LAWRENCE, Kansas — In north Lawrence, the city set up 20 white-and-gray tents in a park to house people who are homeless.
It’s not health care, or COVID-19 tests, but federal coronavirus tax dollars are paying for the camp.
“If we put our homeless population into the shelter, there’s a higher chance that they’ll get the virus and then they’ll spread it across the community,” Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly said.
The camp marks but one example of the creative ways communities are using the federal money. They scrambled to spend the cash before a deadline at the end of December, but Congress is now giving them more time. Restrictions also mean that money can’t go to some of the top priorities in local budgets.
In a deal just days before the deadline, congressional leaders decided to give state and local governments an extra year to spend the money as part of a larger economic stimulus plan.
The state allocated the $1 billion in three rounds, with plans to have the rest spent by the deadline later this month. Of that, $400 million was sent to local governments to spend on the particular needs in those communities.
The camp in Lawrence might seem unconventional, but much of the $25 million allocated to Douglas County is going to things more obviously tied to the pandemic. Testing, protective equipment and financial help for local businesses, including music clubs.
“We have a lot of live music here in Lawrence, Kansas,” Kelly said, “and they came to us very early and said they were the first to shut down and there’ll be the last to open up.”
Douglas County isn’t the only place getting creative with spending the $1 billion. A group of counties used money to upgrade their emergency response radio system.
Bourbon County in southeast Kansas is helping pay for a grocery store.
Kansas Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz heads the governor’s office that works with counties on spending the federal money. She said the grocery store plan needed some tweaking to have a solid connection to the pandemic.
“They’ve seen a spike in their unemployment because of COVID, which then made their food desert situation even worse,” Lorenz said in an interview.
The state and local governments worked fast because the money had to be used by the end of this month, and there were contingency plans so it could be spent in time.
Earlier this month, Lorenz said she hoped Congress would give them some relief.
“My holiday wish from Congress would be a big three-part,” she said, “more money, more time and more flexibility.”
In the last-minute deal, Lorenz will get the extra time she wished for.
Congress forced the unconventional thinking with the original deadline and spending rules. It wanted states and counties to have money to cover pandemic costs, not replace tax revenue that dried up during the pandemic.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’ve got a budget hole somewhere, we want to patch it with this,’” said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects with the right-leaning Tax Foundation.
Walczak warns states to be careful because federal auditors could demand the money go back to Washington if the spending’s not connected to the pandemic.
“(The Department of the) Treasury will probably give them some latitude, but it’s not unlimited,” he said. “You start going out there and doing bold economic development projects that have nothing to do with COVID-19 and you’re going to get some scrutiny.”
The unorthodox thinking has also spread to implementing programs paid for with federal money, to make them most effective.
On a sunny Sunday this month, workers from Lawrence Memorial Hospital handed out COVID-19 tests in the city’s downtown. The day before, this group had distributed almost 2,000 tests.
Lesli Smith came out to get tests for herself and her kids.
“I work in the service industry and they go hybrid learning,” she said, “so it’s just nice to know.”
Douglas County had started with drive-through events managed by the hospital. Those continue, but the strategy has shifted to simply handing out the tests in busy places.
Sarah Hartsig, community health planner with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said the goal is testing the widest cross section of people possible.
“To identify asymptomatic, positive people,” she said, “we have to try a lot of different strategies and reach people in a lot of different ways.”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.