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Local county efforts add up in an economic comeback

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  • County News Article

    Local county efforts add up in an economic comeback

    Kittitas County can feel like a child of divorce.

    At times, Washington state’s regional system lumps it with counties to the east. Other times, it’s lumped in with counties to the west. It rarely has control of its destiny for the most part as it seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic contraction, so county leaders have instead focused on what they can control.

    In addition to the business and social service assistance various county departments administer, the elected officials take their roles to heart in supplying leadership that Commissioner Brett Wachsmith said has been lacking on the state and federal levels.

    “We try to give people hope, and that’s important because nobody has been through something of this magnitude before,” he said. “We’re doing that by being consistent in our efforts, being reliable and supporting businesses that have been modified or closed.”

    Learn More

    Measuring economic recovery

    Economic recovery resources for counties

    But just as important, Wachsmith said, is being accessible.

    “A lot of times, people are just angry at the situation, and if you’re there to be able to speak truth to them, or even just listen to their concerns, that goes a long way,” he said.

    A year ago, February 2020, the country saw the lowest unemployment rates since 1969 at 3.5 percent, the economy was maintaining a 128-month period of expansion and the Congressional Budget Office projected gross domestic product — a measure of production and output within an economy — to experience 4.2 percentage point growth throughout 2020. By the end of March, the novel coronavirus had swept across the United States, with over 1,000 deaths and more than 50 percent of counties reporting at least one case.

    Research from the Opportunity Insights group out of Harvard University suggests the number of small businesses which are open for business as of Jan. 4, 2021 to be down 29.7 percent compared to January 2020; the Yelp: Local Economic Impact Report published in September estimated nearly 98,000 businesses had permanently closed since April. Other indicators echo the implied sentiment of these figures: there will be a long road to economic recovery.

    December county-level unemployment figures remind economists of the local impacts: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 64 percent of counties experienced unemployment levels above a healthy level, as defined by the Federal Reserve to be a maximum of 4.5 percent.

    These impacts are not unrelated. A county heavily reliant on restaurants and retail relies on counties heavily reliant on manufacturing and agriculture to produce goods and vice versa. These counties rely on others who have strong transportation businesses to support their supply chains and ensure their products can be sold in a timely manner. Each county economy, working independently, fits together like pieces in a puzzle to form the national economic picture. As such, national economic impacts, when brought down to the ground, become friends and neighbors within counties across the nation losing jobs, suffering hardships, facing the fear of losing their homes or their livelihoods. National economic trends are the amalgamation of county economic situations; national impacts are real in county communities, impacting real people, real families and producing real long-term consequences for economic health.

    With no crystal ball to anticipate the future, individual county economies expanded and contracted along the contours of the virus’ progression, with some workers staying home, but others unable to keep themselves out of harm’s way. For more than 400,000 Americans, that has proven fatal, and many others are contending with at least short-term health complications from COVID-19.

    “We were ready for a wildfire,” Wachsmith said. “We weren’t ready for this. Nothing really existed for a game plan, so we were really starting from square one.”

    That meant coordinating with local mayors, chambers of commerce, downtown associations, schools, Central Washington University and more. The county formed two committees — one for businesses, another for social service providers — and those stakeholders addressed how Kittitas County would recover. They eventually merged, and fielded questions from the public.

    “These committees gave us a chance to meet and give us a pulse on what’s going on,” Wachsmith said. “There’s a ton of misinformation out there so it’s good to hear directly from the people making decisions and hearing what’s going on, the resources that are out there, where to access them.”

    Wachsmith noted that the flow of questions, and the audience, eventually waned. “More people were working, and that was a good sign,” he said. “That coincided with when we moved from phase one to phase two, then phase two to phase three.”

    The halting pace of recovery in different regions can make Kittitas County business owners feel like their car is stalling out while climbing a hill.

