Jefferson County under gun to spend excess CARES Act money

Community groups face Friday deadline to submit ideas

PORT TOWNSEND — Of more than $1.7 million in federal CARES Act funding allotted to Jefferson County in early July, some $327,000 remains unspoken for — and the county has until Oct. 31 to dole it out.

“We’re really feeling squeezed,” County Administrator Philip Morley told commissioners during their regular board meeting Aug. 24, adding that the county has requested a one-month extension from the state, which itself must tally up all expenditures and bill the federal government by the end of the year.

“We are holding our breath and hopeful,” Morley said of the requested deadline extension.

Not only does the county need to figure out who will receive that money and how it’ll be used, but also the eventual recipients must obligate their share and bill the county by the same deadline.

To meet that deadline, the county has asked six community groups developing funding priorities to submit proposals by Friday. The board will review and discuss those proposals during a regular board meeting Sept. 8, then return Sept. 14 to take action.

“As you can see, it’s sort of a screamer of a timeline,” Morley told representatives of those six groups Thursday during the third monthly meeting of the Intergovernmental Coordinating Committee (ICC), which is overseeing the groups and ultimately working to create a COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan by mid-December.

To further complicate matters, the state is sitting on another $240 million in CARES Act funding that could be distributed among local governments at any moment, Morley said.

“We plan to have an expandable set of priorities so that when the second round of funding becomes available, we can use the input we’ve gotten to address those, as well,” he said.

The groups are assessing six areas impacted by the coronavirus pandemic: culture and events, economy and jobs, children and families, human services, food system resiliency and broadband.

The funding priorities they submit Friday will be compiled into one document and made available for public review on the county’s website soon thereafter, Morley said.

On Thursday, representatives of each group reported on their progress, and one thing became clear: Many had overlapping priorities, such as the need for rental assistance, affordable childcare, food security and, maybe most of all, greater access to the internet.

“The schools are very aware that a lot of their families went dark when school was called off last spring and they are very concerned about being able to connect with them again,” said Commissioner Kate Dean, who is a member of the ICC serving on the children and families group.

“People really need to be able to work remotely and study remotely because of the pandemic,” Morley added, reminding the groups that expanding broadband internet to more rural areas of the county is a longer-term challenge that would fall outside the scope of the COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan.

“We’re hoping we can have some quick and early successes in small bites initially that will then really fuel our appetite, ability and resolve to tackle these longer-term, more persistent issues,” he said.

A potential short-term solution: more of the WiFi hotspots established by the Public Utility District (PUD) since schools shutdown in March.

“It’s generally outside of their mission with electrical and water, yet they’ve been out there doing it, paying for it and providing free access,” said broadband group member Karen Bennett of the Jefferson Broadband Action Team, noting that her group would be asking the commissioners to reimburse the PUD for the roughly $162,000 it has spent on those hotspots.

The ICC, which is made up of representatives from the county, the city of Port Townsend, the PUD and the Port of Port Townsend, launched a website – jeffcotogether.net – to consolidate information about the process to create the COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan.

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Jefferson County reporter Nicholas Johnson can be reached by email at njohnson@peninsuladailynews.com.

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