Candidates comment on UG’s $87 million federal windfall

Candidates for Unified Government offices were asked a question at a candidate forum Monday afternoon on how the UG’s $87 million in federal funds should be spent.

So far, the UG has received about half of the $87 million amount, and is scheduled to receive the other half next year, according to a recent UG meeting.

The question was one of many topics at the candidate forum, which was sponsored by Business West and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Some of the other topics covered included the Safe and Welcoming ordinance, property taxes and other issues. The forum was on Zoom and is being posted to YouTube and also broadcast to the KCKCC cable television channel.

Mayoral candidates respond

Mayor David Alvey said it will be based on community input, trying to replace lost revenues the UG lost during the past year. The UG was not able to hire a class of police officers, and he would like to provide funding for it. He also said the murder rate is down by about a third and shootings into dwellings are down by about a third from last year.

The UG will conduct a public hearing, to find the priority of the community in distributing the funds, he said. There were a lot of social service providers who have needs and received funding and businesses that received loans over the past year, he said. They have to make sure they get the funds to the right place, he said.

Personally, he thinks the UG needs to put more money to infrastructure. As Wyandotte County’s infrastructure continues to deteriorate and fall apart, it will discourage investment, he said. In the long term replacing the infrastructure will be catalytic, he said. He supports more money for infrastructure.

The UG has scheduled a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 29, during a UG meeting to gather public opinions on what to do with the $87 million.

Janice Witt said the funds should immediately go into property tax relief and help with seniors and youth who may be struggling.

Chris Steineger agreed that tax reduction is a priority. The federal government has probably put strings on how the $87 million is spent and most likely they don’t allow tax reductions, he said. Most likely the UG would have to replace revenue, cut taxes with local government revenue and use federal funds as replacement. He doesn’t favor spending more money than the UG is already spending. The UG would have to use its own money for property tax relief.

The funds could be used to stimulate the economy, he said. When people are working, they have more money in their pockets and self-destiny, he said. The shutdown of businesses resulted in increase in crime around the nation, he believes.

Tyrone Garner said they need to educate the community on what is in that plan, what it entails. Wyandotte County has one of the largest percentages of poverty in the metro area, homelessness, loss of jobs, and people are struggling with utility bills. He also said they should look at small businesses and see how to leverage these funds and bridge it into jobs for individuals who have lost jobs, and look at educational opportunities for children. He also mentioned infrastructure.

He said he would like to see a blue-ribbon panel come together of key stakeholders and discuss a solution with citizens, of what works best in Wyandotte County.

Daran Duffy said they should find out the people most vulnerable. A lot of elderly are struggling, some are on fixed incomes, and he suggested adjusting their BPU bills. Also, talking with retired veterans, there are a lot who are really struggling in the county, he said. The community needs to back them, thank them and support them, he said.

He also said some fire stations are showing disrepair and have needs. It’s really important to take a look at what fire and police need, he said. He also mentioned crime prevention.

Commission candidates comment on windfall

Commissioner Tom Burroughs, 2nd District at large, said there were front-line health and public safety workers who put their lives at risk during the pandemic, and some were forced to work overtime. He favors a bonus to those workers. It would send a strong message to those workers that they are partners in this project, he said.

Also, funds should go to backfill some of the lost revenue, he said. They are discussing it now, with more discussion planned later.

Ned Kelley, a candidate for 2nd District at large, said he doesn’t want to spend the $87 million. He wants to make it as difficult for the UG to spend the taxpayers’ money as possible. He wants to reduce as many spending projects as possible to make the funds last to cut taxes going forward, he said.

Baseball fields, parks and programs are needed, but they could do a better job with organizations such as the YMCA, he said.

“I want you to keep your own darn money,” he said.

Commissioner Gayle Townsend, 1st District, said she is in the process of asking community leaders their priorities for spending the $87 million. She said she encourages everyone to participate in the public hearing this Thursday.

She would like to see money put toward housing, bills, for people displaced from jobs and homes, food, also for infrastructure. Infrastructure for years has been in need of upgrade, she said. There will be other ideas, but these are basic needs, she added. Regardless of what district people live in, everyone uses the streets, she said.

Candidate Melvin Williams, running for 1st District, said he understands Wyandotte County is in need of a lot of things, but the 1st District is in need of everything. He personally would take the money and put it back into Parkwood Pool, updating it.

He would reach out to community leaders to see how best to use the money within the community, he said.

Commissioner Mike Kane, 5th District, said the UG should pay down some of the debt. They should get more social programs for kids, more counseling, and the UG should reopen the Parkwood Pool. He also said he’s not opposed to building a pool at Indian Springs.

If they don’t pay down the debt, and don’t provide something for the kids to do after school, then the kids get in trouble, he believes.

Commissioner Jane Winkler Philbrook, 8th District, said the $87 million is supposed to be spent for issues around backfilling on wages and expenditures that happened. They have had multiple meetings and will be having more, including one on Thursday night.

