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Vaccine prep and testing kits: $1 million.
Radio commercials advertising COVID testing: $1,200.
Printer toner: $34.18 each.
Those are just some of the ways Kansas City spent $32 million of funding authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
When the CARES Act allocated $150 billion for direct aid to state and local governments in March 2020, the goal was to quickly get money to public officials so they could put those dollars to work fighting the then-new coronavirus pandemic.
But with speed came widespread confusion. Public officials in the Kansas City area — and across the country — questioned how to spend the funds, what expenses were allowed and how to track it all.
As a result, some public bodies waited for their “speedy” funds for months. Limited reporting requirements and wide variations in how officials interpreted federal rules also made tracking CARES Act dollars to their final destination a difficult task in many circumstances — and near impossible in others.
Katie Furtado, a research analyst with the national think tank Good Jobs First, oversees the group’s COVID Stimulus Watch, which gathers and publishes CARES Act data. She said the lack of universal reporting requirements is in part due to the priority on speed, a conclusion reiterated by a federal watchdog group the CARES Act created to track COVID-relief spending.
“The bottom line is they were just trying to get money out the door quickly,” Furtado said.
“A lot of people are asking … How can we track how this money is being sent? Because we don’t know.”
Now, nearly two years after the law passed and a few weeks after the Dec. 31 deadline for municipalities to spend their direct aid dollars, many of those questions remain unanswered.
Over the coming months, The Kansas City Beacon will cut through some of that confusion. The Beacon requested financial records from several local municipalities to analyze – in some cases for the first time ever – exactly how much taxpayer money flowed through the metropolitan area and where it ended up.
First up: Kansas City, Missouri.
A Beacon analysis of Kansas City CARES Act funds funneled from Jackson, Platte and Clay counties shows the city spent the most money on payroll, public health expenses and economic support for nonprofits, businesses and other outside entities.
Back up – which one was the CARES Act again?
The federal government has rolled out six stimulus packages since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but there are two major laws when it comes to direct relief funding for state, tribal and local governments.
The most recent one is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion spending program into law in March 2021. It includes $350 billion in direct aid for state, local and tribal governments.
But that pales in comparison to the CARES Act’s total price tag. At $2.08 trillion, the CARES Act is the largest stimulus package in American history. Funding went toward a wide range of relief, including the first round of $1,200 stimulus checks, creation of the Paycheck Protection Program and enhanced unemployment benefits.
It also created the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF), which provided $150 billion in direct government aid. For the purpose of following local government spending, as well as simplicity, The Beacon is specifically focusing on the rollout of CRF money.
How were Kansas City CARES Act funds received?
Another key distinction between ARPA and the CARES Act in Kansas City is how officials received the money. While metropolitan cities collect ARPA funds directly from the federal government, CARES Act funds flowed to the city through a more roundabout path.
CRF money first went to states and some local governments with 500,000 or more residents. Those “prime recipients” passed funding to subrecipients, such as counties, which in turn flowed money to lower-tier subrecipients, such as cities.
That funding plan left Kansas City in a tricky situation. Because the federal government used slightly outdated census estimates from 2019 to determine populations, the city was just shy of hitting the mark with roughly 495,000 residents. As of 2021, the city’s population is about 502,000.
Kansas City officials were therefore forced to request funding from three of the counties the city falls within, and in some cases the gravy train was moving quite slowly.
What’s more, Kansas City’s status as neither a prime nor subrecipient in most cases exempted it from the federal rules to report back on how the money was spent in a standardized format. And while the reporting differences make comparisons difficult, the financial records Kansas City reported to each county offer some insight into its spending patterns.
CARES Act funding from Jackson County
With a population of roughly 700,000 residents, Jackson County is the only prime recipient out of the three counties that allocated Coronavirus Relief Fund money to Kansas City. The county received $122.7 million directly from the federal government to distribute to cities within its border as officials saw fit.
In May 2020, Mayor Quinton Lucas spoke before the Jackson County Legislature, requesting $54.6 million for the city. Lucas argued the request was fair because Kansas City residents make up 45 percent of Jackson County’s population.
“Kansas City believes this proposal to represent a fair and detailed schedule of spending to support our City’s recovery under COVID-19 and is based on U.S. Treasury guidelines for spending,” Lucas wrote in a letter to the Jackson County Legislature.
But the county didn’t see it that way. Instead, it gave Kansas City $18.9 million.
Financial records obtained by The Beacon through a public records request show Kansas City spent the bulk of its Jackson County funds on payroll for public health and safety employees, a total of $8.3 million, or roughly 46 percent of its total allotment.
While municipalities are forbidden to use CRF money on expenses already outlined in existing budgets before COVID hit, they can spend it on employees such as police officers, firefighters and emergency medical responders.
CRF money can also pay for “budgeted personnel and services diverted to a substantially different use.” Kansas City spent about $400,000 — or 2.21 percent — of its Jackson County funds for that purpose, including costs associated with employees taking time off due to COVID.
Other substantial expenses included $1.5 million for personal protective equipment, $426,000 to facilitate distance learning and $244,000 to improve telework capabilities for public employees.
Explore the records: Click here to see financial records compiled by The Beacon showing how Kansas City spent its CARES Act funds from Jackson County.
CARES Act funding from Clay County
Kansas City’s second largest CRF payment came from Clay County – a total of about $11.7 million, according to city financial records.
Clay County required Kansas City to report its CARES Act expenses, but not in the exact format as Jackson County, making an apples-to-apples comparison impossible.
The reporting template for Clay County allowed city officials to select multiple spending categories for individual expenses. As a result, the records at times only offer a vague picture.
For example, officials reported $7.6 million worth of expenses all fell within 11 different categories. Records show those funds went to several different city departments and their use is listed as “storage service for COVID-19, COVID testing services, nurse and clerical staffing services… etc.”
However, some of the more detailed records suggest the city’s spending of Clay County funds followed similar trends to its overall CRF spending.
The city spent at least $2.1 million on employees, including emergency sick time for COVID-related illnesses and backup staffing. The nonprofit organization Northland Neighborhoods Inc. received nearly $1.5 million from the city to provide financial relief for people behind on rent or utility payments, among other types of aid, and nearly $500,000 went toward supporting the heightened operational needs at domestic violence shelters.
Explore the records: Click here to see financial records compiled by The Beacon showing how Kansas City spent its CARES Act funds from Clay County.
CARES Act funding from Platte County
Platte County was the last to issue funds to Kansas City. After months of frustrated pleas from Lucas, the county approved a $1.1 million payment on Dec. 23, 2020.
Platte County was also a subrecipient of Missouri’s allotted funds, making Kansas City a second-tier subrecipient again. While Kansas City didn’t provide records showing each purchase categorized, it produced a summary report of total expenses broken down by each federal spending category used in the Jackson County reports.
Like Jackson County, Kansas City spent the largest share of its Platte County funds on payroll for public health and safety employees.
However, it differs in its runner-up. The next largest category for Platte County is “administrative expenses,” which totaled $427,000, or about 37 percent of its total budget.
Explore the records: Click here to see financial records compiled by The Beacon showing how Kansas City spent its CARES Act funds from Platte County.
How we reported this story
To track CARES Act spending in Kansas City, we filed a public records request with the city for financial records. City officials produced an initial round of records about one month later. In response to reporter questions over the following two months, officials then released more detailed information. To see a compilation of some of those records, please click here.
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