JoCo finalizes $35 million COVID-19 aid package that includes help for small businesses, renters

Johnson County leaders have decided on how they want to allocate $35 million worth of COVID-19 relief funds. Small businesses, rent and workforce assistance are among the key recipient groups. Above, members of the Board of County Commissioners in a file photo.

After months of research and meetings, Johnson County leaders have settled on a $35 million package of pandemic relief that includes small business grants, rent and workforce assistance, as well as money to improve digital access.

The county’s aid package also takes aim at aging and mental health needs, as well as arts, business and child care.

The spending will account for about a third of the $116.3 million the county got in federal pandemic relief funds through the CARES Act, along with another $7 million from the state to address economic struggles caused by the pandemic. Officials have already allocated about $59 million to other local taxing bodies in the first phase of spending. County officials say the final phase of about $23 million will be used for so-far-unidentified contingency and administrative costs.

The journey toward a final spending package has been filled with trepidation by the county commission and staff because of the need to meet strict federal rules on what the aid can be used for, while making sure the money is spent by the end of this year. The 226-page plan was developed with extensive input from 80 community stakeholders, said Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson.

What’s in the aid package

By far the biggest chunk will be used for grants to small business, which includes cultural arts businesses. Officials have earmarked $13.6 million for small business aid. Some other major items include:

  • $9.8 million for workforce training, remote learning for school children and child care
  • $4.1 million for aging services
  • $3.7 million to housing assistance
  • $2.3 million for mental health
  • $1.7 million for digital access for low-income families

Thompson assured commissioners that the disbursements would be carefully monitored to see that applicants meet all the requirements. “We’re not simply sending money out into the community,” he said.

Johnson County Commissioner Steve Klika. Photo credit Leah Wankum.

Commissioner Steve Klika called it a “fabulous” list. County and community leadership will continue to monitor whether the programs are successful, but “We’ve got to get these dollars out. It’s already six months into COVID. We’ve got to start reacting here.”

To qualify for a grant, a small business must have from 1 to 100 full-time equivalent employees as of March 1, have a revenue of no more than $10 million and losses of 20 percent or more from March 1 through Aug. 31 over the same time last year, with at least $10,000 of those losses pandemic-related.

Cultural arts business, which include non-profits and artists, were targeted because the county has a large number of them and they’ve been hit especially hard. According to county research, there are 1,600 arts businesses employing 8,000 people in the county, and that sector has seen a negative impact of $3.5 million since the pandemic began. The employee and revenue requirements for this aid are the same as for small businesses, but there was no specific loss percentage identified in the package.

Digital access needs

Thompson identified the digital access aid as the most unique in the spending package, although it accounts for the least dollars spent.

This slice of spending targets low-income families who can’t afford internet services for remote work and learning, while also putting some money toward building up digital infrastructure in USD 232 in De Soto.

Payment for up to six months of internet service would be available for families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In addition, national nonprofit PCs for People will provide desktops or laptops and hotspots to people suffering pandemic-related hardships. Some of that equipment may come from recycled county equipment going out of commission.

The digital access portion of the spending also would help bring stronger internet service to the De Soto school district, which has a growing school-age population and sometimes spotty reception. The funding would add to construction already underway along two roads to lay conduit in rocky areas from 95th and 98th Streets to 115th Street. The county would spend $177,000 in partnership with RG Fiber and $198,000 with Zoom Fiber to speed up those projects.

The county also plans to provide tech support as well as basic troubleshooting to students and underserved populations.

Help for renters, working families, seniors

Housing assistance encompasses rents, mortgages, evictions and emergency housing. Qualifying renters could get up to $3,000 or three months’ rent, whichever is less. Applications will begin to be accepted Oct. 15 and will be distributed through Dec. 31 or whenever funds run out. Households with incomes below 80 percent of the local median income – or up to $73,417 in 2020 – get top priority.

Beth Kirk runs a child care center in Shawnee. (File photo.)

The package also beefs up worker training and offers subsidized child care and remote learning. The child care would be on a sliding fee plan to parents either employed, at school or looking for work who have no other safe child care options. The aid would be available to households with incomes of less than $150,000 a year.

Money for aging services includes aid for remodeling interior or building temporary outdoor safe visiting spaces at long-term care facilities. Up to $40,000 per project with a total of $860,000 is envisioned. The package also includes money for new virtual education programs for seniors, transportation and grocery store vouchers for people over 60 and unemployed or homebound and rapid COVID-19 testing equipment for senior care facilities.

Mental health spending includes money for non-profits that provide mental health services and outreach to underserved populations about how to access services.

More information is available at the county website www.jocogov.org/JoCoCARES.