WALLOWA COUNTY — More than $2.25 million is slated to come to Wallowa County and its four incorporated cities out of the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, and is being distributed to local governments, according to the office of U.S. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Of that amount, $1.398 million is going to Wallowa County. Enterprise will receive $410,000, Joseph is to get nearly $230,000, Wallowa gets $170,000 and Lostine is to receive $50,000, Merkley’s office stated.
CNBC online reported that the federal aid package includes direct payments of $1,400 each to most Americans, many of which have already been distributed. It also extends a $300 per week unemployment boost until Sept. 6 and expands the child tax credit for a year. It will also put nearly $20 billion into COVID-19 vaccinations, $25 billion into rental and utility assistance and $350 billion into state, local and tribal relief. The legislation will also increase the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) benefit by 15% through September and direct nearly $30 billion to restaurants. It will send more than $120 billion to K-12 schools.
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said Thursday, March 25, that the money should come directly from the federal government about 60 days after Biden signed the bill. She said, however, that while counties and larger cities will receive the payments directly from the feds, smaller towns — like the four in Wallowa County — will receive theirs through the state government.
“My understanding is that these payments are directly to the counties,” she said.
Roberts said, as she understands it, the payments are to be divided in half — the first half in about 60 days and the second half a year and a day later.
She said that while the money isn’t specifically earmarked for any particular uses, the feds do make recommendations.
“It’s to use in any way we see fit,” she said.
However, Roberts said she’s not counting her chickens before they’re hatched.
“I’m not going to venture an idea (on how it can be used) because it has changed with every breath anyone takes,” she said.
Roberts said she means the terms of such payouts often change, although the amounts usually remain the same as initially announced.
While she hasn’t received formal notification from Washington, D.C. on the payout, she’s hoping to receive some word from the feds so the commissioners can have something on it to discuss at their next meeting Wednesday, April 7.
Roberts said the added money will help fill holes in the county budget caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That will just about fill the budget shortfalls from when they shorted us on PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) payments last year,” she said.
That shortfall left a hole in the county budget of about $600,000, she said.
“This’ll just backfill that a bit,” Roberts said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to cut people’s jobs or hours.”
Lacey McQuead, city administrator for Enterprise, said in an email she was unaware of the specifics of the $410,000 federal payout.
“We will be discussing this at the next council meeting (Monday, April 12) and I will be asking the council to appoint members to a committee to help provide the remaining council members recommendations on expending the funds,” McQuead said. “Once those recommendations are made, we will provide more definite plans during the budget process.”
City Administrator Larry Braden, of Joseph, said in an email Friday he was aware of Joseph receiving a share of the COVID-19 aid funds. He still has questions, as the process is still in its early stages.
“The expenditure guidelines have not permanently been set yet nor have the amounts,” Braden said. “The projected amount for the city of Joseph is $229,109.”
But he’s enthusiastic for what it means for the city.
“In any case, this is very exciting for the city of Joseph and it will be fun to hear what the exact guidelines are so we can start the discussions of what needs we can fill with the grant monies received,” he said.
Mayor Gary Hulse, of Wallowa, had not yet heard of the $170,000 his city is getting when contacted Thursday, March 25, but he anticipates it eagerly.
“It would mean a lot to our budget,” he said. “I’ll need to meet with council and our budget officer and get their opinions.”
He said he also wants to talk to Wallowa residents to get their thoughts on spending the federal aid. He said once the city is notified by the feds, the aid will likely be on the agenda for the following council meeting. The Wallowa City Council next meets Tuesday, April 20.
The mayor said the aid package will help the city, but he’s not sure in what areas.
“Right now, we’re just mainly cutting back and holding on until we figure what any losses are going to be,” Hulse said. “We’re still hanging in there, but there have been areas we’ve had to cut back on.”
Mayor Dusty Tippett, of Lostine, said Friday, March 26, his city hadn’t yet been notified of the federal disbursement and, since it’s going through the state, it likely will be delayed a bit.
“Anything going through the state will probably take longer,” he said.
He expects the city can best use it to upgrade its water system.
“It could definitely help the general fund and the water fund, but I’ll have to talk with the council first,” he said. “It’s always good news when we hear we’re getting money.
“We’ll just have to see what happens. We hope to get the water system upgraded. The USDA has been on us to boost the reserve in case we had a water main break. The water system is our biggest expense since we don’t have a sewer system.”