In Our Opinion: Seek public input, avoid consultants in spending stimulus money

It appears that government officials on Whidbey will have a lot of leeway when it comes to spending money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Under current estimates, Island County will receive $16.5 million, Oak Harbor will get $5.13 million, Coupeville will get $430,000 and Langley will receive $250,000.

Local officials should involve the public in decisions about investing the money by holding community meetings, approaching nonprofit organizations and business groups and turning to social media.

Creative ideas should be explored. On the other hand, contracts with consultants and funneling money to people or companies not on Whidbey should be avoided as much as possible.

The $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill is meant to speed the nation’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money for local government has to be spent within three years and can’t be used to lower taxes or supplant regular costs of government.

Beyond that, allowable expenses are pretty broad, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center. They include public health expenses related to the virus, hazard pay for essential workers and generalized “assistance” for households, small businesses and nonprofits financially affected by the pandemic.

The money can also be spent on things unrelated to the virus, such as “necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.”

The county and municipalities previously used money from the CARES Act to reimburse themselves for costs related to the pandemic and to give out grants to small businesses on the island.

Perhaps this time around the focus could be elsewhere, like helping those in the lower-wage workforce directly. So-called “hazard pay” could bump up the pay for people who work at restaurants, grocery stores, retail shops or other businesses.

The stimulus money wouldn’t just help many families, it would boost the economy and aid businesses that are having trouble finding and keeping employees.

Of course, officials should also consider the biggest and most annoying problems facing Whidbey, such as the scarcity of affordable housing, the lack of broadband internet, unreliable cell phone coverage, persistent power outages and the hospital district’s financial woes.

And maybe there will be a little money available for more whimsical ideas to boost pandemic morale, like encouraging the unique trend in Oak Harbor involving inflatable costumes or throwing a special island-wide party to celebrate once the pandemic is over.

Good ideas are out there.

Officials need to ask — and listen to the responses.