County plots course for spending COVID-19 windfall

Jason Ybarra, chief operating officer, and Dr. Julie Elder, chief medical officer, collect a sample of blood from a patient during a Grace Med drive-though testing site at 11th and Broadway in Wichita, Kansas. They do the 10-minute blood test first, and if the patient tests positive, they do the nasal swab test to fiind out the viral load, which tells how far along the person is in the virus. (May 1, 2020)

By Mary Clarkin

The Active Age

Sedgwick County has spent a small percentage of nearly $109 million it’s receiving from the federal government for COVID-19-related expenses while officials make broad plans for using the rest.

County officials say they’re trying to move quickly due to the Dec. 30 spending deadline for CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act money set by the federal government. They did not seek competitive bids when hiring a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm to help manage the windfall. And they may not need to do so with other spending going forward, according to an email from public information officer Kate Flavin.

“Under the declaration of local disaster emergency in combination with the (county) Manager’s ability to waive policy related to COVID-19, we entered the contract within a week of receiving CARES funding,” Flavin wrote.

The county hired Witt O’Brien’s based on a recommendation from its external accountant, BKD. Johnson County, the other Kansas county which qualified for a large portion of CARES money, put out a request for proposals from consultants as part of a competitive process. On July 30, Johnson County commissioners chose Witt O’Brien’s from a pool of seven applicants. 

Asked if Sedgwick County will seek competitive bids for any CARES spending, Flavin said it “will diligently review internal and external requests and seek guidance from our consulting firm.” CARES funding does not require the county to seek bids for goods or services, Flavin said.

The county is receiving $99.6 million in CARES Act money from the federal government, plus another pool of $9.3 million in CARES money allocated to states specifically for economic recovery.

So far, the county’s tentative spending plan includes:

$35 million for county operations

$25 million for COVID-19 testing

$10.1 million for PPE (personal protection equipment) expenses in cities within the county

$7 million for social service providers

$6 million for vulnerable populations

County officials are planning to hold $10 million in reserve from the $99.6 million at the outset.

The $9.3 million will be used to promote employment. The county’s initial strategic proposal is to allocate $6 million to support businesses and help them reopen and $3.3 million for workforce development and job placement.

Cities and other public and private entities in Sedgwick County were able to start submitting applications for funds through a grant portal on Sedgwick County’s website, sedgwickcounty.org, beginning July 20. The application site will remain open at least through the end of October.

An advisory team has been appointed to help review applications. The county’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Brent Shelton, is chairman. Other members include county Accounting Director Hope Hernandez; Wichita City Treasurer Mark Manning; Derby Assistant City Manager Kiel Mangus; Melody McCray-Miller, a businesswoman, former county commissioner and state legislator; Jane McHugh, a retired CPA formerly with BKD; and Melissa Walker, Wichita State University’s interim director of the Hugo Wall School.

“It’s a lot of money,” McCray-Miller said of the CARES funding, “but there are a lot of needs out there.”

BKD provided a training session for the review team July 23, and talked about conflict of interest. As of July 27, the review team had not begun considering applications for CARES money, according to McCray-Miller.

This spring, Sedgwick County conducted a survey to show the needs of local units of government and public and private sector entities. There were 131 responses totaling $65 million in needs, with churches, school systems, social service agencies and others completing the survey.

Final spending decisions rest with county commissioners.

By late July, the county had allocated or spent $3,723,839 of the $99.6 million CARES money. That included:

Up to $150,000 for Witt O’Brien’s. The firm was hired to help make sure the CARES money is spent in accordance with federal guidelines.

Up to $125,000 for two SUVs, equipment and supplies to be used by paramedics who will be stationed for 12 hours each day in Clearwater and Cheney. The SUVs will not be used to transport patients, but should allow emergency aid to reach the southern and western edges of the county faster than an ambulance dispatched from Sedgwick County Fire Station 39, which is southwest of Goddard. Clearwater Nursing and Rehabilitation Center experienced a COVID-19 cluster which took 11 lives but, as of mid-July, Cheney has avoided an outbreak, with a county map showing less than five cases in that zip code. County officials say Witt O’Brien’s gave a thumbs-up to the expenditure.

Extra payroll expenses totaling more than $722,640 the county has incurred because of the pandemic, including bonus payments recognizing the efforts of frontline workers, about $484,250; paid leave, about $151,000; and overtime, about $30,000.

 $45,000 for a morgue cooler for the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center. The addition will accommodate 22 bodies. Currently, bodies are removed from the hospital to funeral homes, but if there is a backlog, the bodies could be stored at the center. The center already is operating at maximum capacity, commissioners were told.

$32,287.45 for medical grade face masks from Brady Industries of Kansas Inc.

$2.3 million for two “Panther Fusion” testing analysis machines, and related supplies, to increase local COVID-19 testing capacity.  It will allow the county to do 500 tests per day with a 12- to 18-hour turnaround on results. “No more mailing or transporting samples to other labs for these tests,” Flavin noted.

$150,000 for BKD’s role in grant management and monitoring and in training and oversight functions.

$135,000 for temporary staffing.

The new external review team has not been asked to consider how Sedgwick County has spent CARES money for county expenses, although the county has sought advice from Witt O’Brien’s.

“If there is any question about whether the expense is eligible, we pay for it from the General Fund or Fire General Fund and will seek reimbursement after we have a chance to submit questionable expenses for review,” Flavin said in an email.

Commissioners voted against a proposal by Michael O’Donnell, the commissioner from District 2, to set aside $5 million in CARES money for bars and nightclubs that the county ordered closed after Witt O’Brien’s advised against it.

CARES funds not spent by the deadline, or spent for ineligible purposes, would have to be returned to the federal government.

Reach Mary Clarkin at mary.e.clarkin@gmail.com. This article was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven news organizations. The effort is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, Knight Foundation and Wichita Community Foundation.

 

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