In Our Opinion: Island County’s pandemic bonuses are a smart idea, if legal

  • Friday, July 16, 2021 1:36pm
  • Opinion

The latest federal stimulus plan, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, distributed huge sums that local governments didn’t ask for and, in cases described by various media outlets, really didn’t need.

The money can’t be used for tax breaks, supplant current spending or be saved for more than three years. But it can still do good.

Island County was allotted $16.8 million, Oak Harbor was allotted $6,578,122, Coupeville will get $550,480 and Langley was allotted $318,229.

Island County commissioners claimed the complicated nature of the rules regarding the use of the funds necessitates the hiring of an ARPA coordinator, which doesn’t seem like a great use of the money. Nonetheless, they went forward this week with a bold plan to award their employees with direct cash bonuses totaling $1.5 million.

Most county employees — those hired prior to Jan. 1 — will get $2,850, which should pencil out to about $2,000 even after taxes. Those hired more recently will get $1,425. Elected officials don’t qualify for the giveaway.

It’s a grand gesture. As this newspaper has opined previously, getting cash into the pockets of essential workers — especially those with lower wages — is one of the best uses for the funding flood. At a time when McDonald’s is offering jobs in Oak Harbor beginning at $16 an hour, many county positions certainly can be considered lower-wage jobs. But that’s a conversation for another day.

The wrinkle is that the state constitution, state law and case law prohibit the gifting of public funds.

A state Attorney General’s Office opinion said retroactive bonuses or pay are not legal, except in narrow conditions such as within labor agreements.

ARPA allows “premium pay” to qualified, essential workers. But the Municipal Research and Service Center, a respected entity in the state, raised doubts about whether local governments can give out premium pay, which is essentially described in the federal act as retroactive bonuses. Permissions within a federal program don’t make state laws disappear.

The county got around this problem, hopefully, by crafting the premium pay resolution to say that the bonuses are for their work in the future as the pandemic continues. Local governments are allowed to give forward-looking bonuses, but they are usually part of a contract that sets out specific expectations for future work.

Yet in their comments, the commissioners made it clear that they wanted to award the employees for working so hard and effectively in uncertain times of the past and staying with the county.

If it all works out legally, perhaps the municipalities can follow the example.