Blaine City Council discussed areas where it could distribute $900,000 of its remaining federal Covid-19 stimulus. Council approved $50,000 in emergency funds to Blaine Food Bank and will continue brainstorming how to use the rest of the money.
U.S. Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021, which, in part, provided financial relief to local governments that lost money because of the pandemic. The city of Blaine received nearly $1.6 million, with the first allocation given June 2021 and the second given this year. Sam Crawford, deputy city manager and city clerk, said the city has about $900,000 in funds it needs to spend by the end of 2024. The money can’t be earmarked for future projects, he added.
“Staff has some ideas on where the money should go, but it’s ultimately city council’s decision,” Crawford said. “Tonight is supposed to be a kickoff meeting. I would be very shocked and surprised if council decided where all of the $900,000 should go now.”
In a city memo, Crawford suggested the city prioritize the remaining ARPA funds as the following:
• Downtown revitalization projects, including a facade improvement grant program and a Peace Portal alley environmental cleanup
• Food bank donation
• Water utility projects
• Sewer utility projects
• Increased staffing capacity and staff retention to increase services to the
• Marine Drive repair
• Marine Park beach improvements
• Street repairs
• Consultant support for important city projects that are hard for city employees to commit to with day-to-day work
• Software to increase city personnel safety
• Securing the finance department’s front counter area
• Equipment such as shields and helmets for police to respond to major public safety events
• Consultant support for important city projects, including developing a strategic plan and updating the city’s sewer and parks plans that haven’t been updated in two decades
Crawford also recommended council consider using some of the funds to pay off the city hall building on Martin Street, on which the city still owes about $660,000 at 1.66 percent interest.
“A year-and-a-half seems like a long time,” Crawford said, referring to the end of 2024 deadline. “But this is a lot of money and the city council really needs to put thought into where it goes.”
Council unanimously approved mayor Mary Lou Steward’s recommendation to allocate $50,000 in emergency funds to Blaine Food Bank. This came after food bank operations manager Sally Church asked for $50,000 during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“Today we are in near crisis mode,” Church said. “Economic fallout from the pandemic, suspended government programs for families and children, the end of universal free school meals, and waging prices for housing, fuel and food are bringing increasing numbers of families to our doors.”
The food bank went from serving 400 families per week before the pandemic to 570 families during the first week of August, Church said. The food bank is the second busiest in Whatcom County, but is the only food bank in the county operated solely by volunteers, Church said. Donations also were down 50-75 percent from the year before.
“We do not make this request lightly,” she said. “The only time we requested help from the city was in 1994 when the city donated its land for our current facility. We need your help now.”
Councilmember Eric Davidson suggested the small cities of Whatcom County ask the county for more food bank money.
Councilmember Rhyan Lopez said he’d like to see an increase in the parks budget, increase staffing to the community development services department as development grows and expand the Blaine Tourism Advisory Committee (BTAC) funding to create another festival to attract tourists. Lopez asked if staff could provide line items or a summary of costs.
Davidson, who chairs BTAC, agreed on increasing BTAC funds. He also asked council to consider whether it wanted to use the money for one large project or split it between smaller projects.
“We could go through the whole $900,000 on the Marine Drive project, versus we could have 20 street repairs, including my street, which is why I got involved in [the public works advisory committee] 10 years ago,” he said. “We could have 20 small projects for the price of just planning the Marine Drive repair.”
Police chief Donnell Tanksley said the gear would be to respond to an active shooter because the police department doesn’t have shields right now.
“As far as I’m concerned, I think we got the ball rolling and I’m happy about that,” interim city manager Dave Wilbrecht said of council’s discussion. “The list you got today is something we started through conversation.”
Last year, council approved $435,000, which was 55 percent of the first payment, to support basic city services in the city’s general fund. Another $150,000 went to the police department; $86,500 to the utility bill relief program, RED loan forgiveness program for businesses and other expenses; $73,000 to public works seasonal workers and rebuilding the parks budget, among additional funding.
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