Schools, cities and Labette Community College will get a cut of the coronavirus relief funds designated for Labette County, but not as much as originally planned.
Just two days after setting a plan in motion to divvy up the $3.9 million passed down from the state from a federal pandemic relief act, county commissioners changed course Wednesday by significantly lowering the amount school districts, the college and cities will receive. The commissioners cited public safety as the reason for the change after hearing from District Court Judge Fred Johnson how much the courts have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of some defendants’ trials being dismissed.
Labette County received funding last week for its share in the $400 million to be distributed statewide from the federal government. Gov. Laura Kelly’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force decided how the money would be split, so the funds are commonly called SPARK funds. The money must go toward reimbursements for expenses from March through July related to the pandemic or to future expenses.
On Monday, the commissioners had penciled together a plan to give Labette Health $1.5 million, split $1 million between the county and cities based on population, retain $194,624 for administration and pay each school district and LCC $192 per student. The schools’ and college’s amounts were derived from the SPARK task force’s decision to give each county $192 per resident. That would have amounted to about $787,200 for the schools and $418,176 to the college. However, Commissioner Doug Allen doubted the college had 2,178 full-time students, which was the figure used for the calculation.
“That just seems awfully high to me,” Allen said.
Jim Zaleski, Parsons economic development director, said the figure was taken from the college’s website. Allen and Commissioner Lonie Addis also said that LCC should not be given money based on enrollment of students at its Cherokee County campus.
In the long run, LCC’s enrollment figures didn’t matter as the commissioners scrapped the plan after hearing from Johnson. They decided the county should retain more money to ensure jury trials, which have been suspended because of the pandemic, can once again be held at some point.
By the end of Wednesday’s special meeting, the commissioners settled on $1.5 million for the hospital, $1.5 million for the county, $400,000 for the cities, $300,000 for the school districts, $100,000 for LCC and $100,000 for administration. St. Patrick Catholic School likely would receive some money also if allowable. Brian Johnson, county counselor, said he hoped to have that answer by Friday.
Labette County USD 506 Superintendent John Wyrick joined the meeting after the decision following a coordination meeting with the other three superintendents in the county. That is when commissioners delivered the news about the decrease.
“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed,” Wyrick said. “We’re disappointed, however we understand.”
Wyrick asked the commissioners to keep the schools in mind as they are a cornerstone of the community, and the commissioners said any funds left over that are not earmarked for projects or reimbursement could be added to the schools’ amount.
The county must have its plan submitted to the state by Aug. 15, but it can be amended up to Sept. 15. The county hopes to have all funding earmarked by Aug. 3 to ensure all the money can be spent on allowable expenses. Allen noted the short turnaround time several times in both of this week’s meetings. At one point he said the time allotted is so short that it seems the plan is for the state to retain most of the money after counties fail to come up with adequate expenses in time.
“They want to take it back to Topeka. They want to make it as difficult on us to spend it with the timeline,” Allen said.
The money may have to be spent by the end of the year, although Brian Johnson said it’s unclear if it actually needs to be spent or if all projects need to be started by the end of the year and the money earmarked to spend.
On Wednesday, the commissioners appointed Allen as the go-to commissioner to take any action needed regarding planning for spending the money throughout the county.
“This way we can get this done on the ground level and not have to have a special meeting,” Allen said.
He will report back to the commission if there are any questionable ways money is planned to be spent. Charlie Morse, the county’s emergency management director, will coordinate the effort with help from Zaleski and Laura Moore, the Parsons community development director.
Allen led the charge in lowering the amount of money given to schools and the college, noting that in the original plan they would have received three times the county’s share. Allen said he didn’t understand how LCC could spend over $400,000 in COVID-19-related needs. The college had requested $1.2 million.
“I don’t see why that money would be better spent there than fixing county infrastructure that’s going to be here 20 years,” Allen said.
He said 60% of the state’s budget goes to primary and secondary schools.
“It seems like the schools have a lot of money,” Allen said.
Allen said nothing the county does is more important than protecting basic civil rights, and that is what the district court and sheriff’s department does, so the county will need more money to fund them.
Judge Johnson said the court system has been put in a real jam because it must uphold defendants’ rights to face their accusers in person, to have a jury trial and to have a speedy trial. Those don’t mesh right now because the court doesn’t have the means to socially distance and sanitize for 150 potential jury members for one trial, or even seat a jury of 12 safely distanced. Furthermore, jury rooms are inadequate for social distancing. Defendants can invoke their right to both a jury trial and to a speedy trial, and if both can’t be delivered, those cases could be dismissed. Johnson said he already has two defendants seeking dismissals now, and a lot more are sure to come as the pandemic drags along.
Johnson said the district court could reserve the Parsons Municipal Auditorium each week, but the city may not like holding a reservation for a trial that might not occur. Plus, the auditorium, despite its size advantage, still would present challenges, such as the required disinfecting.
“The problem is facilities, facilities, facilities. Do I think this problem is going to go away? I think the medical professionals would tell you no,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the county should remodel the third and fourth floors of the courthouse and the Parsons judicial center at a cost of about $750,000, although Addis said that wasn’t enough. The county has a courtroom on the third floor. Revamping it and the fourth floor, where records are stored now, could solve the spacing problems.
“This is an expense that the county is going to have to bear. I’m sorry,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the county’s responsibilities to defendants are constitutionally mandated and the problems are 100% caused by the pandemic, so it makes sense to spend pandemic relief money to solve the problems.
Addis said he doubts that the county could get a contract to remodel the third and fourth floors of the courthouse in time for the SPARK money to be spent by the state’s deadline. Zaleski said some of the remodeling may not even be covered under the program. Regardless, the commissioners thought it was best to hold onto more of the SPARK funding so that it could be designated for the court.