Cities getting aid on COVID costs

Mike Genet

Instead of allocating half of the county’s federal CARES Act funds to cities, the Jackson County Legislature has voted to distribute about one-third of its $122.7 million, maintaining some funds for future requests.

Some cities in Eastern Jackson County are getting less than they had hoped for.

Monday’s unanimous vote set aside $36.9 million for nine cities based on population, including $6.95 million for Independence, $3.22 million for Blue Springs, $855,000 for Grain Valley, $5.92 million for Lee’s Summit and $16.08 million to Kansas City to help cover unanticipated expenses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Combined with some money already distributed to some cities, the total is $40 million, County Administrator Troy Schulte said. Cities can either seek reimbursements as costs are incurred or ask for all of the money upfront, though the latter requires a city to submit a specific plan and budget that would be subject to audit.

“Some have wanted distribution and some have wanted reimbursement,” Schulte said, “so this allows for some flexibility.”

“We’ve given them that option.”

The CARES Act is the law Congress passed in the spring to help state and local governments cover unexpected costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The money has to be spent by the end of the year.

Under County Executive Frank White Jr.’s proposal a few weeks ago, half of the county’s CARES funds would have gone to cities based on population. That plan would have included more than $10.1 million for Independence, $4.8 million for Blue Springs, $1.2 million for Grain Valley and $27.6 million for Kansas City.

Independence had put together requests of up to $23 million, including $9 million for utility assistance. While Mayor Eileen Weir might not have been surprised at the smaller allocation, at least at first, she said she believed the city had a reasonable proposal.

“Some people had asked for money, some had not, some had submitted expenses but expected more to be coming,” Weir said. “Nobody can know what their total will be.”

“There’s been this discussion of ‘We probably shouldn’t disburse it all in case further needs arise.’”

Weir said the county’s approach with cities was: Let us know how much to lay aside for you, not just write a check. When the city submitted its request, she said, it projected certain expenses based on the pandemic playing out. Also, the city has maintained that owning three utilities – with many ratepayers losing paychecks and therefore unable to pay their bills – should have led to a larger share of CARES money.

“Always, when you put forward your proposal, you put in for everything you thought was reasonable,” Weir said. “We went through the CARES Act category by category; we just treated it like filling out a tax return.”

“We’re obviously back to the drawing board, and what are we going to be able to get some assistance with.”

In Blue Springs, some elected officials were not happy with the lower allocation, citing what they saw as changing guidelines while cities submitted initial proposals.

Council Members Jerry Kaylor and Galen Ericson said during Monday’s council meeting that the county had not been transparent enough.

“I want to know where that other $1.6 million goes,” Ericson said, referring to the difference between White’s proposal and the approved allocation.

“It’s a little disappointing to me,” Mayor Carson Ross said, “but that’s OK.”

Part of the County Legislature’s discussion Monday centered around how various overlapping jurisdictions would request CARES funds. For example, would the Blue Springs School District, which also stretches into the city limits of Lee’s Summit and especially Independence, be able to request from the county directly or have to go through the cities. Fire districts add another layer of consideration, as well as the possibility of further requests down the road.

“It’s always my concern that there’s enough flexibility to address all the needs,” said Legislator Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs.

Schulte said that’s been part of the process of deciding how to spend the $122 million.

“We have reserved 10 million for a second wave,” he said, in case the unanticipated costs come in the fall.