Juneau Assembly reverses itself on eligibility for both housing and individual grants

CBJ Pandemic relief checks
The City and Borough of Juneau cut checks like these to locals financially impacted by the pandemic this fall. (Photo illustration by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Update | 9:46 p.m.

Before their deadlines passed, applications surged for two of Juneau’s pandemic relief programs designed to put thousands of dollars into locals’ hands. The demand outpaced what city officials budgeted for the programs, so the Juneau Assembly scheduled a special meeting Tuesday to consider some changes.

The money involved in these programs all comes from the city’s portion of the federal CARES Act. The federal money originally had to be spent by the end of the year.

But late Monday night, Congress passed a bill that would, among many, many other things, extend that deadline a year. And what President Donald Trump does with that bill — or doesn’t — really clouds what the Juneau Assembly needs to get done or not by the end of the year.

Shortly before the Assembly met on Tuesday, President Donald Trump told the world what he thought about the bill.

“It really is a disgrace. For example, among the more than 5,000 pages in this  bill, which nobody in Congress has read because of its length and complexity, is called the COVID relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with COVID.”

Trump didn’t say he would veto it, though Congress passed it with enough votes to override one if he did.

“I will tell you, predicting nine of you may be easier than predicting the president,” City Attorney Rob Palmer said to the Assembly. “The issue is whether or not the president signs that federal legislation quickly or not. … If the president signs it, yes, we — you have all the time in the world. If the president doesn’t, then we may be looking at special meetings next week.”

The Assembly didn’t make a decision on four emergency measures intended to sweep up over $1 million in unspent CARES Act money from programs the Assembly overbugdeted for. Money that was for things like testing wastewater for COVID-19, subsidies for the school district’s childcare program known as RALLY, and the first phase of a local business grant program.

It also punted on a pair of emergency measures to free up $700,000 more by shifting the cost of Bartlett Regional Hospital’s new COVID-19 testing equipment to a hospital-specific pool of CARES Act funding.

They also put off decisions to put that money into two assistance programs, one for housing and utility grants, and one for individual assistance.

Now the Assembly plans to take this all up in committee on Jan. 6.

But they did take two actions on these programs.

At the beginning of October, the Juneau Assembly committed $3 million to a housing and utility assistance program for locals financially impacted by the pandemic. Households with an income of less than $94,240 could get up to $2,000 in assistance.

By mid-November, the number of applications dropped off. So the Assembly bumped up the maximum award from $2,000 to $3,000.

Then a second wave of advertising went out. Catholic Community Service Executive Director Erin Walker-Tolles, who is administering the program, said they got flooded.

“It was as if the program had started over from scratch. We got a huge influx of hundreds of applications. Ultimately, it doubled the number of applications we had,”  she said.

They’ve got almost 3,000 applications but only enough money to pay for about a thousand.

City staff proposed cutting the maximum award back down to $2,000, so smaller payments could reach more people. The Assembly narrowly shot that down on Tuesday.

The Assembly’s second action was on the individual assistance grants. Adults who earn up to $58,900 financially impacted by the pandemic were eligible for up to $2,000 based on income, plus $300 per dependent child.

This program also has hundreds more applicants than there’s money to pay for. Last week, the Assembly narrowly voted to make housing grant recipients ineligible for the individual assistance. The rationale was to reach more people overall, albeit with smaller payments.

On Tuesday, the Assembly reversed itself. Assembly member Wade Bryson was one of the members to change his vote. Originally, he didn’t think people should get both.

“Over the last week I have seen more stress and heartache in the most vulnerable population,” Bryson said. “When I think of the people that are just — they’re lucky to pay rent and now they gotta figure out how to feed — heaven forbid they have to provide a Christmas for any children — my position has changed, and I want to be able to help those Juneauites immediately.”

Walker-Tolles said her nonprofit is still aiming to finish processing the individual assistance applications by the end of the year.

Original story | 3:58 p.m.

Before their deadlines passed, applications surged for two of Juneau’s pandemic relief programs that will put thousands of dollars into locals’ hands. The demand has outpaced what city officials budgeted for the programs, so the Juneau Assembly is holding a special meeting Tuesday evening  to consider some changes. That includes making smaller payments so they can get money to more people. 

The money involved in these programs all comes from the city’s portion of the federal CARES Act, which has to be spent by the end of the year. 

First, the Assembly will consider four emergency measures that would sweep up about $1.1 million in unspent CARES Act money from programs the Assembly overbugdeted for, like  testing wastewater for COVID-19, subsidies for the school district’s childcare program known as RALLY, and the first phase of a local business grant program

Another pair of emergency measures would free up $700,000 more by shifting the cost of Bartlett Regional Hospital’s new COVID-19 testing equipment to a hospital-specific pool of CARES Act funding.

Then, the Assembly will take up the changes to its housing and individual assistance grant programs. 

At the beginning of October, the Juneau Assembly committed $3 million to a housing and utility assistance program for locals financially impacted by the pandemic. Households with an income of less than $94,240 could get up to $2,000 in assistance.

By mid-November, the number of applications dropped off and the program appeared to be vastly undersubscribed. So, the Assembly bumped up the maximum award from $2,000 to $3,000. 

Then a second wave of advertising went out. Catholic Community Service Executive Director Erin Walker-Tolles, who is helping administer the program, says they got flooded. 

“It was as if the program had started over from scratch,” she said. “We got a huge influx of hundreds of applications. Ultimately, it doubled the number of applications we had.” 

Now, the program has received almost 3,000 applications but only has enough money to pay for about 1,000. 

One measure being considered would cut the maximum award back down to $2,000. It’s unclear if checks with the extra $1,000 that have already been paid out would have to be returned.  

A second measure would put $1.2 million of what was swept up from other CARES Act programs into these housing and utility grants, which would pay out grants to hundreds more households.

The individual assistance grants program also has hundreds more applicants than there’s money to pay for. Last week, the Assembly voted to make housing grant recipients ineligible for the individual assistance. That hasn’t been finalized yet, but it would cut about half of these applicants. 

The Assembly will also consider putting an extra $400,000 of what was swept up into this program to cover more applicants. 

Catholic Community Service is also administering this program. Walker-Tolles is worried about reconciling some of these late changes by the end of the year. 

“And that’s the drop-dead date for the CARES Act money. And so my biggest concern, is ‘How do we do that?'” she said.

All of these measures are up for public hearing at the Juneau Assembly’s special meeting at 5 p.m. You can watch it here or on the city’s Facebook page. There are instructions to participate in the public hearings on the meeting agenda at juneau.org. Comments can also be emailed in advance to BoroughAssembly@juneau.org.

Note: Jeremy Hsieh has received a housing assistance grant from the city and has applied for individual assistance.