Jeanne Kohl-Welles
Jeanne Kohl-Welles

King County Council members will have difficult decisions to make in the coming months as they allocate the remaining COVID-19 emergency funds from the federal government as well as approve the regular budget.

This week, the council began reviewing the fourth emergency COVID-19 budget since April, which outlines how to spend federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds. The council has spread out allocating the $262 million CARES Act funds the county received from the federal government to decide how best the money should be spent based on need, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles said.

“We’re trying to balance what’s needed most for right now but saving some for later,” she said.

The council will then turn their attention to the 2021-22 biennial budget when it is introduced Sept. 22. Kohl-Welles, who is the budget committee chair, said the intention is for the County Council to vote on it on Nov. 17.

Complicating matters, though, is uncertainty as to whether Congress is going to pass another emergency stimulus package. Kohl-Welles said it was not encouraging that lawmakers went home on recess before voting on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which is proposed legislation for a $3 trillion stimulus package to supplement the CARES Act. This has not passed both houses yet.

That is complicating matters, Kohl-Welles said, because at some point County Executive Dow Constantine has to operate under the assumption no additional funding will come from the federal government and plan for that.

If that is the case, then King County will have $100 million to $150 million in cuts that will need to be made. CARES Act funds cannot be used to backfill shortfalls in the regular budget and must be dedicated to coronavirus relief. Kohl-Welles said the council’s top priority since the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant investment in public health and making sure the county is ready for a second wave.

If no additional funds from the federal government comes, the council will have to find the funds elsewhere.

“The reality is, we need to have sufficient funding in public health, and we really do not beyond this year,” Kohl-Welles said.

Other council spending priorities for the pandemic, in no order of importance, were helping to ensure food access and security; providing housing stability, assistance and homeless services; economic recovery; providing for a mental health security program.

Kohl-Welles said those will continue to be a priority during the pandemic, even as the council determines how to juggle other budgeting needs.

“If we don’t have anything more coming to us from the federal government, we have to reconcile with that, and that makes it even more challenging and really even more alarming,” Kohl-Welles said.

Moving forward, Kohl-Welles said it will be important to make sure there are adequate funds to continue public health COVID-19 tracing and testing. Kohl-Welles also anticipates housing stability and assistance will be even more important in the coming months since people are no longer receiving $600 extra in unemployment funds. In response to preventing the spread of COVID among the homeless population, the council has dedicated funds to  providing “de-intensification” shelters, including in Queen Anne to prevent unsafe crowding in shelters. Kohl-Welles said a site in Interbay will hopefully open soon for those purposes but still needs a fire permit.

Another area of concern is whether the recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic continues to get worse, Kohl-Welles said.

“We have to do all we can to get the economy going again,” she said.