Spending federal COVID aid proves tricky

Small town officials say the spending guidelines are geared to larger municipalities.


State News

September 9, 2021 - 10:03 AM

Allen County commissioners Jerry Daniels, Bill King and Bruce Symes display a CARES/SPARK funds check in the amount of $192,500. The money was dispersed in 2020 to local businesses and nonprofits to help with COVID-19 relief. Photo by REGISTER FILE PHOTO / Iola Register

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas is moving slowly to spend the latest round of COVID-19 aid, and one town turned down its share because city officials decided it’s not needed.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that while most state and local governments across the country saw the influx of money as an opportunity to shore up infrastructure, fight the COVID-19 pandemic and help local businesses, the 2,300-person town of Lakin turned down the $300,000 it was due to receive.

City administrator Michael Heinitz said the local economy is humming and the town has ample reserves on hand to handle any new projects that might arise.

“If somebody else needed the money, it could go to them instead of us,” Heinitz said.

All told, Kansas and local governments in the state are set to receive $8.6 billion in aid under the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress approved in December. That is on top of earlier federal relief money that already has been spent.

Larger municipalities are getting tens of millions of dollars — if not more — prompting debate about where the money should go.

And smaller governments are increasingly finding themselves hamstrung by a litany of rules and reporting requirements.

Many, like Lakin, have limited full-time staff to keep on top of the paperwork and some have been forced to look to outside consultants to help them cope.

“A lot of the criteria was designed for big city monetary use,” said Jason Wells, chair of the Wichita County Commission, a rural western Kansas community of farmers and ranchers. “It wasn’t designed for our 1,200-person town.”

And governments of all sizes remain frustrated that the U.S. Treasury Department hasn’t been quicker to provide a better sense of what the funds can be used, with officials hesitant to act out of fear that they will make a wrong turn, forcing them to repay the funds.

In the Topeka area, Shawnee County officials wanted to use a sliver of their money for building projects but had to back off over fears the federal rules might change.

Dave Jones, chair of the Finney County Commission, pointed to additional confusion over a provision preventing the money from being used to pay the salaries of county workers — unless they work in public safety of public health.

“It sure as hell would be nice to know where we stand and how we’re going to get to where we’re headed,” he said. “We’ve got an itch for more information.”

At the state level, an executive committee appointed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican legislators are tasked with reviewing potential uses for the funds. The committee has met just a few times since it was formed earlier this year, and the process has led to political fighting, with Republican lawmakers threatening legal action.

Department of Administration Secretary DeAngela Burns-Wallace noted there is less of a hurry in figuring out a spending plan — state and local governments have until 2023 to report to Washington how they are planning on using the money.

But Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the delays in the process in Kansas were mystifying.