Although they will be limited on what they can spend it on, there are still things they can spend it on, she said. If they can take care of some of the overhead they had, it would be wonderful, she said. The UG would not be spending as much to fund those items over a time period.

Tscher “Cece” Manck, 8th District candidate, said she would support small businesses, and possibly use it for payroll. She would like to read over information about it and find out more about the legalities of it, she added.

Geoffrey Kump, 8th District candidate, said the funds need to take care of those who suffered most in COVID. He mentioned teachers, health care workers and first responders, who need hazard pay for the work they did during the COVID time.

Also, the UG needs to protect its small businesses. Every small business that had to shut down should have one month of their property tax paid, he said.

Also, use what they can to control some of the overhead in debt, he added, and build into the fund balance.

Andrew Davis, 8th District candidate, said the funds don’t hae to be spent until 2024, so there is time to do community by community meetings to find out the needs.

His priorities now would be UG front-line workers, stormwater infrastructure, Parkwood pool, revenue loss and other things. Before any money is spent they need a robust community engagement process, he said.

Candidate forums from Monday and Tuesday are on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/KCECable. They also will be shown on KCEC, cable television station. Several other issues are discussed in the forums, as well.

BPU extends utility cutoff moratorium until Aug. 4

The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Public Utilities voted unanimously on Wednesday night to extend a moratorium on utility disconnections to Aug. 4.

Previously, the moratorium was scheduled to end July 30.

A full report is scheduled on the utility disconnections at the Aug. 4 meeting, General Manager Bill Johnson told the board Wednesday night.

Board member Jeff Bryant proposed the extension, saying that he would like to hear the report about the program scheduled at the Aug. 4 BPU meeting before the board makes a decision about the moratorium ending.

The BPU discussion took place on the eve of another heat wave predicted for Wyandotte County. Also, it’s only a few weeks before the Aug. 3 primary election, which includes some BPU positions.

Johnson reported that a state utility assistance program, the Kansas Emergency Rental Assistance (KERA) program, has paid utility costs for 174 BPU customers, for a total of about $123,000.

Johnson said BPU has 1,022 rental residential customers who are over 60 days delinquent on their accounts. About 710 applications have been made to KERA from BPU customers, he said. KERA reported the number to the BPU. About 535 customers’ accounts have been flagged to not disconnect them, as they have applied to KERA, he said. Since the beginning of the moratorium, delinquent accounts have almost doubled, according to Johnson.

Bryant noted that at the end of June, about 400 Wyandotte Countians had applied to KERA, and now the number is about 710. At that time, 50 had been assisted by the state, now the number has grown to 174.

He said it sounds like the state is starting to get the program in gear, but there are still a significant number of applications that are not settled yet, more than 500.

Johnson said currently KERA only looks at assisting renters, not homeowners, but in the future they will be looking at adding homeowners. With the moratorium, the BPU is not disconnecting any residential customers, whether homeowners or renters, he said.

He said although there are 1,022 who are delinquent currently, and not all have applied for assistance, some of them will not qualify, and some are not applying, for unknown reasons.

Bryant said he is not prepared to remove the moratorium, knowing there is one-third of the total in arrears who have made application and are waiting. It’s a considerable number that could be shut off, he said.

Board member Tom Groneman suggested sending messages to the delinquent renters, telling them they could qualify for KERA assistance, and telling them information about applying for the program.

Johnson said they have listed the KERA program in many communications, and have added that residents can also seek out other assistance, as well. There are other utility assistance programs offered through the BPU and the United Way.

Johnson said with this moratorium, and also with the last two moratoria, some customers tend not to apply for assistance, and the amount of delinquent accounts grow.

Groneman suggested sending messages directly to people who are delinquent on their accounts, not just sending out a general message.

Board member Rose Mulvany Henry agreed about sending the direct messages. She said it could result in BPU getting money from the state, without placing the burden on customers. The state received funds for utility assistance from the federal government.

Johnson added the BPU has done more with getting the word out on this program than on other programs in the past. KERA has told the BPU it has been the most active group in the state. He said they would try to promote it more, tell people where to go to seek assistance and make an application.

Board member Mary Gonzales noted it has been reported that the KERA program required landlords to make application with the renters, and some landlords would not apply.

Johnson said the state is trying to figure out how to move away from the landlord requirement, which is one of the huge roadblocks. If they could clear that hurdle it’s likely they would see more applications approved, he said.

Bryant said the other 500 delinquent accounts that have not applied for assistance means the utility could be missing out on $350,000 in payments. The BPU could possibly receive the funding if renters applied for assistance with KERA. If the accounts go unpaid, all the other customers of BPU have to pick up the bill.

“If the state or federal government steps in and pays, the ratepayers win and so does the utility,” Bryant said.

Johnson said they would try to contact the 500 or so customers, possibly with a call or robo call, to let them know they can apply for KERA assistance.

