In June, Kansas approved and allocated $400 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to counties across the state.


But as of Wednesday, Crawford County has yet to see any of that CARES money spent, according to Crawford County Commissioner Jeremy Johnson.


"We have businesses asking us every day, ’When is the money coming?’ " he said. "We've had a lot of businesses locally that are kind of chomping at the bit to get that money, because they honestly need it."


Counties are currently answering questions from the state’s Office of Recovery, which sent back its reviews of county spending plans earlier this month. The plans had been submitted to the state by mid-August.


But the whole drawn-out, back-and-forth process — coupled with a tight deadline to spend all of the relief funding by the end of of this year or return it — have put counties under a crunch.


For counties whose spending reports by the state were filled with substantial questions, gathering the documentation to answer them and waiting to hear another response will only put an additional delay on all allocated money being used.


In Leavenworth County’s report, for example, the Recovery Office said "it is not possible to fully ascertain the County’s technical understanding of eligibility criteria," partially because the county didn’t provide any descriptions for the proposed programs for which it would use the money.


Meticulous detail is needed because federal law requires the funds be used only for COVID-related purposes. But what qualifies or not, plus the paperwork and effort needed to show that, already put a significant strain on under-resourced counties to produce those spending plans in the first place, as previously reported by The Topeka Capital-Journal.


In the report for Ford County, the Recovery Office questioned part of the county’s allocated $11.1 million dollars planned for construction of two city buildings. The state noted these were major projects that might not be completed by deadline and asked "how construction of a new building is necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic."


The City of Ford needs a new building for city administration functions, said city clerk Penny McAllister, simply because the one she operates out of right now is an old school building with no windows, ventilation or enough spacing needed to ensure safety in a pandemic.


"Quite frankly, to try to retrofit a 1950s school building to make it up to COVID standards or any other disease pandemic that might come along would cost millions of dollars," said McAllister. "We try to be fiscally responsible for a small town. The best cost-effective (way) would be to build a new building," which the county estimated costing just $245,000.


She said she fears for her own safety and of those who come in every day, and while she has tried to make operations as remote as possible, many in town can only pay in cash, which has to be done in person.


"I have a builder lined up, and he assured me that I would be able to be operating in my office by the end of the year," McAllister said. "The more (the state) delays us, the harder it will be."


The state hasn’t yet denied use of the funding for the two new buildings, though Ford County Administrator J.D. Gilbert expects it will, he said Thursday. When asked why the county still requested the buildings despite the tight time frame, Gilbert said the communities’ need for them was important.


"And if you don't ask, the answer is always no," he added.


Crawford County has been luckier in this aspect, said Johnson, as the county already put together an "ad hoc recovery task force" before its allocated $7.8 million was announced.


"That process was all lined out," Johnson said. "So when the state asked for more explanation of (the spending plan), it wasn't like we were scrambling for a way to explain ourselves."


But he is still waiting for final approval from the state after responding back at least a week ago. While Crawford County’s plan was to spend the biggest portion of CARES Act money during September, it is almost the month’s end.


"We have kind of been asking questions in the meantime of like, ’Could we proceed with programs that did not have questions attached to them?’ And the state has said, ’No, you can't do that,’ " he said.


For now, the county has gone ahead with some of its spending plan using its own money, purchasing testing equipment and hiring a public information officer, said Johnson. The hope is the CARES money when approved will cover those expenses, but there is a danger it may not.


The overall sentiment from counties has been frustration with how quickly everything needs to be done in order to use up all of the relief funding by the end of 2020.


"As soon as we heard that the money was going to have to be spent by the end of the year, all of our brains exploded," Johnson said.


Gilbert agreed, noting that counties also have to supervise the funding requests for entities beneath them and the time everything takes.


"The deadlines are way too early, way too quick. And they're not taking into consideration how delicate this process is," he said. "They're not consulting with the locals on these deadlines. And they're basically leaving us out of the loop and making us all follow their criteria."


Johnson doesn’t blame the state, saying he wants Kansas to take the time to meticulously analyze and ensure all CARES Act money is being properly spent. The bigger issue is the end-of-the-year deadline set by the federal government, he said.


"I would hope that there would be some action at higher levels, probably the federal level, to extend the timeline, because we want to make sure that the money is being spent how it was intended, which was for local communities to try and address their institutional and health needs," he said.


The state is aware of the pressing deadline that counties face. In a meeting of the state task force in charge of allocating statewide CARES funding, executive director Julie Lorenz said there needed to be a close eye kept on counties with "back-loaded" spending plans — where significant portions of allocated money are planned toward the end of the year.


This includes Ford County, which planned to spend most of its money in November. Gilbert said this was to "make sure we do it the right way" and have auditors engaged in the process before money is sent out.


In addition, to reduce this risk of not making the deadline, the Office of Recovery recently implemented a technical assistance program designed to provide counties more involved and continued support in utilizing relief funds, the governor’s spokesperson said in an email.


But realistically, considering everything, will counties be able to spend all of their CARES Act funding by the end of the year?


"It will be difficult," Johnson said. "But if those are the constraints that exist, we're going to work with them, because pushing back or balking or saying ’we can't do this’ is not going to play out well."