LAWRENCE — Every community has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic, and while all have experienced some sort of negative outcomes, no two communities have been affected in the same way. That lack of a roadmap or template can make recovery difficult, especially in using federal funds dedicated to a pandemic response.
“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.
KU partners include the KU Public Management Center; Institute for Policy & Social Research; Center for Public Partnerships & 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.
Beginning in July, “strike teams” connected with residents and county officials to find out what specific needs each had. The stage was sent through economic analyses provided by IPSR and personal stories regarding the pandemic gathered by CPPR. Considering information specific to each county, stakeholders determined how to best use the funds to combat the effects of the pandemic.
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 pandemic.
Wilson and Miami counties completed their work in August; Johnson County’s process is just coming to fruition. More than 300 residents and officials provided input in each of the counties.
While the partnerships provide immediate benefit and assistance to Kansas counties and their residents, they have also provided an opportunity for students. 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. The pandemic’s far-reaching economic effects included eliminating many jobs that in the past were ideal matches for public administration internships. The required internships — “the hallmark of the public affairs and administration program for the past 70 years,” as Zacharias described it — gave students a unique opportunity to serve local communities in a time of need while also meeting academic requirements and providing them invaluable real-world experience.
KU’s Public Management Center, which has served as project manager in relief efforts in partnership with county project managers, 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.”
The proposals and relief funding have also required guidance in workforce development, ongoing education and small business facilitation, provided by Edwards Campus Community Engagement. While the pandemic has presented challenges no one had experience with, community members and partners have 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.”
Funds provided by the CARES Act have been distributed, but the process by which they can be spent have been under continuous review. KU partners have monitored those changes and advised county leaders on how to make investments within those guidelines. And while all of the funds are required to be spent by the end of this year, that does not necessarily mean the investments will disappear when the calendar turns.
Several of the projects are intended to provide long-term relief and benefits to the counties including capital improvements or purchase of school equipment such as computers that will be beneficial to students for years to come. Money cannot be placed in an account for use in 2021 and beyond, but systems that are developed this year, such as distribution of assistance to residents in need, can be continued if 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.”