COVID recovery dollars: From housing to child care, Snohomish County outlines plans for spending $340 million

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, left, and Chief Health Officer Chris Spitters speak to reporters during Tuesday’s media briefing.

We don’t often use the words “COVID” and “money” in the same sentence. But the pandemic triggered a tidal wave of government spending — and Snohomish County is about to get another $80 million to help Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and the rest of the county recover from the upheaval of the past two years.

Here’s the math. The county already got $180 million from the federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) in 2020. A lot of that money was paid directly to you from the federal government at the start of COVID. Add to that $80 million more from Congress last year through ARPA (the American Rescue Plan Act). Now, add a second batch from ARPA — another $80 million in phase 2, coming this year. That’s $340 million — all earmarked for Snohomish County. That doesn’t count any state or non-profit COVID money. The money is still coming as the pandemic continues to ease up.

Though COVID case numbers are up — 498 new cases, an increase from 376 the week before — the overall trend continues downward. The average now is 60 cases per 100,000 residents. Only five COVID patients are now hospitalized. The latest variant, the omicron BA.2 strain, accounts for three of every four new cases nationwide, but County Chief Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters told reporters at Tuesday’s COVID briefing that “it seems unlikely that the new variant will produce the number of cases and impacts” of the earlier strains.

Spitters warned that COVID is “not going away. We’re going to have to learn to live with the ebb and flow of cases” as the virus continues to change. For two years, county residents have been living with that ebb and flow as the virus cut a deadly swath across the nation: jobs, housing and food security lost; schools and businesses shut down, our daily lives turned upside down.

The $340 million in COVID funding is designed to help families and communities continue to recover. Snohomish County established an Office of Recovery and Resiliency to direct that money to those who need it most.

The county has spent only a fraction of the first $80 million in American Rescue Plan Act money that it received almost a year ago. Kelsey Nyland, Office of Recovery and Resiliency communications director, said that only $18 million has been allocated. The money has gone to continuing relief programs — additional child care assistance, case worker services for seniors and families affected by the pandemic, premium pay for essential workers, and housing assistance.

So, why hasn’t it all been spent? Nyland said that $20 million has been set aside in county reserves and operations – in case there is a new surge of virus cases and medical needs. The county will reassess that this summer to see if the money can be redirected based on what the virus does.

Other money is slated to go to programs to help prevent the job, housing, health and food crises families and business faced two years ago. That includes $8 million to $10 milllion set aside to buy a hotel for shelter and emergency “bridge” housing for those who might become homeless. The county has a real estate broker but has not yet found a property that will work. The idea, Nyland said, is to focus on getting the unsheltered off the streets by offering a 24/7 year-round facility with meals and hygiene facilities for about 120 beds.

The county will use another $5 million to extend broadband access for communities and people who do not have it now. The remaining money will be used to support small business and workers who lost jobs or are underemployed, to rejuvenate the tourist sector and provide more child care offerings.

Why is it taking so long for that money to reach people and programs that need it?

“We want to be thoughtful about how we use this money,” Nyland responded, “because we get only one chance to use it and we want our investments to be responsive to our communities.” Federal rules for awarding grants also slow the process, she added, since the feds require “competitive bids,” which can take weeks to complete.

She expects the county will distribute another $10 million next month to small business, people who need housing, nonprofits and community organizations.

Still, the county is a long way from spending what’s already been awarded. So where will the next $80 million go that Congress appropriated for Snohomish County this year? That is still being decided, and the county wants your input. While Nyland believes much of the relief funds will continue to be spent on affordable permanent housing, and trying to resolve some of the root economic issues that made people vulnerable when the pandemic hit, you can weigh in on that spending. In May, the county will hold five in-person community feedback sessions. The dates and places for them have not been decided; we will provide that information as soon as it is released.

What’s in this for South County residents? Nyland says that South County cities, for example, might want to expand their human services efforts, increase child care options, add to behavioral health services, and provide more support for small business, tourism and housing.

Here’s the email address where you can ask questions and offer feedback:

Every idea, Nyland said, is on the table for discussion. The county is seeking community partners to help fill the needs. The goal, once the county has programs, “is to make them incredibly easy to find,” she added.

The COVID pandemic brought pain, hardship and challenges; it has also brought an infusion of money to help rebuild some of what we lost. The question now: How wisely will we spend that money for the future?

— By Bob Throndsen

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