The Unalaska City Council unanimously authorized the city to sign a grant agreement with the State of Alaska to accept more than $13 million for costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding comes from the federal CARES Act, but passes through the state.
As cities and towns are facing hundreds of millions of dollars in extra spending and lost revenue due to the pandemic, the funds offer some relief.
According to City Manager Erin Reinders, the funding will help recoup money the city has spent on emergency protective measures, a grant to Iliuliuk Family and Health Services (IFHS), and a quarantine site, among other expenses.
"The CARES Act funding is a way to recoup some of the expenses associated with our response efforts related to the public health emergency and its economic impacts," said Reinders in a City Council meeting on Tuesday night. "It's also a way that we can fund preventative measures to allow for us to keep city services operating safely in the future."
It's unclear when the city will receive the money, according to Jim Sharpe, interim finance director. The government was originally scheduled to begin dispersing funds to various municipalities on May 1, but that has yet to happen.
"This is not a reimbursement grant," said Sharpe. "In other words, we don't need to incur the costs and then request the money from the state to reimburse for those. It's money provided in advance with the kicker that we only have until December 30, 2020 to spend the dollars."
Sharpe said guidelines in terms of what's allowed under the CARES Act is fairly broad, but that staff are discussing the various ways in which the city would most benefit.
"The first items that came to my mind while looking through this was reimbursement or recoupment of costs that we've incurred in our [COVID-19] response. But the funding from the CARES Act actually goes beyond that, and it's meant to help us into the future," said Sharpe.
The city hasn't figured out precisely how it will spend the full $13,453,952, which is set to come in three installments. One option officials are considering is improving technology on the island to allow more employees to limit in-person contact and work from home. Sharpe said that could include improving hardware and software, or laying fiber optic cable to Unalaska to allow a broadband connection.
Another option is to provide grants to nonprofits and local businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic and the related economic fallout.
City staff has also spent time looking into the FEMA Public Assistance Program, which will provide reimbursement for specific costs, although the scope is much narrower than the CARES Act and demands more detailed information regarding each expenditure.
In late March, Congress passed the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), with the purpose of distributing $150,000,000,000 to states for "necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)." Alaska received $1,250,000,000 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) and will direct $257,548,754 to communities for mitigation and recovery efforts based on population.