    “We’d love to control our own destiny and our own fate,” Wachsmith said. “It builds a lot of uncertainty for business owners — uncertainty has been a huge hinderance. We want to be data-driven, but we don’t see data driving these decisions.”

    Aside from its relatively successful defense from COVID-19 in the community thus far, Kittitas County has managed a few bright spots. After compiling 20 years’ worth of data, the county has seen remarkably level property tax collection, particularly in comparison to 2008-2009, and the local collection of online sales taxes brought the 2020 figures in at $6 million, 50 percent above what was budgeted.

    “It’s hard to cherry pick a few numbers and have that outshine what we’re seeing all the time from businesses that can’t operate in this environment and people who lose their jobs,” Wachsmith said. “Kids are suffering, parents are, and everyone is, in between.”

    So, the local focus continues, delivering business aid and managing what has been a remarkably efficient vaccine delivery system.

    “We’ve had people who have broken down in tears after they get their first shot, saying this feels like the first step in living normally again,” Wachsmith. “That’s a place we can start.”

    Economic recovery resources for counties

    Small Business Administration
    Paycheck Protection Program — Provides small businesses with resources to maintain payroll

    Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program — Provides financial assistance to small businesses and non-profits impacted by COVID-19

    Federal Reserve
    Municipal Liquidity Facility — The Federal Reserve established the Municipal Liquidity Facility to help state and local governments better manage cash flow pressures in order to continue to serve households and businesses in their communities 

    Department of the Treasury
    Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program — Provides funds to assist households unable to make rent and utility payments because of the pandemic 

    Economic Development Administration
    Economic Development Directory — State-by-state directory with links to economic recovery resources 

    Federal Emergency Management Agency 
    Public Assistance Program — Funding for emergency protective measures taken in response to COVID-19

    Department of Agriculture 
    Coronavirus Food Assistance Program — Provides relief to agricultural producers impacted by the pandemic 

    International Trade Administration
    Offers export assistance to local businesses, help setting up web sites and finding regional representatives 

    NACo Associate Economist Kevin Shrawder contributed to this article.

    December numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed 64 percent of counties were experiencing unemployment levels above a healthy level.
    2021-02-08
    County News Article
    2021-02-18
December numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed 64 percent of counties were experiencing unemployment levels above a healthy level.

Kittitas County can feel like a child of divorce.

At times, Washington state’s regional system lumps it with counties to the east. Other times, it’s lumped in with counties to the west. It rarely has control of its destiny for the most part as it seeks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic contraction, so county leaders have instead focused on what they can control.

In addition to the business and social service assistance various county departments administer, the elected officials take their roles to heart in supplying leadership that Commissioner Brett Wachsmith said has been lacking on the state and federal levels.

“We try to give people hope, and that’s important because nobody has been through something of this magnitude before,” he said. “We’re doing that by being consistent in our efforts, being reliable and supporting businesses that have been modified or closed.”

Learn More

Measuring economic recovery

Economic recovery resources for counties

But just as important, Wachsmith said, is being accessible.

“A lot of times, people are just angry at the situation, and if you’re there to be able to speak truth to them, or even just listen to their concerns, that goes a long way,” he said.

A year ago, February 2020, the country saw the lowest unemployment rates since 1969 at 3.5 percent, the economy was maintaining a 128-month period of expansion and the Congressional Budget Office projected gross domestic product — a measure of production and output within an economy — to experience 4.2 percentage point growth throughout 2020. By the end of March, the novel coronavirus had swept across the United States, with over 1,000 deaths and more than 50 percent of counties reporting at least one case.

Research from the Opportunity Insights group out of Harvard University suggests the number of small businesses which are open for business as of Jan. 4, 2021 to be down 29.7 percent compared to January 2020; the Yelp: Local Economic Impact Report published in September estimated nearly 98,000 businesses had permanently closed since April. Other indicators echo the implied sentiment of these figures: there will be a long road to economic recovery.

December county-level unemployment figures remind economists of the local impacts: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 64 percent of counties experienced unemployment levels above a healthy level, as defined by the Federal Reserve to be a maximum of 4.5 percent.

