CARES money falling short of city's needs

Independence will need to try to make up for shortfall from pandemic in other area

By Mike Genet

In some areas, the city of Independence has already spent more to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic than its allotment of federal CARES Act funds from Jackson County will cover.

The county ultimately approved Independence for $6.9 million when it disbursed a portion of its funds to individual cities based on population. City staff had proposed a plan of more than $21.5 million in what it considered to be worthy expenses. Funds must go toward unanticipated expenses incurred because of the pandemic, and they must be spent or under contract by the end of the year.

Independence’s full spending plan for CARES funds includes the $2.25 million for ratepayer assistance through an agreement with Community Services League; about $2.14 million for public health such as medical and protective supplies, disinfection and quarantining individuals; $1.49 million for paid sick, family and medical leave and social distancing precautions; $926,000 for public testing; and nearly $91,000 for public safety payroll expenses. 

With the paid leave, social distancing precautions and supplies for public health, the city has already spent or absorbed nearly $3 million in expenses beyond what they could allocate from CARES funds.

The $6.9 million was “certainly most welcome” but a fraction of what the city hoped for, City Manager Zach Walker told the City Council during an update Monday. The city is working with federal lawmakers to try to “implore more funding,” he said, later adding that he doubts any additional COVID-19 aid, if it happens at all, wouldn’t arrive until after the election.

“We are tracking expenses in cases they are eligible for the more traditional funding sources, like public assistance through FEMA,” Walker said Tuesday.

City costs beyond their CARES allocations will be covered from the various funds where they originated, Walker said – not just one particular fund. 

The city planned to use $1.226 million in CARES funds to help cover paid sick/family medical leave, which includes allowing some employees to work remotely to mitigate exposure, though it already has spent more than $1.8 million there. 

With social distancing precautions, the largest expense from more than $530,000 spent (twice what’s covered by CARES funds) has been absorbing the waived credit card fees for utility payments, Walker explained, as the city encouraged people to use online more rather than visit the Utilities Center for payments.

With public health expenses, the overflow doesn’t come from disinfection supplies or protective equipment, but rather from $3.46 million under contract for technical assistance with cybersecurity and telecommuting, as more employees have worked from home. The city has $1.3 million covered there by CARES funds.

With public testing, the city plans to contract with a firm for testing kits for an estimated 1,000 tests per week for two months – at $125 per testing kit.

“That is the target amount we need to be doing on a monthly basis,” Walker said.

For the utility assistance, Walker said CSL received 385 applications from Sept. 3-8. From the end of July to the end of August, the total in delinquent utility bills (30 days past due) dipped from $2.49 million to $1.9 million, as more customers started making repayments when the city resumed shutoffs but also offered six-month repayment plans.

The $1.9 million total comes from 6,860 customers, about 11 percent of the city’s total utility customers and about $686 per account. 

The city plans to have a digital dashboard, with information on federal aid spending, available to the public on its website by October, Walker said.

“We believe those dollars will be quickly and efficiently spent,” he said.