More than $29 million in CARES Act funding being dispersed in Clay County

After weeks of debate and fighting among commissioners and county staff on how funds should be allocated, CARES Act funds are now being dispersed by Clay County to taxing entities in the county.

CLAY COUNTY — Allocations of nearly $29.3 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding is now being dispersed to taxing entities in Clay County.

“We have already given Claycomo, Excelsior Springs, Liberty and (Clay County Public Health Center) their allocations,” Clay County Treasurer Bob Nance said Monday, May 18. “We are going to be taking care of North Kansas City and Smithville today. The other cities, we don’t have any paperwork on them yet, but we are in the process of getting that done.”

Issues Monday

The road to distribution of funds has been fraught with discord punctuated by fighting between county commissioners and staff, hastily called meetings with little public notice, document tampering by a commissioner and behind-the-scenes work from city leaders to ensure funds will be spent appropriately.

Presiding County Commissioner Jerry Nolte has fought the approved disbursement plan crafted by county administrators from the beginning, saying it did not contain enough county protections or oversight to ensure funds were properly spent or that an adequate amount was being provided to Kansas City. In the approved plan, Kansas City is receiving more than $11 million but had requested more than $15 million. Nolte said the funding plan is improperly shortchanging Kansas City, the county’s largest taxing entity, and that plan was rushed through at the 11th hour and “cobbled together” by staff with little to no input from all commissioners, taxing entities and the public. County Auditor Victor Hurlbert and Nance also objected to the plan.

The most recent kerfuffle came Monday, May 18, when Nolte proposed an accountability resolution that would require cities receiving CARES Act funds to spend funds “with the exception of shared costs and materials” in the county and would have required cities not adopting the provision to sign a memorandum of understanding “holding Clay County harmless.”

Both Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway and Public Services Assistant County Administrator Nicole Brown said the measure was redundant as county protections are already in place and called the commissioner’s proposed resolution a vague attempt to redo work already done by the commission on May 1 when it approved dispersing funds to taxing entities based on population.

“There is no overall definition of shared costs and materials,” the eastern commissioner said of Nolte’s Monday proposal language. “No terms of the contract are defined.”

Approval of the resolution failed 2-1 with Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen against.

How funds must be spent

The May 1 approved plan’s disbursement guidelines include that funds are subject to the federal treasury’s interpretation of limitations on permissible uses, that entities receiving funds provide documentation to the county finance department by the 15th of each month on how all funds are spent, that entities sign a funding certification stating funds will be spent according to set guidelines and spending preference is given to county vendors. It also directs the public services department to establish a separate transparency portal on the county site to allow public tracking of spending.

Brown said the county disbursement plan and allotments based on population were crafted after many hours of hard work and consultation with city leaders from across the county.

Previous issues with disbursement plan

Nolte’s failed attempt Monday was not the first time he attempted to amend the disbursement plan. An emergency meeting called with less an hour of public notice May 4 devolved into a shouting match between Nolte and county attorney Lowell Pearson of firm Husch Blackwell after Nolte reached out to city leaders to express his concerns and altered the certification document approved by a majority of the commission May 1 that was required to be sent to the state treasurer’s office before the $29.3 million could be dispersed to the county.

Nolte’s alteration delayed the county’s funds disbursement and stated he could not verify funds will be spent in compliance with state and federal regulations and that “oversight mechanisms Clay County will use are not adequate to ensure compliance with this agreement.”

At the May 4 meeting, Ridgeway and Owen approved themselves being able to sign a new document to send to the state treasurer’s office to receive the CARES Act funds, forgoing the need for Nolte’s signature.

Since that meeting, cities across the county including Gladstone, Liberty and Kearney have worked in conjunction and crafted a resolution being submitted to the county that states the cities will spend the CARES Act funds appropriately.

In multiple meetings, Ridgeway has characterized Nolte’s opposition to the CARES Act disbursement plan as detrimental to the county, cities in the county and residents. In addition, she characterized his job performance as, at times, hypocritical as he chastises fellow commissioners for hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which she contends Nolte is partially responsible for racking up. Nolte’s state treasurer document tampering, she said, cost the county tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills as it took hours of attorney time to listen to commission arguments and help craft the second treasurer’s document that she and Owen signed.

At this week’s meeting, Ridgeway said Nolte was “a sore loser.”

Nolte said is he not against providing funding to cities in need as the face expenses related to COVID-19, but wants to do his best to ensure the county, and ultimately its taxpayers, are not at risk of repaying funds if funds are not used in accordance with state and federal mandates.

“Too many of our people are suffering in this difficult time and it is our responsibility to help them in an accountable and transparent manner,” he said in an email to the Courier-Tribune.

Managing Editor Amanda Lubinski can be reached at amanda.lubinski@mycouriertribune.com or 903-6001.

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