Commissioners outline ideas for relief funds

Commissioners are considering spending most of $16.5 million in relief funds on one large project.

Island County commissioners are considering spending the bulk of $16.5 million in federal relief funds on one larger project or effort.

While the three commissioners are still in early stages of investigating ideas — and plan on having community meetings — affordable housing was a focus of recent discussions.

Last week, the commissioners talked about spending American Rescue Plan Act funds during a work session with Budget Manager Doug Martin, who asked for direction on what he should research further in order to bring back options to the board.

The act allows the county broad discretion in the use of the money, although the commissioners found out last week how complicated the implementation rules can be; the commissioners rescinded premium pay for employees after the county prosecutor advised that the resolution was legally fraught, though they plan on adopting a fixed-up version later this year.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said she wanted the board to figure out whether there is “a one-time, big-ticket item” that would have a real impact on the community instead of spreading the money around so much that the effect is diluted.

“You can piddle it away or you can be really intentional,” she said, “and say we want to put it here.”

Johnson suggested $9-$10 million could be set aside for the effort. She said the Habitat for Humanity model might be the best idea for the county. Under her proposal, the county would work with an affordable-housing group like Habitat, which would use county funds to buy property and put in infrastructure where affordable housing could be built.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she likes the concept of working with a group like Habitat for Humanity since it would guarantee that any development would remain as affordable housing in perpetuity.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon suggested that the money be used on a Freeland sewer system. She pointed out that the county’s comprehensive plan earmarks the Freeland area for affordable housing development, but the lack of a sewer system curtails growth.

In addition, the commissioners discussed other, smaller expenditures, including $1.5 million in premium pay to county employees, expansion of broadband, case management software for Public Health and a set-aside fund for possible continued COVID-19 response due to the spread of the variant.

The commissioners agreed that a priority for swifter action is creating a community service grant program for nonprofit groups, particularly those that work to alleviate barriers to the workforce.

The next step, they decided, is to have community meetings to talk to residents about their ideas, opinions and challenges.

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