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Tacoma mayor explains why smaller cities need direct COVID-19 relief from Congress

In this 2019 file photo, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards speaks at a press conference.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
In this 2019 file photo, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards speaks at a press conference.

Leaders of Washington cities outside of Seattle are asking to be included in federal coronaivurs relief plans. 

The third COVID-19 package that Congress passed late last month included $150 billion for state and local governments. But only cities with more than 500,000 people are eligible for direct funding from that package. In Washington, only Seattle meets the population threshold. 

KNKX sat down via video call with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards to talk about why cities like hers need direct funds from the federal government. Listen above or read the transcript below, which have both been edited for length and clarity.

VICTORIA WOODARDS, mayor of Tacoma: So as I understand it, there is a fourth package that Congress is working on right now. I don't know the specifics of the package yet, but I do know that in speaking with several of my Congresspeople, both senators and Congressmen, that there is a focus in this package to get money down to smaller cities. As you know, in the CARES Act, there was only funding directly available to cities of 500,000 or more. That is, as I count, less than 30 cities in the country. 

SIMONE ALICEA, KNKX producer: Why do cities like Tacoma, smaller cities, need direct federal funding for the COVID-19 response?

WOODARDS: For a lot of reasons, but let me just give you a couple. One, if we have to go through the state or another entity to get the money, that's additional time. When it goes through the state, as you would fully expect, there is a cost for it to go through the state. There's a staff time cost. There's all kinds of costs associated, which means that the federal government will send an amount to the state, the state will have to remove its costs, and then it comes to the city. When it comes directly from the federal government, all of that money comes directly to the city, and it gets here faster.

The other reason for the direct money too is that if there is money that we're getting, that we get to give out, either for rental assistance or for small business loans – even though they're doing a lot of that through SBA (Small Business Administration) – or for homeless services, or cost recovery, whatever those additional funds are that will come, cities are built to get them out faster. Again, when it goes through another bureaucracy, it just takes a longer time.

KNKX: Well, you're kind of getting to this already. But my question was going to be what kind of things is this money used for? But it sounds like the money that comes from the feds could be used for anything. 

WOODARDS: Maybe not anything. But depending on what parameters they put around that money, it could be used for a number of things. It could be used to help reimburse some of the costs that we've incurred in doing business this way. It could be stand up a lot of the measures we've had to stand up because of this. I mean, we put out a million dollars in utility assistance funding. And that came out of a budget. We are in the midst of standing up rental assistance here in Tacoma. That rental assistance money will come from our general fund. It will come from money we set aside to do work, but it comes from our general fund. We just had a presentation on Friday about where we could end up, and it could be upwards of $60 million is what our deficit could be.

KNKX: $60 million, that's a general fund deficit?

WOODARDS: Absolutely. It could be up to $60 million depending on how long this goes, what consumer confidence is when we bounce back.

KNKX: Right. In addition to the measures that are pretty directly related to the COVID-19 response, then you have the economic downturn that is coming down the line.

WOODARDS: Right. So through economic development, not only do we want to help get small business loans, but we want to defer B&O (Business and Occupation) tax. B&O tax is based on how much a business makes. And so if they're not making very much money, their B&O tax won't be very high. Plus, we're deferring B&O taxes and all penalties and all interest because we want businesses to survive. 

KNKX: If direct federal funding does come in this fourth package, what would the priorities be for Tacoma? 

WOODARDS: I guess, depending on the restrictions, for me, getting the economic engine of the city back in place. Getting people back to work and getting businesses open would be a priority for me. And then getting that support to families who need it the most.

KNKX: So when you're talking about that, you're talking about food assistance, rental assistance, that kind of stuff?

WOODARDS: Yeah, absolutely.

KNKX: Is there anything else you wanted to add about the federal funding or the city's COVID response?

WOODARDS: So, just two things about the federal funding. I will say that I'm really grateful that we have a great delegation from the Tacoma area. Even when the third stimulus package was being completed, as I called all of them and asked them to support this, they were already supporting it. They just didn't have enough to change it. And frankly, I get it. We wanted to get that money out.

What I would say just about Tacoma's response to COVID is that, you know, it's a real difficult time. It's one thing to have City Hall close its doors because there's a flood, and you can't drive to City Hall. It's another thing to close down City Hall and not necessarily be able to see  it's a beautiful day outside. You look outside, and you don't see COVID. But it is there. I always want to thank our staff at the city who's working incredibly hard to make this work and to be responsive to our citizens, and then to the people who live here in Tacoma, to our residents who are being patient.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.