Geary County will receive more than $6.3 million from the first round of COVID-19 relief money from the state. Those funds will be distributed among local government agencies and come with rules on what they can be spent on.
To help ensure accountability and adherence to those rules, county commissioners are expected to approve, during their weekly meeting on Monday, the hiring of Witt O’Brien’s, a crisis and emergency management firm.
Commissioners met for a workshop Friday morning to discuss whether hiring the firm would be a prudent use of a portion of the funds. With uncertainty about what constitutes reimbursable expenses coupled with the consequences of a mistake, there was agreement among participants that hiring Witt O’Brien’s was feasible.
The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas money is being allocated to local governments to help address the health and economic challenges inflicted by COVID-19, states Governor Laura Kelly’s website.
Commissioner Brad Scholz said it comes with restrictions and must be used for expenses directly related to COVID-19.
“There’s so many different scenarios associated with what’s an expense for COVID-19,” he said.
For example, Rural Water District Four recently had to make some repairs to its equipment. Clean water is necessary for cleaning hands and proper hygiene, which is part of mitigating COVID-19 spread. However, the repairs would have been needed regardless of the pandemic. Would that be a reimbursable expense, he asked.
People can debate the answer or think it is one way or the other, but Witt O’Brien’s has the teams in place to sift through all the minutia that accompanies pages of requirements, conditions and constraints.
Steve Opat, county counselor, said everything he has heard about the company has been complimentary and there are several places in Kansas looking to sign on with them.
“You’re dealing with … FEMA, you’re dealing with CARES, you’re dealing with the second and third rounds of stimulus from Washington,” Opat said of all various funding streams. “They know how to break this down. If you asked one person to do what they propose to do — it would be impossible.”
Hiring a crisis management agency helps safeguard the county, Scholz said. The proposed contract is for services not to exceed $150,000, which is payable with SPARK funding.
“We really want a firm that knows (the laws and rules surrounding the funds) so that we don’t have to pay any of it back,” he said. “If we did this on our own, and something was not a justifiable line item to be reimbursed, the county would have to pay it back.”
If that were to happen the repayment would come out of the county’s general fund.
“I absolutely do not want to give any money back to the state,” Scholz said.