Douglas County puts team together to decide how to spend nearly $25 million of CARES funding; plans must be finalized by Aug. 15

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

A massive influx of cash for coronavirus recovery is heading to Douglas County soon. But before the county can receive the money, it must craft a plan for how to use the funds and submit it to the state.

To decide how the nearly $25 million of federal relief funding will be spent, Douglas County has put together a coordinating team consisting of local leaders representing education, housing, medical services, the local economy and other areas affected by the pandemic.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the group will be meeting in July and August to craft a plan for the funds, which must be submitted to the state before the funds are distributed. She said the county must provide the plan to the state before Aug. 15, which will likely require the County Commission to approve it during its last meeting before the deadline on Aug. 12.

“That is not far away,” Plinsky said during a recent County Commission meeting. “Speed is really important here in this process.”

The funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES, can be used in two ways — reimbursing local organizations for costs that they incurred during the pandemic between March and July, and providing direct aid to help organizations deal with the pandemic through the end of the year.

Plinsky previously called the amount of funding the county will receive for the pandemic “substantial.” Specifically, the county expects to receive about $24.9 million. For comparison, the county’s general fund budget for 2020 is $63 million.

Noting the short amount of time to figure out how to spend such a large amount of money, Plinsky said the county chose to form the coordinating team to sort out those decisions.

Coordinating team

Plinsky said the coordinating team is similar to the county’s Unified Command, which was a group of local entities put together to respond to the initial fallout of the pandemic. That group included representatives from the county, the City of Lawrence, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and LMH Health.

For the coordinating team, those organizations will be joined by other groups with broader interests, such as the Lawrence school district and the University of Kansas to represent education interests and the Lawrence chamber of commerce to represent economic interests.

The representatives were placed into four work groups to explore needs in local education, housing and human services, economic impact and health and medical concerns. While each group has specific representatives, the county also lists many supporting agencies for each.

For example, the education work group includes representatives from the Lawrence school district and KU, but it also includes support from all school districts in Douglas County, Haskell Indian Nations University, the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center and the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence.

Plinsky said the work groups will help develop portions of the funding plans, which will be brought to the County Commission for approval.

“They have a very big challenge ahead of them to help prepare a template and a plan,” Plinsky said.

Additionally, Plinsky said the coordinating team also includes an equity advisory team, which will specifically provide input to the work groups to make sure they are considering equity issues in their funding decisions. The main adviser for equity is Lawrence Assistant City Manager Casey Toomay, according to the team breakdown listed on the county website.

Commission Chair Patrick Kelly said he was happy to hear that, because the federal law said the funding should make an impact on marginalized groups that have been hurt by the pandemic. The county also set up a contact portal to give residents the opportunity to suggest funding ideas or leave comments for the coordinating team.

“When you are this fast about things, I don’t want the system to overlook populations who may be hurting so bad they may not know how to access the system,” Kelly said.

The full breakdown of the coordinating team and the contact portal are listed on the county’s coronavirus hub,

The coordinating team is expected to provide an initial CARES funding plan to the County Commission on Aug. 5. The commissioners are then expected to consider final approval of the plan on Aug. 12.

Where funds can be spent

The working group will have many areas where it can provide funding.

According to an outline on the county website, those areas include covering medical expenses associated with the pandemic for hospitals and health clinics, purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies for organizations, and providing economic support grants to local businesses, among many other options.

Some other reimbursements the coordinating team will consider are for funding the County Commission has provided to local organizations during the pandemic. An example is the $100,000 of supplemental funding the commission provided local food bank Just Food in May to help it cover a budget shortfall, which stemmed from a sudden surge in clients as pandemic-related lockdowns caused many residents to lose their jobs.

As for the direct-aid plan, Plinsky said it will need to provide investment funding to similar areas. She said the state’s guidance provided counties with ideas, such as investing in COVID-19 testing and medical supplies, remote learning technology for schools, workforce retraining programs and many other ideas.

Additionally, local businesses and organizations may apply for funding through the coordinating team’s contact portal. Plinsky said the coordinating team will then connect them with the correct work group, and she also encourages interested businesses to reach out to the economic work group leaders — Diane Stoddard, of the City of Lawrence, and Steve Kelly, of the chamber of commerce. According to the coordinating team’s timeline, the deadline to submit such requests is Aug. 3.

Plinsky said there is no set figure for how much of the $24.9 million will go to reimbursements versus direct aid, but she said the reimbursements are the team’s priority. Whatever is left of the funding after dealing with the reimbursements will go to the direct aid plan, she said.

Under the state’s guidelines for the funding, all of it must be spent by the end of the year. Additionally, if there are any funds the county does not use, that money will be sent back to the state and then distributed again, possibly to other communities.

However, Plinsky said the county plans to find a use for all $24.9 million in 2020.

“It’s our intent to develop a plan that accounts for every dollar allocated to us,” Plinsky said. “While it’s a tall order, I think it’s something we can get accomplished.”

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