George Washington never took any wooden nickels.
Or so we think.
After all, the father of our country was no sucker — even though he perhaps over-confidently agreed to lead a ragtag Continental Army against the powerful, well-equipped British during the American Revolution.
But now America’s first president — who adorns our country’s $1 bills — will now be immortalized in wood.
That’s right: In an effort to offset its citizens’ travails as a result of COVID-19, the Tenino City Council approved an ordinance initially authorizing the printing of $10,000 worth of wooden scrip with potentially more funds allocated in the future. The scrip — akin to coupons — will be printed on thin pieces of rolled cedar at the Tenino Depot Museum that eligible Tenino residents may use to purchase necessities at local, participating businesses.
And the likeness of George Washington will grace the 3-by-5-inch scrips.
This isn’t the first time Tenino, population 1,884, has tendered a unique solution to a disastrous problem. The city’s chamber of commerce did the same thing at the height of the Great Depression, when in 1931 the Citizens Bank of Tenino failed, leaving depositors out in the cold. So in response, the town printed thousands of dollars in wooden scrip to keep the economy stable.
This go around, the goal of the new City of Tenino COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program is basically the same: Keep the economy afloat and the city’s neediest residents fed and clothed.
“There is a lot of instability right now, and the normal routine has been thrown off,” said Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier. “The local businesses are all saying they don't' know if they will be able to make it, and it’s the same for the citizens. We are trying to get in front of this as best we can.”
The scrip program will work like this: To be eligible to receive up to $300 maximum in 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.
The idea for the scrip program materialized from discussions Tenino leaders undertook as the pandemic began to devastate Washington.
“We have been talking about a COVID-19 relief program for businesses and individual households, and the idea of the scrip just dawned on me about two weeks ago,” Fournier said. “The program is extremely local, and every dollar we print will help guide people through this difficult time.”
The scrip, which will be printed in $25 amounts, is backed by the city’s general fund. Ironically, the city discovered that it had on hand enough rolled wood to make about $10,000 worth of individual notes in $25 increments.
It was meant to be, Fournier said.
“We came up with the $10,000 amount because our budget could handle it, and it seemed like a good benchmark based on the number of people in Tenino. And then when we discovered the amount of wood we had, it just seemed like the $10,000 amount was fortuitous.”
But not quite so fast ...
The program, though vetted by the city attorney and enthusiastically supported by the city council, is still being reviewed by the state Auditor’s Office to ensure its legality. John Millard, Tenino city clerk and treasurer, expects to hear from the Auditor soon, but could offer no exact timeline.
Because it’s still waiting for the Auditor’s approval, the city has yet to receive scrip applications from Tenino residents, nor has it yet registered any local businesses for the program.
The concept, though, is for local merchants and the city to back the modern scrip, which may be used to purchase just about anything other than products containing alcohol, tobacco or cannabis.
While the scrip has no intrinsic cash value, Millard explained in a May 4 press release, 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.
“It’s really more like coupons,” Millard said.
The program is designed to ensure residents use the scrip for necessities, not frivolity.
“For instance, we don’t want the scrip to be used for inappropriate personal services like hiring a member of the oldest profession,” Millard said facetiously. “We’ve designed the program so that it’s very difficult to use for anything it was not intended to be used for.”
The scrip, however, can be used to engage the services of licensed and certified local merchants such as barbers, cosmetologists, doctors and others.
But necessitated by state law, businesses may only offer a maximum of 99 cents in change per transaction made entirely using the wooden scrip.
“In other words, you can’t take one of these coupons and buy a pack of gum and get $23.95 in change to use outside the city, because that would be legal tender,” Millard said, explaining that the Washington state constitution prohibits the gifting of public funds.
Citizens who otherwise qualify for the program will receive scrip according to need based on the 2020 Federal Poverty Level.
A family of two, for instance, making $1,437 a month would be eligible for $300 in scrip. Another family earning $1,911 a month would receive $250 in scrip. Families making more than that would receive incrementally lower amounts of scrip according to monthly incomes.
“This program is designed to provide direct relief to those who have been most severely impacted by the COVID-19 emergency measures, and indirect relief to the Tenino business community by requiring the scrip to be spent at Tenino businesses,” Millard said in a May 4 press release about the program.
The wooden scrip, though intended for a decidedly solemn purpose — limiting the economic effects of COVID-19 — is also by its nature an art form unto itself.
According to Fournier, each coupon of scrip — which will be as thick as a typical sheet of construction paper — must be cut and stamped individually. And the fellow who will make all of this happen Fournier calls the area’s “Renaissance man,” Loren Ackerman.
Ackerman, president of the South Thurston Historical Society, will cut and stamp the notes on a late 1870s-era printing press that was used to print the original Great Depression scrip.
“Ackerman loves being our printer, and he is the only guy who’s able to touch that thing,” Fournier said. “It’s a labor-intensive process, and Loren works very hard to create these.”
Fournier expects Ackerman to work straight through for two or three days to print the approximately 400 $25 scrip coupons.
“Loren is a very dedicated citizen, and he will put in a lot of work to help a lot of people,” Fournier said.
At this point, the mayor has little clue how much demand the scrip will foster, though he and the Tenino City Council are constantly evaluating potentially changing circumstances.
“There is no way to know how many scrip applications we will receive,” Fournier said. “If it turns out that we are swamped with people who qualify, then the next month I’ll go to the city council and discuss the potential need for more funds. It all depends on how successful the roll out is.”
Meanwhile, the city waits to hear from the state Auditor’s Office. Once they obtain that approval, city leaders expect to immediately implement the scrip program.
And we suspect that would have made George Washington very happy.