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For Jackson County, Missouri, getting money from Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was the easy part.

The hard part was figuring out how to spend it. At least in the beginning.

Political infighting, a disbanded funding committee and even a long-shot request to the White House all happened during Jackson County’s early efforts to spend the $122.7 million.

Nearly two years later, all of the funds have been spent but not everyone has been happy with where those dollars ended up.

This story is part of a series documenting how millions of dollars from the CARES Act were spent in the Kansas City area. The Beacon has previously written about how Kansas City, Missouri, as well as Wyandotte and Johnson counties distributed their funds.

Here’s the Jackson County edition of Following the Money: The CARES Act in KC. 

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 Jackson County receive its CARES Act funds?

Jackson County was one of two Missouri municipalities to qualify as a prime recipient. St. Louis County, which received about $173.5 million, was the other.

Jackson County’s $122.7 million was the largest direct payout from the federal government in the Kansas City area but not the largest local CARES Act allotment overall.

Johnson County, Kansas – also a prime recipient – received $116.3 million from the federal government. But the county also received roughly $8 million in addition from the state of Kansas’ allotment, bringing its total to $124.3 million. The state of Missouri did not distribute additional direct aid funds in the same way. 

Once they received the payment, Jackson County officials started what would become a long and contentious process to decide how to spend it.

How did Jackson County budget its CARES Act money?

Media reports from the late spring of 2020 show a chaotic process among Jackson County leaders as they deliberated what kind of spending was legally allowed and how they should make budgeting decisions. 

In May 2020, Jackson County Executive Frank White announced he had formed a CARES Act voluntary advisory group to be led by former Kansas City Mayor Sly James – a controversial decision that quickly faced backlash. The Kansas City Star published a scathing editorial rebuking White’s decision, and some county legislators voted to disapprove of the committee. White later disbanded the group. 

“We were disappointed and frankly a little frustrated when that happened,” Caleb Clifford, the chief of staff in the county executive’s office, recently told The Beacon. “However, we understood that the most important thing was to ensure that the funds were distributed appropriately so we adjusted our plan.”

Clifford said once the advisory committee disbanded, the work of analyzing the county’s needs and making distribution recommendations to the county legislature largely fell on the staff’s shoulders. 

The Jackson County and KCMO CARES Act funding debate

One of the most pressing issues Jackson County officials faced was whether the county could distribute funds to the cities within its borders. Although it later became common practice for prime recipient counties to pass along CARES Act dollars to smaller municipalities, there was significant confusion surrounding that process in late spring 2020. Those questions left Kansas City, Missouri, in a particularly tough spot. 

While it is the largest city in Missouri, Kansas City’s 2019 census data showed about 495,000 residents, leaving the city just below the 500,000 threshold to be considered a prime recipient. What’s more, the city’s location overlapping four county boundaries raised questions about which public body would be responsible for sharing its funds – the counties or the state. 

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas fought for proportional funding from the three major counties the city occupied – requesting a 44.5% share of Jackson County’s overall allotment, commensurate with the portion of Jackson County’s population that resided within Kansas City. That total came out to more than $54 million. The other two counties were Platte and Clay.

But Jackson County officials weren’t sure they could legally share funding with the city, stating concerns about the county’s potential liability if Kansas City misspent funds. Instead, the county called on state officials to allocate money for Kansas City in the same way they did for St. Louis, which received $35 million from the state

Yet Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick said St. Louis’ unique situation as a city without a county is what led to state CARES Act funding. He said the rules outlined by the state legislature and the CARES Act language authorized the counties to fund Kansas City’s relief dollars. 

“They were rightfully concerned,” Fitzpatrick acknowledged. He also explained that his office drafted a memorandum of understanding stating that if Jackson County provided funding for Kansas City proportionate to its population, the state would indemnify county officials of any liability and absorb the risk itself. 

His office even asked the White House to weigh in on the dispute. The U.S. Treasury later issued clear guidelines allowing counties to fund municipalities. 

Ultimately, Jackson County declined to enter into the memorandum of understanding with Kansas City. It provided $18.9 million for the city, less than half what Lucas requested. At the time, Lucas tweeted that the additional $36 million would go toward small-business support, eviction relief and other efforts. 

“We will continue to work with County leaders to get these necessary funds to the public,” he tweeted. However, additional Jackson County CARES funds never materialized. Kansas City also received $11.7 million from Clay County and $1.1 million from Platte County. 

In total, Jackson County spent roughly $40 million in direct aid for cities, or roughly one-third of its total allotment.

Public health spending in Jackson County

Jackson County still had more than $82 million left to spend. 

The next largest recipient was Truman Medical Center, now known as University Health. The organization, which operates multiple hospitals along with managing and operating the Jackson County Health Department, received about $44 million from Jackson County. 

Financial records show this funding covered facility improvements, new equipment for medical professionals to respond to the pandemic, personal protective equipment and other expenses. 

About $11.6 million of the $44 million went to the county health department. Mariah Cox, communications division manager for the Jackson County Health Department, said the funding allowed the department to pivot with the population’s needs. 

In the beginning, that meant focusing on testing and contact tracing. Later, their focus shifted to community health services and providing vaccinations. 

“When the pandemic came, we quickly had to assess what was happening and use data throughout the pandemic to make decisions to ebb and flow with what the community needed at the time,” she said. “We just had to be very flexible.” 

Cox said the department used the funds to hire at least 30 new employees dedicated to contact tracing, data analysis and other responsibilities. The county also built an online dashboard showing COVID statistics, purchased 50,000 KN95 masks and conducted 3.500 COVID tests with the funds, according to Cox. 

“The support we received on behalf of the CARES Act allowed us to interrupt the transmission of the virus and protect lives,” Cox said. 

Other major recipients of the remainder of Jackson County’s CARES Act funds include:

  • More than $12 million in payroll expenses for Jackson County public safety employees
  • $3.5 million for a new health department facility (in addition to the $11.6 million already allocated)
  • Nearly $5 million for local school districts

Explore the Records: As a prime recipient, Jackson County reported its subrecipient spending broken down by expenditure categories.  Click here to see financial records The Beacon received through an open records request to Jackson County. 

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Madison Hopkins is the health care accountability reporter focused on the intersection of health policy and people. Her reporting is partially funded by Health Forward Foundation. She was previously an...