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Clay and Platte counties in Missouri have a lot in common. They share a border, they both cover part of Kansas City, Missouri’s territory, and collectively they make up what’s known as the Northland area of the metropolitan region.
However, when it comes to nearly everything associated with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, they took different paths.
Over the past few months, The Kansas City Beacon has been exploring how municipalities in the Kansas City metropolitan area spent their portion of the largest stimulus package in American history. The Beacon has written about how Kansas City, Missouri, as well as Wyandotte, Jackson and Johnson counties distributed their funds.
Now, we’re taking one final deep dive into the spending decisions of a specific area – this time focusing on the Northland counties.
Clay County received its $29.3 million allotment around the same time Platte County got its $12.3 million from the state of Missouri. But from there, county officials took sharply different paths when determining how to spend their funds.
Let’s dive in.
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 Clay and Platte counties receive their CARES Act funds?
Neither Clay nor Platte county met the 500,000 population threshold necessary to qualify as a prime grant recipient. So their portions came from the state.
In April 2020, Missouri lawmakers set aside 25% of its total $2.08 billion allotment for counties that didn’t qualify as prime recipients, as well as the city of St. Louis. State officials told the localities that in order to receive their funds as quickly as possible, county executives needed to sign and return a certification form verifying they would spend the funds appropriately by May 1.
Neither Clay nor Platte county hit the deadline.
Clay County technically turned its paperwork in on time, but state officials rejected its initial certification after the county’s Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte added a last-minute addendum expressing concerns he had with signing the document.
In an interview with The Beacon, Nolte said his motivation to write in his concerns centered around speed. While he understood the need to quickly distribute the $29.3 million in CARES Act funds, he said the county also needed more time to make sure everyone was on the same page and that their decisions would be compliant with the law.
“The only real leverage I had there was that signature,” Nolte said of signing the certification form with his addendum. “I was using that ability to try to slow it down so that it would be more easily understood and the public had a chance to look at it.”
The debate over his objections continued during an emergency public meeting held on May 4, 2020, which at times turned heated as Nolte argued with other county officials, according to news reports. In addition to concerns over the county’s ability to adequately ensure all expenses conformed to the spending rules, Nolte took issue with the funding formula determining how much money should be distributed to cities.
Specifically regarding Kansas City, Missouri, Nolte thought the plans of the other commissioners to issue $11.6 million shortchanged the city. If based purely on population, Kansas City was due roughly $15.8 million – an amount backed by Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick. The treasurer said the state would enter into an agreement to indemnify the county of any potential liability related to Kansas City’s spending if county officials approved the population-based figure.
However, county officials decided to move forward with the $11.6 million payment – over Nolte’s objections and to the frustration of Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. As a compromise on the liability issue, Nolte said he requested all recipient cities to sign their own resolutions relinquishing the county of any responsibility if they misspend funds.
“I didn’t want to get in a position where we were trying to sue them to get the money back and so I thought that that was a reasonably safe thing to do,” Nolte said. “That way it took the county and the taxpayers of this county out of a liability position.”
Clay County received its CARES Act funds on May 14, 2020.
Platte County, on the other hand, avoided issues over funding smaller localities by delaying the process overall. In fact, Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber told The Beacon that the county’s immediate priority was providing small-business assistance. Payments to Kansas City and other municipalities didn’t take place until several months later.
Regarding its state paperwork, records show county officials missed the May 1 deadline and instead turned in its signed document on May 18, 2020. Platte County received its funds from the state a few days later on May 21.
In Platte, CARES Act small-business support led to controversy
While many municipalities in the Kansas City area set aside some of their CARES Act funds to support small businesses, Clay and Platte counties showcase two extremes.
On one end of the spectrum is Clay County, which didn’t allocate any funds directly to a small-business assistance program. However, several of the cities it passed CARES funds to did administer their own programs for businesses within the county.
On the other end is Platte County, which budgeted the majority of its CARES funds to small-business grants. County officials diverted nearly 68% of its $12.3 million allotment to the cause, or about $8.4 million. For comparison, Johnson County, Kansas, set aside about 11% of its funds and Wyandotte County, Kansas, allocated less than 3%.
Schieber said Platte County prioritized funding small businesses for both short- and long-term goals. In the early months of the pandemic, lockdown orders prevented many businesses from making money while governments could rely on existing budgets and reserves, he said.
What’s more, he argued that helping to keep local companies from going out of business preserved the county’s tax base for the future.
Yet this emphasis on small-business funding was not embraced by everyone. In addition, some of the specific decisions led to accusations of a conflict of interest.
