OSWEGO — Facing an Aug. 15 deadline to tell the state how $3.9 million in COVID-19 relief funds will be spent, Labette County officials aim to have at least a preliminary plan in place next week.
Labette County received $3.9 million in 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 Labette County Commission must decide how the money will be divided among the county, cities, schools and health care. Some also likely will go to businesses. All of the money must be allocated by Aug. 15 and spent by Dec. 15. Some will go toward reimbursable expenses already incurred.
“It seems to me time is of the essence, so we need to get started on it right now,” Commissioner Fred Vail said during a Monday meeting.
The commissioners spoke with Charlie Morse, the county’s Emergency Management director, during the meeting. They also discussed SPARK funding with Jim Zaleski, city of Parsons economic development director, and John Wyrick, Labette County USD 506 superintendent. Wyrick was representing the superintendents for the four school districts in the county.
The commission decided that an initial plan for the money should be devised during its next regular meeting on Monday. The commission likely will finalize the plan in early August to give time for review before submitting it to the state by the mid-August deadline.
The school districts are requesting $192 per student based on last year’s enrollment figures. Wyrick said the superintendents consulted with a Kansas House representative on the task force who told them other school districts were requesting that amount. The county received $192 per resident.
Wyrick said the districts’ money would be used for sanitizing equipment in anticipation of schools opening in the fall as well as face masks, face shields, plexiglass dividers and online curriculum.
Wyrick said a USD 506 survey showed that 30% of parents don’t want to send their children back to school during the pandemic. If online instruction isn’t offered, those students may attend a district that does offer it.
The commissioners have made no decisions yet on the allocation of the funds, but they think the districts’ request seems reasonable. Zaleski estimated that the districts would get $775,000 to $800,000.
Almost twice that amount likely will go toward health care in the county.
“I think Labette Health should get a sizable chunk of this money,” Commissioner Doug Allen said.
He proposed giving the hospital at least $1.5 million, and the other commissioners agreed, although as with the school funds nothing has been decided for sure.
Labette Community College has requested over $1.2 million, but much of that amount was for loss of revenue, which doesn’t qualify under the SPARK funding.
The commissioners discussed giving the college $192 per student, but they want to make sure that only students taking courses in Labette County count toward the total, and not for instance, those taking classes at an LCC building in Cherokee County. Commissioner Lonie Addis wondered if out-of-county residents taking classes in Labette County should count toward the total, but that wasn’t decided during Monday’s meeting. Allen planned to discuss the college’s share of funding with Mark Watkins, LCC president.
In last week’s meeting, Allen said some money should go to businesses that were impacted by the pandemic. He suggested $2,000 to each business.
“It sounds like we need to get the word out to everybody that they need to come in here with an ask ASAP,” Allen said.
County Counselor Brian Johnson recommended that the commission have the recipients of the money sign a memorandum of understanding that if the money is spent on ineligible expenses, the county won’t be liable for repaying it.
Morse said he wants to spend part of the county’s share on personal protective equipment. The commissioners also talked about the jail creating a negative air pressured cell for inmates who need to be quarantined. Sheriff’s deputies also could get hazard pay for having to work directly with the public and facing a higher risk of being infected. Emergency medical service workers also could receive hazard pay, but that likely would come from the hospital’s share, and city police could get hazard pay also if the cities choose to pay it.
“Those are the guys and women out on the line who have been exposed,” Allen said.
The county also will likely set aside money for direct aid to businesses or other organizations impacted by the pandemic.
Also on Monday, the commissioners told Wyrick that if given the choice, they would let school districts decide whether or not to abide by Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order to delay the opening of the school year until after Labor Day.
Wyrick said it was his understanding that Kelly misspoke when she said counties could not opt out of the executive order, as they could and most did for her order requiring masks be worn in public. Wyrick said he thinks counties will be able to allow districts to start the school year when they choose.
Addis and Allen said if allowed, they would let the school districts decide.
“Each one of you are the heartbeats of your district, so you should be making that call,” Addis said.
Johnson, the county counselor, said the county will have to wait to see how the order is written, and Allen said the attorney general may have something to say about the order.
Addis asked if students would have to wear face masks this fall, but Wyrick said he’s not how practical it would be to make students wear masks.
“I don’t know if that’s a fight we want to put with every day,” Wyrick said.
Wyrick said the constant changes the pandemic has brought makes it difficult to plan for school.
“Long-term planning for us is 24 hours,” he said.
The governor issued the executive order later on Monday.
Oswego wind storm
Morse told county commissioners that the city of Oswego will not qualify for federal money to help with expenses related to cleanup of the wind storm on July 11.
The county’s damage value threshold to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency funding is only $82,000, which the city easily surpassed, but the state also must have a total of $4.2 million in a disaster for cities to receive money.
Morse said he is looking into grants.