The Whatcom County Council has established a special revenue fund that will give them the cash flow to quickly respond to the coronavirus pandemic crisis.
The COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund will track and account for revenues used for the county’s rapidly expanding response to the virus which has already infected thousands and killed hundreds of people statewide.
The county council approved the new emergency fund during a virtual public meeting on March 31. Instead of the usual venue of the County Council Chambers, councilpersons met via video conference from their own homes, awkwardly adjusting to the new reality of working during the stay-at-home order. Most states and many other countries now have stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund will get $250,000 from the General Fund that the council approved on March 10, and a $500,000 contribution anticipated from the City of Bellingham. The council also approved a $1 million temporary interfund loan from the Public Utilities Improvement Fund (EDI Fund), which is used to pay for things like repairing roads and bridges. The interfund loan must be paid back within 18 months, and one-half percent interest will be charged.
Tyler Schroeder, Deputy Executive, said all money from the new emergency fund will be used by Whatcom County Unified Command and allows them to make contracts to purchase supplies and services and lease facilities needed to respond to the pandemic. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state are expected to reimburse 75 percent of the money spent from the fund, Schroeder said, so the county would be on the hook for 25 percent.
Councilmember Ben Elenbaas was concerned about borrowing money from the EDI Fund and how they planned to pay it back. “We need to know that there’s a plan for the money we’re allocating,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve seen the plan.”
County Treasurer Steve Oliver replied this COVID-19 emergency fund “is not a normal purchasing circumstance in any way whatsoever,” and that creating the fund will allow them to track and monitor expenses so the county can get reimbursed from FEMA.
Elenbaas voted against the ordinance establishing the emergency fund on March 31. “I still haven’t gotten the information I requested in order to vote for this, so I’m going to vote no,” he said.
Specifically, Elenbaas wanted to know what protocol will be used for making expenditure decisions, what they’ve spent to date, and an approximation of what they plan to spend the money on. County Executive Satpal Sidhu came back with those answers at the council’s special meeting on Friday, April 3. The special ordinance passed unanimously then.
The County Executive originally proposed borrowing $4 million from the EDI Fund to go into the COVID-19 emergency fund, but councilpersons would only agree to the $1 million interfund loan at this time. It’s expected that the county council will have to add more money into the emergency fund several more times as the local coronavirus response continues to expand.
“Right now, our main aim is to save lives,” Executive Sidhu assured.
Written by Mike Curtiss