The delay comes at an awkward time for some organizations, many of whom are still trying to expand the program as the pandemic subsides. However, visitor numbers remain well below pre-pandemic times. The continued decline in ticket sales is a particular challenge for small nonprofits and independent arts groups, which are often cash-strapped.
“We are still under the effects of COVID,” said the anonymous arts guide. “They’re called the Recovery Fund for a reason.”
4 culture officials said in August that the agency was not entirely responsible for the delay, citing grantees and King County to file and review the paperwork, respectively. “If a grantee falls behind our established timeline for submitting these documents,” the spokesperson wrote, “the process will be held up until the document is submitted.”
In an interview, 4Culture associate director Joshua Heim said that 4Culture’s role as a transit agency for federal funds coming through King County makes things particularly challenging. This is partly because 4Culture doesn’t have enough money in the bank to make millions of dollars in payments to organizations, which means it has to request the money from King County. (4Culture’s contract with King County includes $1.4 million of the $9.4 ARPA pot to administer the arts grant program.)
“It’s unfortunate that this is the system,” Heim said. “But… the day doesn’t end when the grantee gets his check. At the end of the day, King County and 4Culture go through a single federal audit.”
Sending federal dollars also means there are more documents to request and more boxes to check, Heim said, adding that many of the grantees are unfamiliar with the process. (Some grantee organizations told Crosscut the process was confusing and they were asked for the same documents multiple times.) “We can only work as fast as we can get this information from our grantees,” Heim said.
4Culture officials said that each organization had to send in all of their documents and each individual grantee had to cash their (paper) checks in order to proceed to the next set of awards, which meant that some people who didn’t cash checks or didn’t turn in the required documentation Funding from dozens of other arts organizations has been held up.
When asked why the awards came in batches of about 100, a spokesperson for 4Culture originally pointed to its contract with King County as the reason it couldn’t process federal funds on an ongoing basis.
But that wasn’t in the contract. Rather, it stemmed from an administrative decision with King County’s Department of Finance and Business Operations (FBOD) intended to expedite the process of collecting and reviewing the documentation required at the federal level. The decision, a King County spokesman said, was based on 4Culture’s internal capacity to conduct this work and was designed to mitigate the risk for King County of having to double-check all of 4Culture’s information.
A few days after Crosscut inquired about the batching system, 4Culture filed a request for “an upfront payment” from King County, according to a King County spokesman. After that, it took two weeks for the county business department to review and approve the funding.
“Once we understand the problem with these paper checks,” Heim said, “we’ll communicate with you.” [King County] …like, “Hey, can we work on this?” Because obviously it’s not working, and neither of us expected it.”
Find tools and resources in Crosscut’s Follow the Funds guide to track government recovery spending in your community.
One thing administrators at 4Culture hope to do differently when they send out another round of Recovery Fund grants to individuals in 2023: no more paper checks. The idea was that these would be easier to use than direct deposits, but they instead helped create congestion. “Well, here we are. And who knew?” said Heim.
Christina DePaolo, spokeswoman for 4Culture, added that the agency also hopes to change the documentation process for individuals. The requirement to report financial losses on tax forms — “a great pain for them and for us,” DePaolo said — may change.
“We’re currently working with King County to make the program simpler and easier,” DePaolo said. “We learned our lesson from the first round and apply it to the next.”
DePaolo added that if 4Culture were to receive federal funding again, the agency would work with King County to identify better options, such as a continuous payment process.
“I mean, this is the first time we’ve been a conduit for federal funds,” Heim said. “4Culture learns – we always learn.”
Despite the delays, DAIPANButoh’s Thorsen remained hopeful that the money to support this year’s November festival would come through.
“I have faith that it will pull through,” she said. “I have faith in 4Culture.”