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Independence mayor presses county on COVID funds

Jeff Fox

Independence Mayor Eileen Weir has taken the city’s frustrations over federal pandemic relief money directly and publicly to county officials.

She said the county has had no clear process for allocating the money, that the city has put a great deal of research and documentation into its two requests for a total of $33 million, and that more than seven weeks into the process the city still has no answers.

“Fifty-three days after Jackson County was entrusted with $122.7 million, a clear, transparent, equitable process to request and obtain funding has not been developed,” she told county legislators, County Executive Frank White Jr. and his senior staff Monday. “Instead, a new process, new sets of rules have been introduced nearly every week absent any consultation or input from the mayors, managers and administrators of Jackson County’s cities, towns and villages.”

“This is no way to do business,” she added. She said by her count, as of late Monday, the county has articulated eight different plans in seven weeks.

“This is simply unacceptable,” she told county officials. “Until a singular plan is developed and publicly distributed, you are failing to meet the responsibilities entrusted to you by the citizens of Jackson County and by the governor of the state of Missouri.”

The city has two proposals before the county. One is for $10 million for regional transit. The other, $23.19 million, is for some of the things other cities have sought – PPE, police overtime to cover all shifts while some officers are quarantined – but also includes $9 million for utility payment assistance.

“No other city in the county owns three utilities with bills that aren’t getting paid,” she said.

She said many people are unable to pay their bills and that’s going to put a financial strain on the city’s electric, water and sewer services.

She also said she knows the community’s need will greatly exceed the federal money.

“There’s not going to be enough money to make us whole,” she told The Examiner.

County legislators expressed sympathy for Weir’s position but also pointed to a county legal opinion that says the county executive decides how CARES Act money is spent. Still, White has gone to the Legislature for approval of each city’s appropriation as it has come along. As he described it again Monday, he proposes what’s to be allocated and the Legislature votes on that.

But Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin told Weir. “We’re just here for oversight. We have no control over that.”

The request for Independence was not on Monday’s agenda, though Weir said it had been her understanding that it would be.

Some local governments have gotten money, including $10,000 to Grain Valley, $100,000 to Blue Springs, and $94,934 to the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District. They could get more. Those amounts are reimbursements for COVID-19 costs already incurred. Now the county is moving away from reimbursements to an allocation based on population.

The money is from the CARES Act that Congress passed in the spring. It’s the bill that sent one-stimulus payments to virtually every American and that temporarily increased unemployment benefits. It also included aid to state and local governments for one-time, COVID-related costs, such as personal protective equipment and emergency responder overtime.

Dividing the money

White and legislators have disagreed over how to evaluate requests from cities, hospitals and others. White named an advisory group led by former Kansas City Mayor Sly James to assess requests, but legislators raised concerns about how representative of the county it was.

They also balked at its plans to hire two consultants at $10,000 a month, with no apparent source of funding to pay them.

“Once again, we get something that got set up to benefit people, and suddenly it spirals and spirals and spirals,” Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City and chair of the Legislature’s Budget Committee, said at a recent meeting.

Galvin added, “It angers me.”

Both said they would not support funding for the consultants.

Legislators two weeks ago voted to disallow the advisory group.

On Monday, White acknowledged Weir’s frustration but said the disagreement over the advisory group slowed the allocation process.

“But when the advisory group was voted down,” he told legislators, “then these qualified people didn’t want to become part of a political process so they turned in their resignations from the advisory group. So that really slowed our process down.”

He added, “I know it’s frustrating to a lot of folks, and a lot of folks want to see things done faster, but you need people. You need a staff to do these things.”

White has now endorsed an idea that Galvin and Williams supported from the start – giving half of the $122.7 million to cities and allocating that by population. That would mean:

• Independence – $10.18 million.

• Blue Springs – $4.87 million.

• Grain Valley – $1.27 million.

• Lee’s Summit – $8.48 million.

• Kansas City – $27.64 million.

Weir said she does not agree with that approach, but mostly she wants an equitable decision from the county. She also did not agree with White’s assertion that all of the Eastern Jackson County mayors except her are on board with the proportional division of the money.

‘Inconsistent and subjective’

She said cities track their spending of federal money every day, in line with Washington’s requirements.

“We know how to do this. We do it all the time,” she said late Monday.

She said the city put a good deal of time and effort into its proposals. She summed that up in this extended statement to the Legislature on Monday:

“The city of Independence has expended hours and hours of time and effort over the past months becoming educated on the CARES Act and developing two proposals which have been delivered to the executive and the Legislature. We have done our best to follow the direction of the county government, but the direction changes week to week, sometimes day to day, without notice.”

“It is impossible for business to be conducted effectively under these circumstances. The review process is inconsistent and subjective. While Kansas City, Truman Medical Centers and the Jackson County Health Department have been given opportunities to present before this body and at least in some cases meet with the advisory group, other cities and organizations, including Independence, have not.”

“The county executive and members of the Legislature have solicited my support for their position. I am not going to pick sides, and I am incredulous that I and other mayors are being asked to do so. Furthermore, I have been asked to support a request for additional CARES Act money from the state of Missouri when the current allotment has not been spent.”

“Developing and implementing a clear, transparent and equitable plan for the distribution of $122.7 million is long overdue.”