OP nixes purchase of soccer complex video system with $350,000 in federal COVID funds

The Overland Park City Council initially allocated $350,000 in federal funds for the purchase a week ago. (File photo.)

Overland Park announced Monday the city has decided not to use $350,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase a video broadcast system at Scheels Soccer Complex.

The announcement comes just a week after the City Council approved the allocation for the equipment in a 10-2 vote.

Councilmembers in support of the move said it would allow relatives to watch matches played at the youth soccer hub in south Overland Park online without the risk of gathering in crowds during the pandemic. They also touted a revenue-sharing agreement with the Iowa-based company that would have run the system, which would have given the city up to 70% of money earned from on-demand streaming video.

But the purchase and its price tag drew swift backlash from some councilmembers, as well as other elected officials in Johnson County, who painted it as a potentially inappropriate use of pandemic relief funds at a time when the Kansas City metro — and the nation as a whole — is still struggling to contain the pandemic and the economic fallout it has caused.

A ‘timeframe’ problem

In a statement, city spokesperson Meg Ralph said the decision came down to timing after Ward 6 City Councilmember Scott Hamblin — one of the two who voted against it, along with Councilmember Faris Farassati — informed the city he planned to file a motion at the council’s next meeting, on Monday, Nov. 2, to rescind the allocation.

Ralph said Hamblin’s motion would have necessitated pushing back the timeline “to execute an agreement” to purchase and install the equipment. That would have potentially run afoul of an end-of-year deadline imposed by the federal government for use of relief funds through the CARES Act.

“Due to the requirement that all work funded by CARES be completed by Dec. 30, 2020, Overland Park officials believe the work could not be completed by the deadline,” Ralph wrote.

In an interview with reporters via Zoom, another city spokesperson, Sean Reilly, denied that the city’s decision was a response to criticism it received in the week since the city council’s vote.

“No, it’s the timeframe,” Reilly said. “You have to complete the work by the end of the year.”

Others questioned the purchase

The city council’s decision to use $350,000 in pandemic aid to buy the video system drew scrutiny over the past week.

It prompted Johnson County commissioners to ask for closer monitoring of how COVID relief funds are being spent by cities. Though the Scheels video project had been approved by county staff, some county commissioners wondered if that eligibility could be reconsidered.

“Could we change our mind or have we already blessed it, and it’s out of the box?” asked Commissioner Michael Ashcraft.

An official description of the video project used by the city to apply for the funds through the county proposes that the $350,000 would be used for a “video broadcasting platform” that would “ensure compliance with social distancing requirements.” However, the description does not mention soccer, the Scheels complex or on-demand, pay-per-view videos.

Still, at the county commission’s meeting last week, Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson called the allocation “clearly eligible” for federal funds.

Some commissioners worried about how the project looked to residents and asked for more of a “heads up” on future projects that could get pushback.

“I think a bit of a newspaper test should be given to some of these questionable issues,” said Commissioner Steve Klika.

Money will be returned to county

Johnson County has received more than $116 million in federal COVID relief dollars, to be distributed to cities in three waves, according to the county’s website.

City spokesperson Reilly said the $350,000 initially allocated for the soccer complex video system will be returned to the county. He also said, despite critiques, the purchase of the video equipment was in line with guidelines set out by the U.S. government for the use of federal pandemic relief funds.

“We’ve complied with the process as established by the U.S. Treasury Department,” he said Monday. “It was our intent to have those cameras in place for parents and families to watch matches. Maybe some day in the future, we might get it.”

Reilly said the city’s own budget is already “tight” due to pandemic-related revenue losses, appearing to rule out a similar allocation of funds out of the city’s current budget.