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As part of a new series, The Kansas City Beacon is following how millions of dollars of coronavirus relief funding was spent in the area.
Last month, we explored how Kansas City, Missouri, spent $31 million in government aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Now, we’re diving into how Wyandotte County spent its slice of the CARES Act pie: $37.3 million. It’s the largest relief funding total received by a Kansas county with less than 500,000 residents.
The Beacon filed public records requests with county officials and the Kansas Office of Recovery to get the data.
The public records show the county’s funding priorities generally fell in line with national trends. Officials dedicated significant sums to economic support for small businesses, personal protective equipment, nonprofit programming and other resources to fight the pandemic.
The records also paint a local picture of obstacles seen nationwide as officials struggled to quickly disperse millions of dollars while keeping up with frequent changes to spending and reporting requirements.
Crystal Sprague, director of performance and innovation with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, acted as the county’s CARES Act Planning Team manager. She said that while many other Kansas counties hesitated to get started until they received more guidance, Wyandotte County began right away in the late summer of 2020.
Although it resulted in some reporting obstacles down the road, she said their quick action was successful in delivering aid where and when it was needed.
“There is a scrappiness in Wyandotte County, in all of us, that I think was illuminated by this moment in which we said, ‘Let’s scrap this out because we’re survivalists and we can make this happen,’” Sprague said. “We know how to respond to this crisis fast and furious to help the people in our community.”
“I had never seen anything like it before.”
Ultimately, Wyandotte County spent or dispersed nearly all of its allotment in a six-month period. We’ll dive in to show how officials originally planned to spend the funds, what changed and what we do and don’t know about where the dollars finally ended up.
A quick CARES Act refresher
Authorized in March 2020, the CARES Act set aside $150 billion for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), among several other stimulus programs that you can read more about here.
For the purposes of following local government spending, The Beacon is focusing specifically on the CRF.
The fund allocated direct aid to “prime recipients.” These include tribal governments, states and local counties or cities with 500,000 or more residents. The funding was proportionate to their populations.
From there, prime recipients could dole out funds to smaller governments and organizations, known as “subrecipients,” which could pass funding to lower-level subrecipients and so on.
Federal officials set an initial deadline of Dec. 30, 2020, to spend all CRF money. However, then-President Donald Trump authorized a one-year extension three days before the original was set to expire.
How did Wyandotte County receive its CARES Act money?
Wyandotte County was a first-tier subrecipient, receiving CRF money from the state, a prime recipient. This means the county had to follow more robust reporting requirements. By contrast, Kansas City, Missouri was a second-tier recipient, receiving money from one county that was a prime recipient and two other counties that were already subrecipients.
The state of Kansas received $1.034 billion from the CRF as a prime recipient. To oversee distribution, Gov. Laura Kelly established the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce.
The group dispersed the money in three phases, starting with $400 million for county governments as phase one. After county governments received the funds in July 2020, they initially had less than six months to spend everything before the Dec. 30 deadline, which was later extended another year.
First, the SPARK team divided up $350 million to Kansas counties based on population. This amounted to $194 per person. State officials based that number off of what Johnson and Sedgwick counties (the only two counties in Kansas with large enough populations to qualify for direct funding) received from the federal government.
Kansas put the remaining $50 million into a special “impact fund” to increase the per-person aid to counties with high unemployment or COVID case rates.
Wyandotte County checked both of those boxes. With a 14.8% unemployment rate and a COVID case rate of 8.3 cases per 1,000 residents, Wyandotte County was well above the state averages of 11% unemployment and 3.3 COVID cases per 1,000 residents, according to a June 2020 SPARK report. The county qualified for about $5.2 million more than its initial population-based allotment, bringing its CRF total to $37.3 million, or about $225.66 per resident, according to state records.
Putting aside the two counties that received direct federal funding, Wyandotte County took home the largest share of Kansas’ CRF county funds, even though Shawnee County has a larger population.
What did Wyandotte County do with its CARES Act money?
There are several ways to categorize Wyandotte County’s CARES Act spending patterns at a high level. However, data limitations prevent any simple answers – a frequent issue in tracking pandemic spending.
Lisa Reijula, associate director of outreach and engagement with the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee – a federal organization that oversees pandemic-related spending – said the watchdog group found widespread problems of vague and incomplete data across all types of CARES Act programs. When it comes to CRF spending, Reijula said, records below the first-tier subrecipient levels are often missing altogether. This creates a major problem for those attempting to hold government officials accountable.
“The system needs better data for better insights,” Reijula said in an email to The Beacon. “The public deserves to know where their tax dollars are going.”
Wyandotte County’s spending priorities are mostly in line with municipalities across the country. According to PRAC, the top CRF spending categories were economic support, public health and safety employee payroll and public health expenses.
According to the spending plan approved by state officials in September 2020, Wyandotte County allotted the bulk – about $25 million – to direct aid for local municipalities. Education and nonprofit programs accounted for about $11.5 million, and the remaining $825,000 was set aside for small-business grants.
