With federal deadline looming, County moves CARES Act millions into community, plots continued COVID response

December 17, 2020

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners took several critical steps on Thursday, Dec. 17 to assure as many clients and community members as possible receive direct assistance through CARES Act funding.

In just five months, the County has moved the $73.7 million it had budgeted from CARES Act funding for public health, shelter and isolation support spaces, and wraparound services to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the community safe. The County had originally received only $28 million in direct federal funding, but through allocations from the State and City of Portland, that swelled to $104 million, with some funds arriving just weeks ago.

In a series of actions at the Dec. 17 board meeting, commissioners acted to ensure every dollar of the $104 million the County received will reach and benefit community members. The Board heard a briefing on the CARES Act budget before taking up a series of votes.

“The needs of our community are not going away Dec. 30 and will continue to grow well into 2021,’’ said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We intend to spend all the CARES Act funds we’ve received, and these Board actions will allow us to do just that.’’

Throughout this crisis, the County had carried the unique responsibility of both leading the local public health response to COVID-19, a virus never before seen, and responding to the unprecedented need for shelter, housing, food and healthcare that the pandemic created. 

This meant budgeting for, and putting into practice, a comprehensive disaster response, from hiring dozens of new contact tracers and standing up four drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, to opening six physical-distancing motel shelters and two medical motels procuring and distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to the community. The County also snapped its safety net into place to cover these swelling needs, distributing millions of dollars in rent assistance, utility payments, food boxes and business relief grants to help individuals and businesses weather the economic fallout of the pandemic. 

“In spite of the unpredictable events of 2020 that turned everything on its head, Multnomah County staff stayed true to our mission, doubled down and, in some cases, even expanded our services to those most in need,’’ Chair Kafoury said.

With federal deadline approaching, County speeds distribution of funds

Chair Kafoury and commissioners knew when the Board adopted its FY 2021 budget last June that much of the federal allocation of CARES funds through various channels was set to expire at year’s end. In addition to moving millions of dollars into its COVID-19 response, the County has been working closely with state officials and Oregon’s congressional delegation to make the case that having funding after the Dec. 30 deadline is essential. But as Congress failed to offer additional funding, the County had to plan to both create and sustain its response.

That has been a huge lift, said Kim Melton, chief of staff for Chair Kafoury. “There are literally hundreds of County employees who have spent many, many hours understanding community needs and developing programs to respond to those needs, while also balancing budgets and figuring out how to hire people,’’ she said. “We are representing a massive movement to expend over $100 million in CARES funding.’’

Multnomah County, like counties across the country, grappled with the pressing Dec. 30 deadline knowing the needs created by the pandemic would continue into the new year, said Budget Director Christian Elkin. For months, the Department of Treasury guidance on spending changed often, and was sometimes vague and even contradictory. And it did not allow prepayment of leases or programming.

With those constraints in mind, the Chair and department staff immediately began working with the budget office on how to make the most of scarce federal dollars. The goal was to continue the County’s core COVID-19  response work until the end of fiscal year (beyond Dec. 30); acquire PPE, tents and other supplies needed in the coming months; use the County’s existing pathways to get help directly to clients and the community; and, make investments that support immediate COVID-19 needs that will also have a long-term benefit for the community.

In late September, Treasury notified local governments of an administrative accommodation that gives the county the financial flexibility to continue to fund critical public health services after the CARES funding expires. That accommodation allowed the County to move all payroll costs associated with employees who are substantially dedicated to the pandemic to be charged to CARES Act funds even if they were previously funded with a different funding source. 

Elkin said that means the County can direct $14 million to its Public Health Division to continue contact tracing, community testing and client support after Jan. 1, 2021, and $1.3 million to continue the Emergency Operations Center’s call center, food programs, and SUN School student and parent support.

The County also moved ahead prioritizing reinvestments in:

  • Countywide PPE, purchasing more than 2 million masks for underserved communities; HVAC equipment for County public buildings to provide cleaner indoor air; and a refrigerated container to support a food pantry serving Gresham, Fairview, Portland, Troutdale and Wood Village. 
  • More than $4.8 million of direct client assistance to nearly 9,000 individuals. Those who benefit from this support range from clients in the County’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Services Division to the 6,000 clients in our Women, Infants and Children program. The Multnomah County Library and the Department of County Assets came together to distribute internet hot spot gift cards to people who are using our Library’s Chromebook lending program, with a focus on providing that access in East County.
  • More than $7.8 million in Homeless Services to purchase winter weather supplies, 100 pallet tents and two new shelter sites
  • $300,000 to the Department of Community Justice for their Assessment and Referral Center (ARC) Transition Services that facilitates housing placements for those released from state or local custody and identified to be at risk of homelessness. 
  • $800,000 to support the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office’s additional staffing for the physical distancing dorm at the Multnomah County Inverness Jail. It also funds the enhanced cleaning and supplies in the Corrections facilities to reduce the spread of the virus.
  • $7.9 million in business relief grants to licensed restaurants, food carts and other businesses, including more than $2 million to East County businesses impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said she appreciated the County using its values to make spending decisions. “Leading with our values is something that I have always been so proud of as an organization.’’

“It’s good to know that we were working furiously to get the dollars into the community as much as we can,’’ said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said, “as we look to the federal government to step in and do what must be done, the fact that it was difficult to get the money out doesn’t have to do with the measure of need. The need is incredible and the reason it was hard to get the money out was because of the constraints that were placed on us in terms of deadlines and late guidance. So thank you for all of this amazing work.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran said she appreciated the County making short-term investments that can have long-term benefits, such as the purchase of as many pallet tents (8’x8’ or 10’x10’ pods that have walls, electric heating, light and better protection from the elements) as was practical to obtain, to continue evolving our alternative approaches to supporting people living unsheltered.

At a meeting in which the Board also extended the state of emergency, approved purchases of two new shelters, transferred ownership of Troutdale property to Home Forward for the first investment of affordable housing and transferred ownership of the newly completed Cornelius Pass Road to the state of Oregon. Chair Kafoury paused to thank staff for staying true to the County mission.

“We are stretched and we are tired, but despite the immense pressure on our systems, on our staff, and on us as individuals, we are resolute as ever, and dedicated to support the people who need us, because that’s what the County does. It’s a calling and it’s why I am honored to be doing this work alongside you.”