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Mayors press for coronavirus funds

Mike Genet

While they appealed to the Jackson County Legislature for funds from the federal CARES Act, officials in Independence, Blue Springs, among a chorus of cities, have also lobbied the federal government for direct funds over the past few months.

In May, Missouri Mayors United sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, appealing for direct funds to help deal with the pandemic. Among those who signed were Independence Mayor Eileen Weir, Mike Larson from Sugar Creek and Darrel Box from Buckner. The letter asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities across the nation,” noting that the CARES Act stipulations put many neighboring cities in competition with each other when their services often cross jurisdictional boundaries.

Weir and Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross said they have also signed on to other letters of appeal through organizations such as the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Thus far, such requests have been unfulfilled.

“We’ve had a number of very good conversations with Senator (Roy) Blunt and his staff, Congressman (Emanuel) Cleaver and his staff and Senator (Josh) Hawley’s staff,” Weir said, acknowledging the country is full of cities making similar overtures. “We know these are complicated things.”

“We’ve been active in the pursuit. If there’s a dollar out there for recovery and relief for the city, we’re going for it.”

Similarly, Ross said, “Anytime I can sign onto something for the city, I’m going to sign it, given the opportunity.”

Only cities with a population of 500,000 or greater received CARES Act funds directly. Others appealed to the local counties, and in Jackson County the process to request and allocate $122.7 million has been at times contentious. An initial county plan had half the funds going to cities, divided proportionally by population. Ultimately, legislators approved a plan for nearly $40 million allocated to nine cities proportionally on population. That included $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.

The earlier plan would have meant $10.1 million for Independence, $4.8 million for Blue Springs and $1.2 million for Grain Valley, among others. Independence had put together what Weir said she considered to be reasonable requests of up to $23 million, including $9 million for utility assistance.

Independence has submitted its spending plan for $6.9 million to the county, and Weir said Monday the city had not yet received a response. Ross said Blue Springs city staff is putting together its spending plan.

In a late July letter, the U.S. Conference of Mayors criticized the current stimulus plan in the Senate because it lacks direct funding to cities, which have been “on the frontlines of this response and are now facing devastating budget shortfalls.”

“Cities must recover if America is to recover,” the letter read. “Cities are the backbone of the American economy and Congress cannot afford to ignore their needs if they want to see its eventual recovery.”

Ross said he’s not very optimistic about direct aid from the next stimulus plan but is confident his city will manage its budget situation well through the pandemic, as well as the flurry of activity surrounding relief funds.

“We’ll get through this,” he said. “There’s so many moving targets, it’s hard to keep up with stuff.”