Counties that wanted their share of federal relief dollars had to work for it.
The state approved the disbursement of $400 million in federal funds to counties in June, part of the first phase in the state’s plan for money it received under the CARES Act approved by Congress earlier this year.
But the work for local governments was just beginning.
Each county still had to submit a detailed plan of what the money would be used for by Aug. 15. It also would submit the first round of reports seeking reimbursement for past spending on COVID-19-related items, such as public health programs or emergency services.
The $400 million in funds were transferred in mid-July, leaving counties under the gun to turn around the necessary documentation.
Harvey County Commissioner Chip Westfall, who also is president of the Kansas Association of Counties, said the process "was a crunch" for his county.
But Harvey County, like two dozen or so other counties, has full-time administrators to help support local officials in deciding what funds should go where, as well as the technical aspects of submitting the paperwork.
"I am sure that counties that don’t have full time administration ... (they) were probably overwhelmed with the requirements, and how it worked and how the rules constantly changed," Westfall said.
Part of the confusion for counties stemmed from the requirement that funds only be used for COVID-19-related expenses, leading to a litany of questions as to what qualified. Further complicating matters, some businesses submitted applications that had nothing to do with the pandemic, forcing officials to weed out extraneous funding pleas.
Certain local agencies, such as law enforcement, couldn’t apply for county relief but rather needed to apply for CARES Act funds via a specific federal program.
And county officials prepared their proposals knowing with near certainty that any CARES Act expenditures would incur a federal audit, coming on top of the usual oversight given to local finances.
The state also required counties pass a resolution in effect affirming that any ineligible spending would have to be paid back to the federal government — presumably with local taxpayer money.
Add in the fact that all guidelines involved, federal or state, could change at a moment’s notice and things could get confusing quickly.
"It just wasn’t streamlined enough and they wanted to push it out so fast, they got it out and then the rules were catching up," Westfall said.
In Shawnee County, Betty Greiner, director of audit finance, said the process was mostly smooth sailing.
The county elected in May to form its own SPARK task force in an effort to determine where the money should go. The administrative side was handled by two to three members of Greiner’s team, as well as a consulting firm, with a formal plan approved last week by the full panel of county commissioners.
Almost half of the county’s $36.7 million allotment, $15 million, will go toward covering initial COVID-19 response expenditures, notably those incurred by the Shawnee County Health Department.
The remainder will include funds for each city and school district in the county, as well as $5 million for "community services," which can include aiding small businesses, food pantries and nonprofits.
"There is going to be a lot of good coming from this funding," Greiner said. "You have to keep that in mind and work through the issues and the problems."
County officials generally praised the industriousness of state officials in the Office of Recovery but noted that they were often equally overwhelmed.
"I think they tried very hard but I think they were also under a very short timeframe," Greiner said.
And despite their best efforts, it is possible many counties won’t be able to use their entire allotment of funds, with the money being returned to the state to be used in future rounds of SPARK programming.
"There are going to be a lot of counties throughout the state of Kansas and they’re not going to be able to spend all of (the money), just because they’re not going to be able to utilize the intent, which is having it be a COVID-19-related item," said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
There remains a hope that more federal relief could be on the way, although a fifth, and likely final, stimulus bill has been held up in Congress.
The current version of that package in the U.S. Senate would ease mandates that could be imposed on local governments for doling out federal dollars, as well as push back deadlines for spending and accounting for those funds.
Both state and local officials have been pushing for more freedom in how the money can be spent. President Donald Trump has reversed course and expressed an openness to direct aid for state and local governments, which could be used to offset lost tax revenue due to the virus.
The Democratic version of the relief package includes a $900 bill in assistance for states and municipalities, although it remains in limbo given Republican opposition.
If counties have to spring into action to access another round of federal support, Greiner says they will be ready.
"This was all new to us, so now we have a process in place of evaluating these needs that we can use in the future," she said.
To Westfall, the whole endeavor underscored the importance of giving counties flexibility to handle their own affairs.
County government "home rule," or the ability to govern itself, is granted by state statute, meaning the legislature has a freer ability to pass limits on that freedom. City home rule, by contrast, is outlined in the state constitution, making those powers more secure.
But after county governments did the lion’s share of the work in administering the CARES Act funding, Westfall said he expects more lawmakers to be amenable to closely working with counties going forward, including potentially addressing the home rule issue.
"I think it is an eye opener for a lot of legislators now who have not had local government experience that they’ve gotten how important it is to be in contact with the counties," he said.