Christian County leaders meet to discuss COVID-19

CHRISTIAN COUNTY PRESIDING COMMISSIONER RALPH PHILLIPS (left) and Christian County Director of Human Resources Amber Bryant at a COVID-19 mitigation meeting at the Christian County Office of Planning and Development in Ozark March 16.

The Christian County Commission voted unanimously to form a committee that will decide what to do with $10.3 million.

County commissions across Missouri are tasked with being the custodians and caregivers for COVID-19 pandemic relief funding that the state received through the federal CARES Act of 2020. Christian County Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips said that the committee approach gives some oversight and accountability to how COVID-19 pandemic relief dollars will be spent.

“The guidelines are all over the place, so this committee would be able to come down with a fair solution on how we’re going to distribute these funds, basically. I wish I had more information to share, but until this committee is formed, It’s hard to get accurate information out to the people that are going to want to know,” Phillips said.

As of May 7, Christian County’s special CARES Act committee will consist of Phillips, Christian County Auditor Amy Dent, Director of Planning and Development Todd Wiesehan, Highway Administrator Miranda Beadles, Director of Human Resources Amber Bryant, Director of Emergency Management Phil Amtower and Christian County Sheriff Brad Cole as an alternate. Cole will likely be pressed into action in the committee’s early days, as Amtower is presently on medical leave, according to Phillips.

“I feel it’s in the best interest in the distribution process is establishing a committee, and after talking with most people—it was determined that it was best to include those who have been involved in the process from the beginning,” Phillips said.

Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson is interested in vetting any proposed COVID-19 relief projects as quickly as can be possibly done.

“I think it’s a fantastic group of people, but my only request is when we start this is that we start it and we get it done in a timely manner, so we don’t draw it out. We get it done and dispersed,” Robertson said.

Dent suggested that funding would be distributed in a manner similar to the way that Christian County’s transportation sales tax revenue is distributed among cities and special road districts. The cities and road districts draw up cost estimates and proposals for projects that they would like to do, and then submit those proposals to the Christian County Commission for consideration.

That’s a key reason why Phillips said Beadles has a spot on the committee, because she is vastly experienced in cost-sharing projects between government groups.

Some municipalities, school districts and other organizations have already reached out to the Christian County Commission about securing some funding, Phillips said. Phillips advised all taxing entities to document all of their expenses related to COVID-19, something he said they should have been doing since the beginning of April, at least. The first step for the committee will be to write guidelines for submitting proposals, and then get those directions to eligible recipients of CARES Act funding.

“If you read the guidelines that were given to us, it is very broad, so we have to determine—there are so many different facets of this thing,” Phillips said. “Everyone has been doing their due diligence on different avenues, but once those guidelines are established, they will go out immediately.”

The state of Missouri received a total of $2.3 billion in federal funding through the CARES Act. To date, about $716 million of that funding has been spent.

“I tell you, I’m impressed with the federal government getting that money out as quick as they did. I can’t believe it,” Robertson said.

Kyle Aubuchon, the Boards and Commissions Director from Gov. Mike Parson’s office, said that the Missouri Office of Administration distributed the funding to county governments in less than 10 days, upon receiving the money from the federal government.

“We got that money distributed. The best mechanism that we came up with was to use the county governments to receive that money,” Aubuchon said.

There are guidelines from the state on how the COVID-19 relief money can be used.

“There are a lot of discussions about county governments, local government, state government. We’ve suffered from a lot of revenue loss, whether income or sales tax. These federal funds cannot be used just to backfill your operating budget, they have to be used for COVID-19 expenditures only,” Aubuchon said.

Like Commissioner Robertson, Aubuchon encourages city government officials to think and make contact with the county’s committee quickly.

“I’m sure Nixa and Ozark will be reaching out to the county commission soon to work on how they can get some of those federal funds for their COVID-19 expenditures,” Aubuchon said.

Aubuchon said the governor’s office will also encourage the committee to set aside some funding for the Christian County Health Department, “If they need additional PPE, or money for contact tracing or testing needs.”

“The federal government has told us that they will be auditing the expenses of these funds, so it’s important to document and write down receipts of how this money is being used,” Aubuchon said. “You know, we don’t want to see any counties have to return any funds that weren’t used appropriately.”

State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office launched a transparency portal on its website on May 7, the same day that the Christian County Commission spun up its CARES Act committee. The online resource allows anyone to see which state government departments have received the money, and where that money is going to. 

At $10.3 million, Christian County received the ninth highest dollar amount of Missouri’s 114 counties.

By comparison, neighboring Greene County received $34.3 million. Taney County received $6.56 million, Webster County received $4.64 million, Lawrence County received $4.49 million, Stone County received $3.74 million and Douglas County got $1.54 million in federal funds.

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