Port Angeles City Council OKs utility, rental assistance

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has approved $300,000 in financial assistance for utility customers and renters during the COVID-19 crisis.

It also called on Gov. Jay Inslee to extend a moratorium on residential evictions.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Congress to provide financial relief for state and local governments during the coronavirus pandemic, to pursue federal community development block grants and to ask the Bonneville Power Administration to provide utility relief to city customers.

City staff identified $250,000 in general fund contingency funds to provide utility bill relief for residents and businesses and $50,000 in sales tax revenue for residential rental assistance for those affected by COVID-19.

Community members can make donations that will be applied to the accounts of those in financial need.

Applications for COVID-19 financial assistance and donation forms are available on the city’s website, www.cityofpa.us.

“We have sufficient resources to meet the current demand, but we do not anticipate that that is going to last long,” City Manager Nathan West said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“Ultimately, we expect that we are going to need additional funding.”

Council member Mike French made a motion at the council’s March 17 meeting to direct West to “provide legal and reasonable utility bill relief” to city customers.

The motion passed unanimously.

“I was extremely pleased with how seriously the council’s action at the last meeting was taken, and how thoughtfully the implementation happened,” French said Tuesday.

“This is a sizable amount of money from the general fund that is going back to our citizens in the midst of a crisis.”

Finance Director Sarina Carrizosa said the city had received about 70 applications for utility bill relief and about 30 applications for rental assistance.

“If you’re in need of this, reach out,” council member Brendan Meyer said.

“There are people that will help you.”

French said the city’s COVID-19 financial assistance program “should be a model” for how to treat citizens during a crisis.

“As I said in the last meeting, extending loans or guarantees that you won’t get your power shut off, or kicked out of your housing, isn’t the same as cash relief,” French said.

“Having a sword hanging over your head, a loan doesn’t stop that.

“I think this should be a model in our region, and if we can get that legislative priority (for more funding) across the finish line, that would be a real crowning jewel on this kind of a program,” French added.

Council member LaTrisha Suggs said the $250,000 earmarked for utility relief and $50,000 identified for rental assistance would be a “drop in the bucket for what our citizens are going to need long-term.”

“But this is a start,” Suggs said.

“I know this focuses on residential, but I think we also need to look at small business owners, too, as we talk.”

Council member Navarra Carr said the city’s financial assistance program would “fill some of the gaps while folks are waiting for federal assistance and state assistance.”

“I think we can highlight the great ability of staff to really focus on making these applications as easy and user-friendly as possible and really do their best to make sure that folks know that the city has their backs,” Carr said.

“Even though it might not be enough, I think it really will help while federal assistance is waited upon.”

Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said it was “too early to tell” how many city residents and business owners would need financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I agree with the idea that the amount that we have allocated isn’t enough,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

Said council member Charlie McCaughan: “It’s really hard to tell today how much we’re going to need.”

Council members and staff participated in the two-hour meeting from their homes or offices by video conference.

In-person meetings were suspended under Inslee’s stay home order, which had been extended to May 4.

Inslee also extended a moratorium on residential evictions from April 17 to May 4, West said.

Schromen-Wawrin made a motion Tuesday to authorize West and Mayor Kate Dexter to “communicate to the governor that it is vitally important for the health and welfare of Port Angeles that the eviction moratorium continue for the duration of financial impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and extend to a prohibition on fees and protect small business tenants.”

The motion passed 7-0.

After a five-minute break, Schromen-Wawrin made a second motion to give West the authority to issue a city moratorium on evictions in the event that Inslee does not extend the state moratorium, does not prohibit additional fees or late fees or does not protect small businesses tenants.

That motion also passed unanimously.

“Things are going to be moving really fast in the next few weeks, and I figure it’s better to give the authority now in case it’s needed,” Schromen-Wawrin said before the second vote.

“Rather than table it, let’s just get it authorized in case the city manager needs to use that authority.”

Later in the meeting, West suggested that the council adopt two legislative priorities for the COVID-19 outbreak.

They were:

• Seek federal community development block grants from the recently-adopted CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act) that could be used immediately to fund the city’s COVID-19 financial assistance utility and rental relief program.

• Request that the Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, provide similar relief to local ratepayers.

The city of Port Angeles, Clallam County Public Utility District and many other local utilities purchase wholesale power from Bonneville.

“We think it’s extremely important, if we are going to be dedicating general fund taxpayer dollars towards our utility relief, that we not turn around and pay that money directly to the Bonneville Power Administration,” West told the council.

“We do feel that it is appropriate for Bonneville to also exercise some sort of relief program.”

Schromen-Wawrin suggested a third legislative priority to support a Congressional effort to call on the federal government make available “substantial financial relief” for states and local governments.

Dexter said the Association of Washington Cities had made a similar call to Congress.

“This is a big push for the next round of support,” Dexter said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].

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