KU partners with Kansas counties to use COVID-19 funding effectively


LAWRENCE, Kan. – The University of Kansas is partnering with three Kansas counties to effectively use COVID-19 relief funding for community needs.

The University of Kansas says a diverse group of scholars, researchers, staff and students have been helping Johnson, Miami and Wilson Counties determine how to spend over $44 million in federal COVID-19 funding by the end of 2020 to have a lasting positive effect.

“We felt county governments could use some assistance in programming these dollars. So we developed a program to partner with three Kansas counties to develop strike teams to identify what projects needed to be done and to use these dollars in a long-term, beneficial way,” said Hannes Zacharias, one of the project leaders. Zacharias is the Robert A. Kipp Professor of Practice in Local Government Management and Urban Policy in KU’s School of Public Affairs & Administration.

According to KU, partners include the KU Public Management Center; Institute for Policy & Social Research; Center for Public Partnership & Research; KU Edwards Campus; faculty and administrators including David Cook, executive vice chancellor for public affairs & economic development and master’s degree candidates in public affairs & administration.

KU said beginning in July, “strike teams” connected with residents and county officials to discover the specific needs of each. It said the stage was sent through economic analyses provided by IPSR and personal stories regarding the pandemic gathered by CPPR. It said considering information specific to each county, stakeholders determined how to best use the funds to combat the effects of the pandemic.

According to the school, solutions included rental and food assistance, family counseling, business payroll assistance, providing personal protective equipment for health workers, providing equipment such as plexiglass for businesses to safely operate and reimbursing school districts for costs already incurred in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University said Wilson and Miami Counties completed their work in August while Johnson Co.’s process is just coming to fruition. It said over 300 residents and officials provided input in each of the counties.

KU said while the partnerships provide immediate benefit and assistance to Kansas counties and their residents, they have also provided an opportunity for students. It said masters candidates have fulfilled internship requirements in working with community members to identify needs, prepare proposals, plan and develop projects, allocate funding, meet guidelines and more. It said the pandemic’s effects included eliminating many jobs that in the past were great matches for public administration internships. It said the required internships gave students a unique way to serve local communities in a time of need while also meeting academic requirements and providing invaluable real-world experience.

According to the University, its Public Management Center has served as a project manager in relief efforts in partnership with county project managers and has facilitated the partnerships in a challenging setting.

“These processes have been accomplished in a very tight timeline, over the course of a week at the most. Yet, each strike team has developed solid proposals within federally mandated parameters to allow their community to move beyond the pandemic, and those proposals have been approved by the state of Kansas,” said Patty Gentrup, consulting services manager at the Public Management Center. “All of our work has been virtual. Before March 2020, I don’t know that we would have thought that such an intensive process could be done without face-to-face workshops. I’m pleased that technology allows conversations, sometimes difficult ones, to occur and that stakeholders have been able to come together around the virtual table and agree on solutions to the challenges they are facing.”

KU said the proposals and relief funding have also required guidance in workforce development, ongoing educational small business facilitation, which was provided by the Edwards Campus Community Engagement. It said while the pandemic presented challenges no one had experience with, community members and partners found ways to apply previous lessons combined with firsthand knowledge of community needs.

“Who could have planned for a pandemic? But gathering the expertise from KU, along with community members in each county in a rapid time frame to help make decisions on their CARES Act money, has been an amazing experience,” said Carolyn McKnight, director of community relations and business development at the Edwards Campus. “Our motto for each proposal was ‘short-term investments for long-term goals.’ Each county had different critical needs, and I was so proud of the community members to take time out of their day to provide advice that influenced how to spend the CARES Act money.”

According to the school, funds provided by the CARES Act have been distributed, but the process by which they can be spent has been under constant review. It said partners have monitored the changes and advised county leaders on how to make investments within the guidelines. It said while all of the funds are required to be spent by the end of 1010, that does not mean the investments will disappear when the calendar turns.

KU said several projects are intended to provide long-term relief and benefits to counties, including capital improvements or purchase of school equipment like computers that will be beneficial to students for years to come. It said the money cannot be put in an account for use in 2021, however, systems developed this year like distribution of assistance to residents in need can be continued of new funds are allocated.

“This is new territory for everybody, but what we can bring is experience and guidance on how to meet federal funding and regulatory guidelines and solve unique problems,” Zacharias said. “It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make investments that can make a long-term difference for Kansas communities.”