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Friday, May 14, 2021

Bellingham City Council unanimously approves allocation of CARES Act fund

$900,000 of federal grants will be allocated to local business, child care, and food security.

By Abi Hoodenpyle

Photo of Bellingham Food Bank volunteers waving alongside food boxes
Photo of Bellingham Food Bank volunteers waving alongside food boxes. The Bellingham Food Bank is one of the many local organizations impacted by the CARES Act fund. // Photo by Carlos Rexach.

Bellingham’s local businesses, child care providers and hungry citizens will benefit from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act after the City Council unanimously voted on a plan to distribute $900,000 to the community. 

The ordinance will amend the 2019-2020 biennial budget to increase appropriations and estimated revenues in the city’s general fund for COVID-19 recovery.

The CARES Act fund is a federal relief package to help preserve jobs affected by COVID-19.

According to the July 6 City Council Agenda, the CARES Act fund will allocate $500,000 to businesses in Bellingham’s commercial core, $200,000 for child care businesses and $200,000 to address food security. 

“This is what the CARES Act was really meant to do,” said City Council member Michael Lilliquist, who represents the 6th Ward. “We’re turning around as quick as we can, pushing a lot of this money right back out in the community to help support economic recovery.”

This is not the first distribution of federal funds. On June 22, City Council appropriated $500,000 of the CARES Act fund to the Drop-In Shelter, voting 7-0. 

According to the June 22 City Council Agenda, these funds are designated for a new drop-in shelter, in partnership with the Lighthouse Mission, a religious nonprofit that provides shelter for people experiencing homelessness. 

The remaining $1.3 million of CARES Act funds will be used to cover costs that the city incurred relating to the COVID-19 response. 

“The city has seen its revenues decline quite a bit while everything has been shut down, so one of the purposes of the CARES Act funding was to reimburse the city for those expenses,” said Bellingham budget manager Forrest Longman. “So that’s what we’re planning on using the remaining $1.3 million for.” 

Many local businesses have also struggled due to COVID-19.

“Right now about 2,200 families per week get support from our food bank, which is about 15% busier than before,” said Mike Cohen, Bellingham Food Bank director. “Now, we are doing a tremendous amount of purchasing because we are no longer restoring food from grocery stores, which accounted for about 5,000 pounds of food per day.”

Kathleen Westover, the director of James’ Place Child Development Center, notes that the center lost about 25% of its customers because of job losses.

Guy Occhiogrosso, CEO and president of Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, adds that Bellingham residents help fund local businesses through their discretionary income, and local employment rates can influence spending. 

Bellingham has a 15.7% unemployment rate as of May 2020. Small retail stores are feeling the effects.

“I mean, we lost over two months’ worth of income,” said Erika Millage, manager of Third Planet, a downtown boutique. “We’re going to be lucky if we make it out of this. I think we will, but any help is greatly appreciated.” 

As of July 6, the city has yet to finalize their application process for the CARES Act fund. 

The application is set to be released July 17.

“The details are still being worked out; nothing is set in stone yet,” said Longman.

Despite COVID-19 related challenges, local businesses have found joy in seeing customers and being a part of the community in Phase 2.

Millage noted that it has been such a pleasure to see old faces come back through Third Planet.

“I am really glad we are utilizing part of the funding we’re getting from the federal government to help our businesses and child care,” said City Council member Lisa Anderson, who represents the 5th Ward. 

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