By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Bonner County commissioners voted Dec. 28 to refuse grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, expressing concerns about the source of the money as well as the requirement that entities that accept the grant enact mask policies at their airports.
In all, the county refused $22,000 for the Priest River Airport and $32,000 for the Sandpoint Airport, offered through the FAA Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act Grant.
“This was an elective thing,” said Commissioner Dan McDonald, “not an airport improvement thing to keep the airport certified.”
Commissioners have for months felt pressure from attendees at their weekly business meetings to limit the use of federal grants — something that the board has repeatedly shared would be almost impossible in a rural county like Bonner. However, in the case of the FAA Coronavirus Response and Relief money, commissioners decided that the airports could go without the funds in order to avoid the mask policy requirement.
Commissioners also tied their refusal to the fact that the FAA money in question comes from American Rescue Plan Act funds. While the county has been allotted its own tranche of ARPA funds — about $9 million — there have been questions in recent months about whether that money comes with “strings attached,” in the words of Sheriff Daryl Wheeler. According to commissioners, the prosecutor’s office is looking into whether accepting and spending ARPA funds could tie Bonner County to federal executive orders — particularly any regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
“This was ARPA funds, and we elected [to say] ‘no,’” McDonald said. “Two or three months ago, we had a deadline coming up and we had to apply, and if it turned out to be ARPA funds, we were going to deny it. We’re formally just saying that we’re not going to take it.”
The FAA Coronavirus Response and Relief grant requires that those who accept the funds enact a face covering policy at each airport “to combat the spread of pathogens.”
“There were two triggers,” McDonald said. “The first one was ARPA funds … and two, the requirement of masks at the airport — it’s like, c’mon.
“We’ve never required masks here,” he added, referring to county property. “We won’t ever require masks here.”
Commissioner Steve Bradshaw moved that the county not accept the funding, and Commissioner Jeff Connolly seconded the motion. Commissioners voted unanimously to refuse the FAA Coronavirus Response and Relief grant funds.
“We just thought it was something we didn’t even want to wade into,” McDonald said.
Airport Director Dave Schuck, who was not present at the meeting to present the grant item, did not reply to a request for comment before press time.
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