We’ll get into the details on each of these groups below.
Wyandotte County’s direct aid funding
The $25 million Wyandotte County set aside for direct relief for smaller units of government went to the county’s own internal expenses and the cities of Edwardsville and Bonner Springs.
This type of funding was meant to both reimburse municipalities for unexpected pandemic-related costs – like buying personal protective equipment, sanitation equipment and setting up testing locations – as well as bankrolling future related expenses through the end of 2020.
Public records requests to both Wyandotte County and the Kansas Office of Recovery didn’t result in detailed line-item records for this spending. However, state officials did release the Unified Government’s planned expenditures for $18 million it set aside for its own use. The Unified Government also requested about $5.6 million in reimbursements, but records showing those expenses were not released to The Beacon by the time of publication.
The Unified Government planned to spend about $4.5 million, or about a quarter of its future expenses, on public health needs. Some standout line items from this category include $1.8 million for public information campaigns about masks and testing, along with related equipment. Another $1.4 million went to lab processing supplies.
While we don’t have a final accounting of how the Unified Government ultimately spent its direct aid allotment, public records show there were some changes to the original plan.
During the final months of 2020, the county reallocated $2.7 million intended for a planned partnership between the United Government Health Department and several local nonprofits. The ambitious plan, dubbed WyCo Connect, planned to hire more than 90 people from “hard-hit communities to become WyCo Connectors and serve their community through case management, care coordination, referral services and census completion.”
But just two months after the state approved the county’s plan, county officials determined they couldn’t complete the project by the December 2020 deadline and dispersed the funds to other areas, including payroll for Unified Government public health and safety employees.
“With CARES, even though we were allocated that money, the timeline did not allow us to deploy that money in that way,” said Wesley McKain, policy and development manager with the Wyandotte County Health Department. McKain said officials found other state and federal sources to fund the program without the tight deadline requirements.
As a result of the WyCo Connect cash infusion and a few other adjustments, the Unified Government ended up spending about $26.3 million on direct aid for itself, including reimbursement costs.
The county’s final accounting reports also show some broader changes to the direct aid allotments. After a few nonprofits failed to spend all of their funds, Wyandotte County reallocated about $34,671 to Edwardsville and $60,208 to Bonner Springs. That brought their total allotments to $484,070 and $840,608, respectively.
Funding for nonprofits
Officials promised about $8.5 million of the remaining funds to educational institutes and local nonprofits that submitted program proposals to provide community support. The Wyandotte County CARES Act subcommittee selected the organizations out of a pool of 83 applicants, according to county meeting records, based on how closely proposals aligned with the county’s funding priorities.
The United Way of Greater Kansas City oversaw the highest-funded program in this category. With $1.25 million, the group led 13 partner agencies in initiatives focusing on housing support within the county.
Todd Jordan, chief community engagement officer with United Way of Greater Kansas City, said the fast deadlines and changing circumstances affected their plans as well. The organization originally planned to fund a dedicated staff attorney for a legal services group, but had to adjust when that organization received their own CARES funds, he said. United Way was also a key player in the short-lived WyCo Connect project.
“We had to be moving this money fast,” Jordan said, stressing the challenge of meeting the initial December deadline.
But he emphasized the acute demand for services during the early months of the pandemic, estimating that the group provided rent or mortgage assistance to more than 500 households with the funds.
“That just shows how much additional demand was being met with the CARES Act money and how it really wasn’t the typical situation,” Jordan said. “It’s really fortunate the money was there.”
Wyandotte County’s CARES Act small-business grants
In its smallest spending category, Wyandotte County originally allotted $825,000 for small-business grants. Officials put out an open call for businesses to apply online, offering up to $10,000 for businesses with one to 25 employees, and up to $20,000 for those with 26 to 500 employees.
Click here to see all businesses that received a CRF-funded grant from Wyandotte County
In total, 133 businesses applied for funding and 85 received grants in the first round of selections, according to meeting minutes of the Nov. 30, 2020, Wyandotte County Economic Development and Financial Standing Committee meeting. Similar to how the nonprofit proposals were selected, the CARES Act committee said they scored each application based on the applicant’s need and prioritized businesses that struggled to receive other types of COVID financial aid.
The meeting records show county commissioners wanted to know how much money it would take to fund all of the proposals, which CARES Act committee members estimated would take about $1.5 million.
In December 2020, the committee submitted a budget change memo to the Kansas Office of Recovery to allocate an additional $191,000 to the small-business program. (This funding also came from the remnants of the abandoned WyCo Connect project.)
Public records show members of the CARES Act committee told commissioners they used the cash infusion to award grants to applicants who were turned down during the first round of funding, and to increase the grant size to a few small businesses. In total, 90 businesses received grants ranging from $1,000 to $20,000 each.
Explore the records: Click here to see financial records compiled by The Beacon showing how Wyandotte County spent its CARES Act funds.