Federal COVID-19 relief on the way

UNION COUNTY — Union County will receive $5.2 million from the federal COVID-19 aid bill President Joe Biden recently signed. Shelley Burgess, Union County’s administrative officer, said that is at least twice as much as the county received in CARES funding from the federal government in 2020.

Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, who voted for the legislation, touted the financial aid for local governments during a Zoom interview with the Baker City Herald on March 16, prior to a virtual town hall with Baker County residents.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act includes $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments. The seven other incorporated cities in Union County will receive funds ranging from $30,000 to $450,000, while the three other cities in Wallowa County will receive $50,000 to $230,000.

Burgess said Union County should receive half of the $5.2 million within 60 days and the other half about a year later. Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett said Merkley told him the county and cities also will receive two separate payments, one this year and one next.

Union County Commissioner Paul Anderes said the federal government has yet to provide guidelines on how the county can spend the money. Anderes said he anticipates getting guidelines in the near future.

“The rules are starting to roll out and sometime next week we should have a better idea, that is my hope,” Anderes said.

The county in late 2020 received a little more than $730,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding from the state for grants to help businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic. County commissioners distributed that money as grants to 94 businesses.

Union County Commissioner Donna Beverage said the board of commissioners will meet to determine how to use the funds after receiving the rules from the feds.

“As always we want to use it wisely and we want to do whatever we can to help our county in future years,” Beverage said. “We want to make sure we have a long-term vision.”

Bennett also said he is waiting for guidelines, but the goal will be the same as with CARES Act money — to distribute money to businesses and other local entities that have struggled due to closures and other restrictions.

“Our goal would be to get the money out, and to make it the most efficient that we can,” Bennett said. “We don’t want to leave any holes. Our business community has suffered so many losses.”

Sara Hottman, communications director for Merkley, said in an email that although the senator is waiting for detailed guidelines from federal officials, local governments can use the money to replace revenue lost because residents can’t pay local taxes, and for a variety of other COVID-19-related effects, including to help businesses and other organizations.

“This has a lot of flexibility,” Hottman said.

But one thing local governments can’t use the money for, she said, is to lower tax rates.