The committee that will decide how $10.3 million in federal funding is doled out across Christian County has a difficult task, and it seems the targets are always moving.
School administrators, elected officials, government workers and even private business owners have unanswered questions as they apply through the committee for a share of the $10.3 million in federal CARES Act funding allotted to Christian County for relief from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the public at large.
On May 7, the Christian County Commission voted unanimously to form a committee to help decide what to do with money. Todd Wiesehan, the Christian County Director of Planning and Development, is the chairman of that committee of six.
“Anything that we approve needs to have a reasonable connection from that expense to the COVID-19 emergency. As a committee, we would be wise to summarize that connection,” Wiesehan said. “CARES Act funds are not to be used to backfill baseline spending. We need to demonstrate that nexus between the expenditure and the crisis.”
County commissions across Missouri are tasked with allocating 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. It seems the guidelines for the money keep changing.
“They contradict each other really badly. The important thing is that we don’t cause anyone to suffer financially,” Phillips said.
Committee members spent an hour and a half on a webinar with an official from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, who gave advice on how to allocate the CARES Act funding. One of Christian County Highway’s biggest takeaways was the uncertain ground that Christian County stands on when it comes to distributing the money in the way that the writers of the law intended.
“He’s not a lawyer and his word is not final, so, ‘Good luck,’” she quipped. “You don’t want to make the mistake of a six-or-seven-figure purchase that was rushed through and then have the county have the expense of having to pay it back.”
The committee approved some applications for funding at a meeting held June 24 at the Christian County Planning and Development office in Ozark. Additional applications, and there are at least 10, will be reviewed by July 15. Funding requests must also be approved by the Christian County Commission.
Christian County Sheriff Brad Cole is an alternate on the committee. He attended the meeting, but did not vote on any issues. Cole advised the voting members to be deliberate but quick with their scrutiny of funding applications.
“I’d be careful with sitting on some of this stuff too long,” Cole said.
Some funds approved, others in question
A key question for committee members to decide will be whether or not funding may be allocated to private businesses for aid in economic recovery.
Amtower pointed out that business losses can sometimes be covered by insurance, and that many Christian County businesses also received funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or other SBA programs.
However, there was no insurance coverage specific to COVID-19. Dent, the county auditor, pointed out two sides to an argument.
“Normally, the population of taxpayers decides which businesses they’re going to support by giving them their money, but in this case, that avenue was closed,” Dent said.
Wiesehan said the committee needs to determine if private business reimbursement is legal and arguable under the connectivity to COVID-19 crisis recommendation from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“It boils down to a greater good,” Wiesehan said. “If you want a diverse selection of goods and services to be able to purchase in your community, sometimes you’ve got to help them.”
The committee recommended approval for the funding of several proposals, which are scheduled to be finalized by the Christian County Commission June 25.
The Christian County Treasurer’s Office and the Christian County Department of Planning and Development received approval for reimbursements related to social distancing accommodations and enabling employees to do some work outside their offices.
In cases where a county government department head applying for funding is also a committee member, which is the case for all members of the committee, that department head is required to abstain from voting on a recommendation to the county commission.
Christian County Emergency Services received a recommendation for funding approval to pay for wages for 911 operators who worked overtime hours to replace the lost production from an employee ordered into self-quarantine for two weeks.
The Christian County Recorder of Deeds received approval for a request to make some accommodations for social distancing.
The circuit courts received recommendations for approval to reimburse the purchases of disposable face masks, along with a laptop computer for an employee to work remotely.
The Christian County Office of Emergency Management received approval for 3-ply masks that were distributed to persons who needed them, along with a Microsoft Surface Pro laptop to be used by employees working in the field and away from the office in Ozark.
The city of Nixa submitted a “very detailed” request for $28,395.79 in expenses that are under review by the committee. The committee is also reviewing expenses from the city of Highlandville and at least three Christian County school districts. The fate of those proposals will likely be determined by July 15.
Accounting and transparency
Christian County’s special CARES Act committee consists of Phillips, Christian County Auditor Amy Dent, Wiesehan, Beadles, Director of Human Resources Amber Bryant, Director of Emergency Management Phil Amtower and Cole as an alternate.
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.
Phillips advised all taxing entities to continue 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 state of Missouri received a total of $2.3 billion in federal funding through the CARES Act.
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 Phillips, Aubuchon recommended that all of the taxing entities which receive CARES Act funding take extreme care with their accounting.
“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.