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Tenino scrip is seen in this photograph provided by the city.

George Washington’s really beginning to dig the tiny town of Tenino. 

His placid image, of course, adorns Tenino’s now-famous wooden scrip that has come to symbolize the city’s efforts to help its citizens weather COVID-19’s economic turmoil.

As of Wednesday, Sept. 2, the COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program had awarded 22 grants for a total of $6,300 in monthly funds. Eighteen residents received monthly grants of $300, three for $250 and one for $150.  

Most recipients chose to accept their grant in scrip — $5,000 worth — though nine opted to apply some of the grant money — $1,300 total — to offset their utility bills.

The Tenino City Council originally approved an ordinance on May 4 authorizing the printing of $10,000 worth of wooden scrip — which works like coupons — and in August received an additional $6,300 in donations that increased the available grant total to $16,300. After it’s latest awards to residents, the city currently has $10,000 left in wooden scrip — back where it originally started. The program awarded its first grant for $250 on May 28.

Of the $6,300 Tenino residents have received, only $100 of the scrip has been redeemed back to the city, so the actual cost to the city so far has been $1,400 — $100 in redeemed scrip plus $1,300 in utility bill payments.

Tenino Clerk-Treasurer John Millard believes the city’s COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program has been enormously successful.

“First, it has met the primary goal of providing direct relief to those who have been hardest hit by either the disease itself, or as a result of the government-mandated response,” he wrote in an email to the Nisqually Valley News. “Second, it has met the secondary goal of providing indirect support to Tenino’s business community.”   

And he added, “Third, it is proving to be sustainable and so may lay the foundation for a program that may continue on even after the pandemic has been declared to be at an end.”

The idea for the COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program materialized from discussions Tenino leaders undertook as the pandemic began to devastate Washington. 

The scrip, printed in $25 amounts, is backed by the city’s general fund and may be used to purchase just about anything other than products containing alcohol, tobacco or cannabis. It can also be used for some licensed services such as child care or a doctor’s appointment and as credit on a utility account.

While the scrip has no intrinsic cash value, businesses treat it the same as currency, but instead of depositing the scrip into the bank, it’s redeemed by the city, which then issues a check to each business participating in the program.

To be eligible to receive up to $300 maximum scrip per month, verified residents of Tenino — who can prove they have a Tenino utility account — must meet federal poverty income guidelines and prove that their livelihoods — either through direct illness or loss of income — have been harmed by COVID-19.

Millard said the $6,300 donation to the COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program specified “broadening the grant in order that we can qualify more people to receive the grant proceeds … and help more people who are ‘impacted’ by COVID-19.”

Millard noted that discussions are underway to determine how to honor those requests, though an advisory committee formed to study the issue has yet to determine how it might broaden eligibility requirements.

“We formed an advisory committee to study the concepts for expansion, but the committee hasn’t been able to come to a consensus regarding either how to broaden the number of eligible applicants with respect to residency, nor as to how to implement a system that would broaden the pool of eligible applicants when their income has not been reduced to the Federal Poverty Guidelines,” Millard wrote in an email on Thursday, Sept. 3.

One option being considered would alter the program’s residency requirements beyond strictly the city of Tenino: Those ideas include allowing residents to apply who live within the Tenino ZIP code — which would exclude Bucoda; or anyone living in the Tenino School District — which would include Bucoda but also people nearer to other jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, as the city ruminates, a recent handwritten note to the city encapsulates the enthusiasm Tenino’s COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program has generated.

“We so infrequently get these types of letters, that this one particularly stood out,” Millard said.

In the letter, the grant recipient says: “I wanted to say ‘thank you’ for approving the wooden money program and to let you know how much it has helped me. First, the assistance with the water bill has been the most beneficial. I was struggling to make my payments prior to COVID-19, but it became impossible after my income decreased …

“I was able to buy face masks and medicine at Hedden’s and toilet paper, soap & dog food at the grocery store and veggie starts and fertilizer at Ace.”

She continues by accounting how the grant has helped her in other less-critical ways, too — “such as taking my granddaughter to Aunt Kate’s Chocolates, and my daughter out to lunch ... I was trying to spend the wooden money at as many local businesses as possible.”

She ends the letter by saying, “I have lived in Tenino for 20 years and feel grateful to live in a community that helps its people. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

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