County, communities to get millions in stimulus

Island County government and the three municipalities on Whidbey Island are projected to receive a combined total of $22.32 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Island County government and the three municipalities on Whidbey Island are projected to receive a combined total of $22.32 million through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Under estimates from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Island County will receive $16.5 million, Oak Harbor will get $5.13 million, Coupeville will get $430,000 and Langley will receive $250,000.

The American Rescue Plan Act is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill that is meant to speed the nation’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law offers relief and stimulus in a wide range of ways, from direct payments to individuals to an extension of unemployment benefits to money for struggling state and local government.

Just how much local government in Island County has struggled during the pandemic is unclear as officials are still analyzing budget numbers, but the final picture might be rosier than what was imagined early in the pandemic.

Island County Budget Manager Doug Martin said he warned after collections plummeted early in the pandemic that sales tax revenues, a significant source of county revenue, would be down by about 20 percent in 2020.

But then sales taxes surged, beginning in July. Martin recently explained to commissioners that regular sales tax revenues for 2020 ended up being at about the budgeted amount of $9 million for the year.

Sales tax receipts for December of 2020 were 17.5 percent more than the same month in 2019.

Martin said online sales account for the sales tax uptick while brick-and-mortar stores have struggled.

While the county’s largest source of revenues — property taxes — wouldn’t be significantly impacted by the pandemic, Martin said he’s still looking over the many other sources of revenues to determine the final toll. He will be presenting the numbers to the commissioners soon.

Martin is also tallying the costs of the pandemic. They are likely significant for many county departments, especially Public Health.

Yet the county and the municipalities received reimbursements for pandemic-related costs from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.

The county received $6.4 million from that program; a significant amount was distributed to small businesses in the form of grants.

As for the American Rescue Plan, officials said they are awaiting clarification of rules before making any plans for the money. It’s clear that the funds can’t be used for tax breaks.

Municipal Research and Service Center, however, recently gave an overview of ways the money can be spent by local government, which appear to give local officials a lot of leeway.

Allowable expenses include public health expenses related to COVID-19, hazard pay for essential workers and generalized “assistance” for households, small businesses and nonprofits financially affected by COVID-19.

The money can even be spent on things unrelated to the virus, such as “necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure,” according to the research group.

Under the law, the money has to be spent within three years.

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