Jackson County pauses regional COVID plan

Jeff Fox

Jackson County legislators have put plans for a regional effort to support the pandemic fight on hold. They expressed support for the idea but want other local governments to commit to stepping up as well.

“I would like to see … our money being committed based upon the regional approach and also regional commitments from the other governments,” Legislator Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, said Monday. “Because we’re all in this, and we all have sick citizens, and this thing is spreading.”

Marlene Nagel, community development director of the Mid-America Regional Council, told legislators two counties in the Kansas side of the metro area – Johnson County and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. – have been asked to contribute but have not yet committed.

She noted that private foundations also have lined up to financially support the idea – but want local governments to collaborate.

“And they, like you, are very concerned about the most vulnerable populations in our region – in Jackson County – and want us to focus their resources to that end as well,” Nagel said.

Jackson County would contribute $1 million from the $122.7 million it got under the CARES Act, which Congress passed in the spring to help state and local governments deal with the pandemic. Johnson County is being asked for $1 million as well. Private sources such as Health Forward, the Kauffman Foundation and the REACH foundation are adding $3 million, for a total of $4 million to $5 million to get the initiative started.

The administration of County Executive Frank White Jr. argues that under this approach Jackson County would pay $1 million but get back more than $1 million in benefits, and stresses that the private funders insist that local governments collaborate. Nagel assured legislators that Jackson County money would be spent for Jackson County.

Some of the money would go for a “regional coordination hub” to better gather and post disease data, some would pay for a campaign to remind people to do such things as wear masks and socially distance – an effort Jackson County hasn’t set aside money for on its own – and some would go to stockpile personal protective equipment. But the biggest share of the $5 million would be to supplement local public health agencies’ capacity for COVID testing and contract tracing, particularly when those agencies face a surge.

But legislators expressed weariness and wariness about being the first ones to jump in. Some want Clay and Platte counties to contribute as well.

Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City, said she supports the concept, including the idea of leveraging the money from the foundations.

“But I still need to say for the record that it annoys me to no end that we’re supposed be taking a regional approach and per usual Jackson County is stepping out first,” she said, “and in particular on the Missouri side that there are counties to the north of us that are supposed to be part of this that are wealthy counties who also to some degree responded quite slowly to the pandemic to begin with.”

“And we’re sitting here talking about building a hub that if they’re not going to be part of it, it’s not going to have the efficacy of what it is that you are advocating,” she said. “And that part of it really does bother me.”

Legislators voted unanimously to put the proposal on hold. Their next meeting is next Monday.