the projected loss to “looking through a crystal ball to figure out what’s going to happen.” She expects the city to lose more than $10 million between now and the end of the year.
Ralph called it “frustrating” that the city could be left behind in federal relief when a Kent motel serves as a quarantine facility for coronavirus patients. “We know that it had an immediate impact on surrounding businesses,” said Ralph. The restaurant Mitzel’s American Kitchen closed shortly after the announcement of the center. “There’s no question that it’s impacting Kent disproportionately,” she said.
State Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, agrees. “This pandemic is amplifying the inequities that our smaller communities have always faced when it comes to services and access,” Nguyen said.
Some form of relief may come to small cities throughout King County in the Coronavirus Community Relief Act, which would provide $250 billion to jurisdictions with less than 500,000 people. SeaTac and Federal Way are among the cities that support the bill, which was introduced April 7 in the U.S. House.
This week, Sen. Patty Murray, D-W.A., announced that she will co-sponsor companion legislation led by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., in the U.S. Senate. “I’m going to keep pushing to make sure workers, families, and businesses in small and rural communities across Washington state don’t fall through the cracks,” Sen. Murray said in a press release.
Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said he’s confident that the city will be OK in the short term: The City Council recently approved $88,500 earmarked for humanitarian relief, and the city has also designated an additional $300,000 toward residents’ needs such as housing, homeless services, mental health and food.
“The community is really coming together, and I think we made the right moves leading up to this,” said Ferrell. “We’re in a good financial position, all things considered.”