These impacts are not unrelated. A county heavily reliant on restaurants and retail relies on counties heavily reliant on manufacturing and agriculture to produce goods and vice versa. These counties rely on others who have strong transportation businesses to support their supply chains and ensure their products can be sold in a timely manner. Each county economy, working independently, fits together like pieces in a puzzle to form the national economic picture. As such, national economic impacts, when brought down to the ground, become friends and neighbors within counties across the nation losing jobs, suffering hardships, facing the fear of losing their homes or their livelihoods. National economic trends are the amalgamation of county economic situations; national impacts are real in county communities, impacting real people, real families and producing real long-term consequences for economic health.

With no crystal ball to anticipate the future, individual county economies expanded and contracted along the contours of the virus’ progression, with some workers staying home, but others unable to keep themselves out of harm’s way. For more than 400,000 Americans, that has proven fatal, and many others are contending with at least short-term health complications from COVID-19.

“We were ready for a wildfire,” Wachsmith said. “We weren’t ready for this. Nothing really existed for a game plan, so we were really starting from square one.”

That meant coordinating with local mayors, chambers of commerce, downtown associations, schools, Central Washington University and more. The county formed two committees — one for businesses, another for social service providers — and those stakeholders addressed how Kittitas County would recover. They eventually merged, and fielded questions from the public.

“These committees gave us a chance to meet and give us a pulse on what’s going on,” Wachsmith said. “There’s a ton of misinformation out there so it’s good to hear directly from the people making decisions and hearing what’s going on, the resources that are out there, where to access them.”

Wachsmith noted that the flow of questions, and the audience, eventually waned. “More people were working, and that was a good sign,” he said. “That coincided with when we moved from phase one to phase two, then phase two to phase three.”

The halting pace of recovery in different regions can make Kittitas County business owners feel like their car is stalling out while climbing a hill.

“We’d love to control our own destiny and our own fate,” Wachsmith said. “It builds a lot of uncertainty for business owners — uncertainty has been a huge hinderance. We want to be data-driven, but we don’t see data driving these decisions.”

Aside from its relatively successful defense from COVID-19 in the community thus far, Kittitas County has managed a few bright spots. After compiling 20 years’ worth of data, the county has seen remarkably level property tax collection, particularly in comparison to 2008-2009, and the local collection of online sales taxes brought the 2020 figures in at $6 million, 50 percent above what was budgeted.

“It’s hard to cherry pick a few numbers and have that outshine what we’re seeing all the time from businesses that can’t operate in this environment and people who lose their jobs,” Wachsmith said. “Kids are suffering, parents are, and everyone is, in between.”

So, the local focus continues, delivering business aid and managing what has been a remarkably efficient vaccine delivery system.

“We’ve had people who have broken down in tears after they get their first shot, saying this feels like the first step in living normally again,” Wachsmith. “That’s a place we can start.”


Economic recovery resources for counties

Small Business Administration
Paycheck Protection Program — Provides small businesses with resources to maintain payroll

Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program — Provides financial assistance to small businesses and non-profits impacted by COVID-19

Federal Reserve
Municipal Liquidity Facility — The Federal Reserve established the Municipal Liquidity Facility to help state and local governments better manage cash flow pressures in order to continue to serve households and businesses in their communities 

Department of the Treasury
Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program — Provides funds to assist households unable to make rent and utility payments because of the pandemic 

Economic Development Administration
Economic Development Directory — State-by-state directory with links to economic recovery resources 

Federal Emergency Management Agency 
Public Assistance Program — Funding for emergency protective measures taken in response to COVID-19

Department of Agriculture 
Coronavirus Food Assistance Program — Provides relief to agricultural producers impacted by the pandemic 

International Trade Administration
Offers export assistance to local businesses, help setting up web sites and finding regional representatives 


NACo Associate Economist Kevin Shrawder contributed to this article.

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