By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — A small-town leader blasted the Jackson County Commission for its decision to use pandemic relief funding on “pet projects,” including the remodel of the county attorney’s office, rather than urgent needs in county municipalities.
The county received $2.9 million in CARES Act funding to be spent on unbudgeted expenditures incurred because of COVID-19, but commissioners allotted just $40,000 to cities and towns within the county.
Nathan McAlister, president of the Hoyt City Council, said amid a costly pandemic, the decision to give so little to cities baffled him.
“The amount allotted is, in my words, insulting,” McAlister said. “Most counties understand that their cities are hurting as well and are distributing the funds in an equitable manner. For some reason in our county that doesn’t seem to be happening.”
In a fiery speech during a recent meeting of the city council, McAlister called the decision to spend relief funding on the county courthouse and jail a “cash grab.” He said area communities’ needs are being ignored, and he questioned the need to spend $145,000 on a consultant.
County commissioners said these expenses were long overdue and within the regulations for spending the federal aid.
The county commission spent $550,000 on a quarantine isolation chamber for the sheriff’s department to safely transfer prisoners and an additional $250,000 to remodel the county attorney’s office.
The three county school districts received $531,362. The county commission also committed $221,897 to Holton Community Hospital and $226,850 to NEK Multicounty Health Department, which serves Jackson, Atchison and Brown county.
McAlister said municipalities have more immediate needs related to COVID-19. For example, Hoyt requested $45,000 for mold removal in its community center, a voting location, which McAlister said developed the fungal issue after staying closed in the heat of summer during the pandemic.
County commissioners allotted just $5,000 for the entire municipality of 638 people, or $7.83 per person.
“It’s not as if we were asking for oodles and gobs of money,” McAlister said. “Hoyt itself was not asking for much. Really in the grand scheme of things, our percentage of what we asked for is probably on par with what they spent on their consultant.”
Jackson County does not have a county administrator, so it hired a consultant to ensure compliance with funding regulations, said Janet Zwonitzer, chairwoman of the Jackson County Commission.
Zwonitzer said with so little time to decide when and where to spend the money, a lot of red tape to navigate and the need for thorough record-keeping, the commissioners felt it necessary to bring in someone to assist with the project.
She said the grant administrator and the state certified the investment of CARES Act funding for the isolation chamber and county attorney’s office.
“It’s a no-brainer that we would use that kind of money to do that instead of taxing everybody in the county to get that project done,” Zwonitzer said. “I know that it is hard for the public who never gets to see some of these areas. So I understand why there’s been some question about why we did it. We’re pretty sure that we feel we did the right thing.”
As significant capital improvements, however, both projects were flagged during review as potential compliance issues if not executed correctly.
The project must be cost-efficient, substantially complete before Dec. 30, 2020 — the deadline for counties to spend their relief funds — and meet federal regulations for the administration of federal grants.
The commission determined mold remediation for the Hoyt Community Center did not meet CARES Act requirements.
“This community building didn’t fit the state’s guidelines for this money,” said Ed Kathrens, a Jackson County commissioner. “It would have been rejected by the state. Then that money would have been paid back probably out of taxpayer dollars because it already had been spent on the project.”
Despite McAlister’s frustrations over the community building, the decision of where funds are administered is ultimately up to the county, said Lauren Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Gov. Laura Kelly.
“Recognizing the variance of needs across Kansas, the SPARK taskforce and State Finance Council awarded funds to Kansas counties so they could make investments to best serve their communities’ specific needs,” Fitzgerald said. “The Office of Recovery monitors to ensure all county spending is federally compliant. However, it is up to the counties to determine how they think those funds can best be utilized.”
McAlister said the county’s decisions may be compliant but argued they were done in bad faith.
“It’s a spirit of the law versus letter of the law mentality,” McAlister said. “It is completely within their rights to do what they’ve done. It just seems, well, inappropriate.”