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Jackson County Commissioners say governor is blocking business aid

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Jackson County commissioners are upset Gov. Kate Brown is not letting most counties use federal COVID-19 aid to help businesses struggling to survive.

In a letter send to state legislators and county commissioners across Oregon, Jackson County commissioners questioned restrictions Brown is putting on their use of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding. The federal money is passed through the state government.

The governor wants most counties to use the money on expenses tied to their public health response to COVID-19.

However, the city of Portland and Multnomah and Washington counties can use part of their CARES Act funding for business and worker relief programs, Jackson County commissioners said.

“The hits keep on coming from Salem to rural Oregon,” said Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser. “Congress clearly intended that these funds be made available to help adequately respond to the public health costs and to assist businesses and workers during this pandemic, and our businesses need this help now.”

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he talks to desperate business owners every day who have slipped through the cracks when it comes to receiving other types of federal COVID-19 aid.

“Those businesses are on the verge of closing their doors forever or already have,” he said.

Dyer said he is holding out hope that the governor will change her mind and allow the counties to use part of the CARES Act funding to help businesses and workers.

Under Brown’s current restrictions, the 34 counties outside the Portland area that didn’t receive direct funding may apply for a pool of $200 million to cover COVID-19 expenses they’ve incurred so far, Jackson County officials said.

The counties can also apply for another pool of $200 million for ongoing expenses, including providing personal protective equipment such as masks and paying for contact tracing of people exposed to those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The governor’s office did not immediately confirm how much money could be available for local governments outside the Portland area.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan estimated the county has incurred costs of at least $2 million so far.

The city of Portland and Multnomah and Washington counties are getting almost $247 million in CARES Act aid and can use nearly $62 million for business and worker relief programs, according to the letter Jackson County commissioners sent to state legislators and other counties.

Dyer said the CARES Act allows local governments to give grants to small businesses, but the governor is restricting 34 counties from using the money that way.

“Under this draft proposal, smaller counties will get zero CARES Act funding to spend on any of these absolutely vital programs. I can state unequivocally, creating such an egregious disparity was not the intent of Congress,” Dyer said. “We are asking the county commissioners and state legislators to help in representing the people of the rest of Oregon, and to call on the governor to make this right and enable us to help our businesses before it’s too late.”

The governor’s office said Sunday night public health spending is Brown’s top priority.

“We have known from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak that our state’s needs would far outweigh the resources available for responding to and recovering from this public health crisis,” said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for the governor. “Faced with that fiscal reality, our top priority is funding the immediate public health response to this pandemic. We know that local governments have been hard hit by COVID-19, and we had hoped for more federal funds in the first few stimulus packages to help address the undeniable needs.”

Because the governor’s office is uncertain about what further federal funding will become available, it’s prioritizing reimbursements for direct public health expenses from COVID-19 response efforts, he said.

“Certainly economic development is a statewide concern, which we hope to address with future federal relief if and when it becomes available,” Boyle said.

The governor is committed to engaging with Oregon’s congressional delegation and legislative leadership to ensure that funding for local governments is a priority in any additional stimulus packages, he said.

Dyer said that approach won’t help businesses on the brink of failing.

“Later could be too late for business relief,” he said.

Boyle said within the next week, the governor’s office will issue a list of allowable expenses for reimbursement, with priority given to direct public health efforts.

This is the second time Jackson County commissioners have scuffled with the governor’s office over federal COVID-19 aid.

In early May, commissioners said the governor was not planning to share aid with rural counties.

The governor’s office later released a statement saying Brown is committed to providing portions of the federal aid to local governments and her office would issue a list of allowable expenses.

“First we had to fight to get the funding out to rural counties after Portland and Multnomah and Washington counties received their distribution directly,” said Colleen Roberts, chair of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. “Now we have to fight to be able to use the funds the way they were clearly intended when given by the federal government for rural counties.”

Meanwhile, Jackson County is applying for $125,000 in funding from Business Oregon to launch a business aid program. The county must provide matching funds of $125,000.

Business Oregon is an agency that promotes economic development in the state.

Dyer said he hopes the county can use federal CARES Act funding to cover the county match of $125,000.

But even if it can’t, he said the county is committed to providing that funding to give grants to struggling businesses.

Businesses that haven't received federal COVID-19 aid so far, including Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, would be eligible for the Business Oregon grants. Getting a grant wouldn’t preclude them from being able to apply for federal aid in the future, Jackson County officials said.

The city of Medford used cannabis taxes to fund a $125,000 business aid program earlier this month. The first-come, first-served program offered grants of up to $5,000. The money was used up within 15 minutes of the application period opening, indicating strong need for the money among local businesses.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said cities and counties must have populations of at least 30,000 people to apply for Business Oregon match funding. Business Oregon said on Tuesday that smaller cities and counties are eligible and they are encouraged to apply.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Jackson County Commissioners want to use a part of federal COVID-19 aid to help struggling businesses, but Gov. Kate Brown says public health expenses are the top priority. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune