Plans for COVID-19 relief up in air

Mid-Missouri counties stand to receive millions of COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan. But most presiding county commissioners say they have received little guidance as to how they can ultimately spend the money.

Cole County should receive $14.8 million from the federal government, according to the National Association of Counties. But the county has received very little direction from the federal government, Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said.

The plan does say money can go toward: emergency rental assistance, homeowner assistance, and other housing programs to help families pay rent, mortgages and utilities; small business assistance, including specific programs for restaurants and live venues; and support for health care workers, transportation workers, federal employees and veterans.

Bushman said the county’s experience of dispersing funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will help shape how the county may use its American Rescue Plan funds.

CARES Act money went to help public and private schools, municipalities, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, health organizations and county government costs. These entities went through an application process with the county, which used a private firm to help set up qualifications to receive money.

“One thing COVID showed us is that there are many parts of the county where we don’t have good broadband service, especially in areas such as Eugene and Russellville,” Bushman said. “I think we’re going to be looking at things a little differently than we did with the money we got from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. I think we’ll look at big projects to benefit a lot of people. Broadband service has been mentioned for ARP funds.”

Bushman said the county will look to have the private accounting firm, Springfield-based BKD, help with them with their plans to use ARP funds as they did for the CARES Act fund distribution.

In Callaway County, officials expect to have money in hand as early as next week.

The county, which expects to receive $8,690,803, has begun working on receiving the first half of its funds and believes it will be late next week when that process should be done, Callaway County Presiding Commissioner Gary Jungermann said.

“You have to wait for five days to have the government go through your information before they send the money,” he said.

As Callaway County went through the process to spend its CARES money, Jungermann said, they had a committee of 10 people from throughout the county to help the commission with ideas on how those funds should be spent. They’ll probably do the same thing with the ARP, he said; he suggested they could start those meetings in early summer.

“We did learn that if you have contracts signed by the end of 2024 on an infrastructure project that will take a year to complete,” Jungermann said, “you can keep ARP money to complete the contract until end 2026.

“We’re still learning a lot about ARP. We don’t want to jump out of the gate and mess up. CARES went well, and I think this will, too. It’s exciting, but we have to stay focused on where to spend the funds.”

In Miller County, some ideas for the ARP funds have already surfaced.

The county, which is expected to receive $4,976,190, could use the funds to build a sewer plant to serve the county courthouse and jail in Tuscumbia, Presiding Commissioner Tom Wright said.

“We have an old system, and it needs updating,” he said. “We have been told that ARP money can be used for infrastructure and in particular for water and sewer projects. As a third class county, we don’t have sewer districts. So to be able to do a project like that would be a big benefit.”

He said he had no estimate on how much the work might cost.

“We always have trouble budgeting in major capital projects,” he said. “But before we make things happen, we want to be sure the projects we want to do can be funded with this money.”

In Osage County, the estimated $2,644,554 in funds could be used to help the county health department and essential workers, Presiding Commissioner Darryl Griffin said.

“We’re competing with other places, and we can’t hire people because salaries are higher in other areas,” Griffin said. “We want to help our citizens as much as possible, but a lot of things have to be clearer on what we can use this money on.

“CARES was a blessing, but sometimes, it was frustrating to get through the hoops you had to jump through,” he said. “We don’t want to spend it on things that the government says you can’t. We’re a third-class county, so we appreciate having a chance to do a big project.”

Commissioners in both Moniteau and Morgan counties echoed that a lack of direction from the federal government leaves any detailed plans for funding dispersal up in the air for now.

Moniteau County Presiding Commissioner Mac Finley said the county stands to receive more than $3 million in funding, which he said he hopes will be available for use shortly. Finley said early guidance indicates the funds could go toward some limited infrastructure improvements in water and sewer and toward broadband, but the county’s broadband needs are handled well enough by Co-Mo Connect in Tipton, he said.

Otherwise, Finley said, he anticipates funding distribution will look very similar to what the county saw with CARES Act funding last year; any projects that receive funding will have to demonstrate a “documentable impact,” he said.

“That’s part of the problem we ran into last time,” Finley said. “We have to have very good documentation, because I know at least with the last CRF funds, anything that the county distributed that didn’t meet the guidance, the county’s liable for.”

Finley said Moniteau County has earmarked nearly all of its CARES Act funding for dispersal despite needing to take special care to ensure there were no mistakes that left the county on the hook for paying any money back. The approval process used last year is likely to be employed again, since Finley said it went smoothly.

If guidance is indeed the same as last year, though, Finley said he wasn’t sure there would be much this round of funding would be needed for.

“I think we’ve rounded the corner here in this county,” Finley said.

In Morgan County, Western Commissioner Ryan Hoffa said the county will employ a similar “wait and see” approach for the time being. Morgan County stands to receive around $4 million in funding; Hoffa said the county should have more direction in the next month or two.

Also similar to Moniteau County, Morgan County was diligent in vetting funding applications for CARES Act funding, which Hoffa said would also be the case this time around. The Lake of the Ozarks Council of Local Governments handled that process for the county, he said.

“Our process worked extremely well with the CARES Act, so we’re planning on doing it the same way unless we get guidance that we can do it differently,” Hoffa said.

Last year, Hoffa said leadership in Morgan County took a broad scope, managing to distribute funds to help the county’s schools, nursing homes and fire departments. Because of that, he said, there aren’t any specific projects the county has in mind at this time that still remain in need of funding help.

“We think we’ve covered about all our bases on everything, and everybody is moving forward,” Hoffa said. “I think we’re doing a lot of the right steps to get over this.”