VALE – County officials have suspended distribution of $12 million in federal relief funds, leaving 14 organizations in limbo regarding requests for cash.
The Malheur County Court decided March 15 to place a moratorium on handing out any more federal funds as officials work to establish a formal application process.
County officials were notified in October that a potential of $12 million in Covid relief funds was available.
The county is unexpectedly to receive $12 million as part of a relief program administered by the U.S. Treasury Department. That program is designed for counties – such as Malheur – with significant land owned by the federal government. According to the Department, counties can “treat these funds in a similar manner to how they treat funds generated from their own revenue.”
That essentially gives county officials broad authority to use the money as they see fit. So far, the county received $6 million of the $12 million and is preparing request its second allotment of $6 million.
The county to date has distributed only a fraction of the $12 million. The county committed $2 million to the Treasure Valley Reload Center to complete a third rail spur and $1.4 million to buy a warehouse for storing county equipment.
Meanwhile, requests for aid from cities and organizations have been piling up but the Malheur County Court, including Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Ron Jacobs and Jim Mendiola, haven’t scheduled any public meetings regarding the unexpected windfall to give residents an opportunity to advise where the money should go.
County officials, though, contend the use of the money must be carefully monitored because federal auditors will review the expenditures. If a specific request does not meet requirements outlined by the federal government, the county will be on the hook to pay the money back.
“You can only use the money for certain things and it has to pass an audit,” said Joyce, without citing a source for that information.
In Jordan Valley, Mayor Lee Ann Conro on Dec. 6 requested $1.1 million to upgrade key city services, including resurfacing streets and replacing water and sewer main lines.
“The city operates on a shoestring budget. We are a small rural community that is hanging on to everything we have by a mere thread,” wrote Conro in her request.
While the need is acute for the community of about 135 people, Conro said she has no idea if the county will help. That’s because she “hasn’t heard a word” in the three months since making the request
“It’s pretty dire straits down here. Our revenue is pretty low,” Conro said in a recent interview.
Other organizations – from Project DOVE in Ontario to the city of Vale and the Valley View Cemetery District in Vale – also asked for money.
Most entities requesting money have not heard from the county about their proposals.
Valley View Cemetery District, for example, requested on Jan. 6 $148,801 to add more space on district-owned land for more grave plots.
“I have not heard a word from anyone,” said Bobbi Buttice, a member of the Valley View Cemetery Board.
Project DOVE, the county’s only domestic violence shelter, delivered its $220,000 request to the county in November. The money would pay for such items as a new victim advocate and a new director of the facility.
“The case load for Project DOVE has increased dramatically over the last three years going from 35 clients in 2019/2020 to 143 clients in 2021/2022. Currently, Project DOVE typically sees 13 to 15 clients monthly. Other expenses such as food, electricity, laundry, etc. also rise as the number of clients go up,” Debbie Blackaby, chair of the Project DOVE board, wrote in the request.
The ask for money is a “one-time request to allow Project DOVE to seek other on-going funding sources such as state and federal grants, city of Ontario and new fundraisers sponsored by Project DOVE,” wrote Blackaby.
“We presented our case and we haven’t heard anything. I think it is still in the mix but I don’t know the status. We haven’t heard,” said Terry Basford, Project DOVE executive director.
Vale city officials made a brief presentation to the county court Dec. 30. Mayor Tom Vialpando and City Manager Todd Fuller asked for $300,000 to finish a wastewater project.
Fuller said he’s received very little feedback from the county.
“The only thing I had was a request for a little better break down of all the costs,” said Fuller.
As of last week, Fuller said he had not heard back from the county.
The money is crucial to finish upgrades to a lift station, said Vialpando.
“Our lift station is 50 to 70 years old. It is at the end of its life cycle. We’re just asking for help,” said Vialpando.
Joyce said the abrupt moratorium on the relief funds was necessary.
“Our admin office is going through the budget and until that is done, they don’t have time to work on anything else,” said Joyce.
Other counties in the region addressed distribution of federal relief funds differently than Malheur County.
Baker County received about $9.6 million in extra federal funds but never considered handing out cash to other organizations.
“We clearly laid the path out early on,” said Mark Bennett, a former Baker County commissioner who, as a contractor for the county, helped arrange for the federal funds.
Bennett said the focus was on internal county government needs. He said the county received “a few” inquiries from people and organizations that sought a slice of the federal money.
“We could really not have other outside groups (seeking funds) because it gets into the Solomon part of it. It becomes problematic. You can’t fund everybody,” said Bennett.
Bennett said Baker County used federal funds for some “big ticket items,” such as paying off loans on a veterans center and to buy property earmarked for economic development.
Baker County also used relief funds to install new roofs on a museum and the courthouse.
In Harney County, Judge Bill Hart said there is no formal process to dole out the relief funds.
The status of the formal application process remains in limbo. As of last week, it wasn’t finished.
Jacobs said he realizes the county should contact those who sent in requests for money.
“We need to get back to them fairly soon – let them know we are in the process of coming up with an application process,” said Jacobs.
Meanwhile the cities and organizations throughout the county that sought money don’t have any answers. Some, such as Pioneer Place, made another request for $100,000 at the March 15 county court session.
“We’d like to help but I hope you see the dilemma with the money we received. We have to come up with a criterion to make sure we can make the guidelines of the federal government,” Jacobs told Pioneer Place officials.
Joyce, who as county judge, holds ultimate authority for monetary decisions, said no money will be allocated until later in the year, after the budget is set
“You can send all the requests you want but nothing is going to happen until the process works out,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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