Port commissioners spending spree is what Congress wants

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When the three Port of Walla Walla commissioners met last week to decide how to spend the money allocated by the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, they were tossing around $2.5 million here and $1 million there like they were dimes and nickels.

Commissioners Mike Fredrickson, Ron Dunning and Kip Kelly agreed to allocate $2.5 million for sewer lining and pipe replacement at the airpoprt; $1.9 million for water system improvement and replacement; $1 million for concrete panel replacement for the general aviation apron at the south hangar; $450,000 for a front-end loader; and $300,000 for remodeling the upstairs offices at the airport terminal.

Many in the Valley might have been a bit surprised, if not shocked, that the usually conservative commissioners were spending with such wild abandon.

But it’s essential to keep in mind that the money allocated — $18 million total — through the CARES Act was expected by the members of Congress to be spent very quickly.

The idea behind the CARES Act funding for airports in Washington state and the nation was to provide financial relief for airports during the pandemic as travel has come to a near standstill and to give local economies a boost by funding big projects. The money was sent as two grants, about $9.5 million for operations and the rest for development.

The commissioners simply followed the demands of the grants.

And they seem to be doing it in a methodical way, looking at the longterm needs of the airport juxtaposed with what the projects could do for the overall economy.

While $18 million is a lot of money (we were admittedly stunned when the Walla Walla Regional Airport received that staggering figure), it is not enough to cover every project on the “wish list.” Decisions had to be made.

In Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund’s conversations with the Federal Aviation Administration, she said she was advised by regulators to move quickly on spending $9.5 million that was allocated for operating expenses because it could be approved faster and could pump money into the economy as the legislation was intended to do.

“The emphasis with this money is to get it out and spent as soon as possible to take care of the (airport) and the local businesses,” Skoglund told commissioners at the meeting held via a conference call.

Now to be clear, under normal circumstances this approach would — and should — raise eyebrows.

However, given that the more than $2 trillion allocated for CARES Act spending was supposed to offset the economic despair created by the closing down of business to slow the spread of the disease, the approach taken by the three commissioners is exactly what the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate demanded.