Jeanne Kohl-Welles
Jeanne Kohl-Welles

While she is pleased the $900 billion federal COVID-19 relief bill passed after weeks of negotiations, King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles is concerned, without additional federal help, King County still faces a rough year ahead financially.

Among the highlights of the COVID-19 package Congress recently approved and President Donald Trump signed off on are up to $600 in stimulus money to individuals; an additional $300 per week of unemployment benefits through March 14, including coverage for gig workers and the self-employed; and an additional $284 billion for Paycheck Protection Program loans to first- and second-time recipients, including eligibility to 501(c)(6) organizations.

Unlike the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which President Donald Trump signed in March of 2020, however, the latest package does not provide significant new funding for states, county and cities hurting financially because of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession. In the final agreement reached, funding that would benefit local budgets was mostly slashed.

“We were concerned that that would likely happen,” Kohl-Welles said.

She said County Council members will receive an indepth breakdown of funding provided in the approximately $2 trillion federal COVID relief and omnibus bill and packages in the coming weeks, but it appears funding will be allocated by bypassing county and local governments. As well, most of the funds that will be released directly to state governments will only be for public health measures, and instead of going directly to the health departments, the state will distribute them to the counties based on need and COVID cases.

“So, we don’t even know how much Seattle-King County will be receiving,” Kohl-Welles said.

Kohl-Welles said, however, she was pleased the federal aid package had passed because she feels it includes many good pieces that will benefit local residents and organizations in need, such as $25 billion for federal rental assistance; an additional $13 billion to SNAP for nutrition assistance; and $15 billion in direct support to live venues, independent movie theaters and cultural institutions. She stated, however, she is unsure how some of that money will be awarded or by whom.

She also said the additional unemployment benefits and added Paycheck Protection Program loan funds will provide some relief to those who apply.

On the downside, however, is the package does nothing to provide a new influx of cash the county coffers need to maintain programs and service that reflect the county’s established coronavirus funding priorities without making serious cuts elsewhere, which Kohl-Welles pointed out was a concern this fall after the biennium budget passed.

Another concern is that the county likely won’t be able to directly help local organizations, cultural institutions or programs that won’t receive or are not eligible for any outside funds as it did in the county’s supplemental and final budget. Plus, she said, making sure funds are distributed in a timely manner is always a concern.

Kohl-Welles said many businesses that could have qualified for past loans or grants from CARES Act funds didn’t bother applying because of the difficulty involved with the process and the paperwork requirements and demands.

Plus, there is always the possibility that King County will face some tough decisions regarding funding in the 2020-21 budget if more funding is approved.

“I think it’s likely that we will have to have a supplemental budget come to us likely in February or March, where if we don’t receive additional funding or know some will be coming in, then we’ll have to make some tough decisions, and we’ll have to make cuts in some places to make sure public health has adequate funding,” Kohl-Welles said.

That means, if future federal funding that can be used for government programs does not come through, cuts to existing services or plans are likely, as are discontinuing plans to help other programs expand.

In its last budget, about $4 million was taken from the rainy-day reserves to provide stop-gap funding through the month of January for the isolation/quarantine sites and de-intensification centers established during the pandemic using CARES Act funds.

“You’ve got to have these short-term solutions, at least for the time being,” Kohl-Welles said.

With a lot uncertain, Kohl-Welles is staying optimistic the financial outlook will improve after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

“The word is that, under President Biden, there likely will be additional legislation for COVID relief,” she said. “That may happen in February or March, but, of course, we don’t know, and a lot of that may depend on what happens in Georgia.”

If Georgia’s two U.S. senators are unseated following Tuesday’s runoff election and the U.S. Senate is tied 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans with the tie vote going to soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris, a third COVID relief bill that includes provisions that benefit state and local governments is more likely. Results of Tuesday’s election, however, may not be finalized for weeks, nor are they a guarantee of a third COVID bill passing that will help offset financial burdens for state and local governments, regardless of the outcome.

“It’s so hard to know what’s going to happen between now and then,” Kohl-Welles said. “The situation keeps evolving all the time.”