Johnetta Hinson, executive director of customer service, said the BPU has contacted the United Way and discovered that the United Way and its agencies were not being contacted for assistance as much as previously.

While the community’s need has exceeded the amount of United Way funding available, there was still some funding available from the United Way agencies, according to officials.

“There may not be as many applying, but the money is available,” she said.

The utility assistance programs through BPU also have decreased as well, she said. There are delinquencies, and there is some money available, but they don’t have as many people applying at this time, she said.

Johnson said KERA officials have told him that customers may apply for KERA assistance as well as assistance at other agencies.

In another BPU report, BPU officials said the utility currently has two COVID-19 cases, the first cases after some months of having no cases.

To see more information on the KERA program and how to apply for it, visit https://kshousingcorp.org/emergency-rental-assistance/.

To contact the United Way of Greater Kansas City about assistance, call 211.

The BPU’s customer service phone number is 913-573-9190.

To see a story from June 22 on the BPU utility moratorium on cutoffs, visit http://www.wyandottedaily.com/bpu-approves-one-month-moratorium-on-utility-disconnections/.

KCK school board votes to require masks in fall

The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education voted Tuesday night to approve masks for all students, staff, parents and visitors when school resumes in the fall.

The board voted unanimously to approve the recommendation, which was presented by Stephen Linkous, district chief of staff, and recommended by the superintendent.

According to Linkous, masks also will be required on school buses.

The new rules also call for students and others who have any symptoms to stay home, he said.

The district will try to have social distancing wherever possible, but they will not guarantee everyone is three to six feet apart, according to Linkous. Social distancing is no longer required by health guidelines, he said.

Daily continuous cleaning of the district’s buildings will be maintained, with disinfection at night, he said.

Linkous said the district has a re-entry team that meets monthly and can bring back any changes to the board for the policy in case COVID rates change.

This fall, teachers here will teach only in-person students, Linkous said.

Virtual learning will be offered to 50 elementary, 50 middle school and 200 high school students through Greenbush, a Kansas education service center based near Pittsburg, Kansas.

Dr. Anna Stubblefield, superintendent, said the numbers are the district’s guarantees for the number of students, but if there are more students than 50, they will work with them.

Students who participate in virtual learning would enroll through the district’s student services, Linkous said, but there would not be a district teacher checking in with them every day and making sure they are on task.

Also, he said teachers this year will not try to be teaching children in person at the same time as teaching students remotely on computers.

He said students would be expected to complete a semester before they have a chance to change the learning mode. They wanted students to stay on track, he said.

There is also a quarantine policy. If students are absent because of quarantine or a long-term illness, the students will be able to check with the district’s Canvas website to check for their assignments and other information.

This fall, campuses will be able to have outdoor activities and athletics, he said.

They would like smaller numbers at events such as open houses and back-to-school events, he said, to reduce the risk. For example, a school might hold an event for sophomores, another event for juniors.

The state athletic guidelines do not have requirements for masking outdoors, he said. Spectators would be permitted to attend athletic and school activities, he said. Spectators who are outdoors would not have to wear masks, but if they are indoors, masks would be required. Linkous said these are his recommendations, but board decisions.

Fine arts and physical education classes would have mitigations and adaptations in place according to local health department guidelines, he said.

Linkous said more information is expected to come out from the Kansas State High School Athletic Association next week on guidance for sports and activities.

Linkous said the district will be giving students an internet device to use for virtual learning, and there is a plan to provide internet service.

Wanda Brownlee Paige, board member, asked if there was a backup plan, and Linkous said if they were told to go back into remote learning, it might not be as bad this time because of the Canvas system the district is now using. It would be easier to keep track of student progress, he said.

After a question from Dr. Valdenia Winn, board member, Dr. Stubblefield said remote learning is not being considered at this time, as it isn’t allowed for any district in Kansas. The state allows virtual learning from Greeenbush. In the case the entire class has to quarantine, however, teachers would be prepared, Dr. Stubblefield said.

Linkous said the district plans for 100 percent in-person attendance, minus the students who choose to go virtually to Greenbush.

When asked about the district’s desk shields for students, Linkous said the district now is working on a plan, getting input from principals for district practices on how they are implemented.

Dr. Stacey Yeager, a board member, asked if there was a way to pool resources for the students at seven district schools who wear uniforms. She said she applauded the district for purchasing school supplies for every student and having them available in class from day one.

In other action, the school board reorganized on Tuesday, and Randy Lopez was re-elected board president.

Dr. Winn nominated the vice president, Paige, for re-election. Janey Humphries nominated Yolanda Clark for vice president. Another nomination was made for Maxine Drew for vice president.

The board voted three in favor of Paige, and four against, with those in favor including Lopez, Dr. Winn and Paige.

The board then voted 5-2 in favor of Clark as vice president, with Paige and Dr. Winn voting no.

Lopez thanked Paige for her service as vice president this past year, and said he learned a lot from her guiding and co-leading the board and district.