For example, at a June 2021 public meeting when Platte County commissioners announced its last round of small-business grants, Sharon Hunt, a former director at Platte County’s University of Missouri Extension, questioned a third grant being issued to the Southern Platte County Athletic Association.
The director of the nonprofit organization is Stephanie Schieber, wife of Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber. Altogether, the organization received about $63,000 in CARES Act money.
“This one group – because they knew how to get the money I guess – it seems a very disproportionate amount,” Hunt said at the meeting. “I think this also reflects on conflicts of interest.”
Commissioner Schieber abstained from the vote. When asked about the issue, he said that his wife does not own the organization and reiterated that the group was in need.
“They were just like every other nonprofit organization out there,” he said. “They were hurting because of government mandates.”
In all, the county distributed aid to more than 200 businesses.
Public health departments not top funding recipients
Platte County’s emphasis on helping small businesses was also a point of contention for the Platte County Health Department.
According to a survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in mid-July 2020, at least 50 of Missouri’s 114 counties — including Platte — had yet to distribute any funding to their local health departments. The issue had become so pressing that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and treasurer Fitzpatrick issued repeated calls to county officials encouraging them to distribute funds to local public health agencies.
The Kansas City Star reported that Mary Jo Vernon, then the director of the Platte County Health Department, wrote in the county’s response to the DHSS survey that the commissioners’ decision to withhold funds was related to allegations that the public health decisions were detrimental to small businesses.
“We recently met with our County Commissioners to inquire about the CARES Act funding and were met with highly escalated emotions, accusations that WE have killed businesses, families, the economy and the tax base,” Vernon reportedly wrote on the survey.
While Platte County officials said they were upfront with the health department and other localities that their funding would come later on a reimbursement basis after the immediate needs of small businesses were met, others reiterated Vernon’s belief that the delay was politically motivated.
Fitzpatrick told The Beacon that in Platte County and other areas, disputes between county officials and public health agencies over pandemic-related rules contributed to funding delays.
“There were reasons why a county would choose not to do that (fund public health departments), like if they felt the health department was overstepping their authority,” he said. “The way I looked at it was ultimately if we could facilitate the transfer of some of the money to the public health agency I thought that’d be a good thing for them.”
The treasurer’s office offered similar indemnity agreements for public health departments as it did for the counties funding Kansas City. If a county distributed 15% of its total CARES Act allotment to its public health agency, the state agreed to take on any liability of misspent funds.
Yet neither Platte nor Clay county took the treasurer up on the offer and both funded their health departments below the 15% threshold.
The Platte County Health Department finally received its funds broken into two payments in March and August of 2021. Its total allotment came out to just under $330,000, or about 2.7% of the county’s CARES Act funds.
While Clay County distributed funds to its public health department much more quickly – transfering money just one day after it received its overall allotment from the state on May 14, 2020 – it allocated less slightly than 10% of its total funds, amounting to about $2.9 million.
Clay County Public Health Director Gary Zaborac said even though the department received less in funds than it requested, the county’s decision to provide all its funding early and upfront allowed the health officials to better plan for its needs. The department used the majority of its CARES Act money to hire additional staff dedicated to disease investigation and care, and to facilitate its COVID response in the long-term, he said.
“We built that infrastructure because we knew we were going to need it throughout the pandemic,” Zaborac said. “I felt like that was a pretty smart move.”
Internal expenses got few CARES Act funds in Northland counties
One CARES Act area where Clay and Platte counties showed similar philosophies was their own internal expenses.
Many municipalities in the Kansas City area and across the country spent large portions of their CARES Act funds on internal expenses, such as payroll for public health and safety employees. The Pandemic Accountability and Response Committee, the federal watchdog group set up to oversee pandemic stimulus funding, found that payroll expenses were the second highest Coronavirus Relief Fund spending category across the country.
Yet neither Clay nor Platte dedicated nearly as large of a portion of their allocations toward payroll or other internal expenses.
According to Clay County Auditor Victor Hurlbert, the county only allocated about 5% of its funds for its internal expenses, including payroll for public safety employees.
Platte County only budgeted about 10% for its internal expenses. Of that, records show only about $55,000 directed to payroll.
One reason is original CARES Act guidelines stipulated that aid go to unbudgeted expenses.
Though the U.S. Treasury updated its guidance in late 2020 to allow municipalities to spend CARES Act money on public health and safety payroll in many circumstances, Schieber said Platte County leadership was committed to following the original guidance.
“You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game in my opinion,” Schieber said. “What we did do is stick to our commitment to find their unbudgeted items as originally planned.”
Explore the records: Click here to see financial records The Beacon received through open records requests to Clay and Platte counties.