CARES Act Funds Sent To County Nearly Depleted

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
On May 6, 2020, Benton County received a COVID grant in the amount of $2,281,052 from the Missouri Department of Revenue. It was our state’s share of $520 million in CARES Act funds distributed as part of the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. Benton County Commissioners were charged with the responsibility of disbursing the funds to respond to the public health emergency according to guidelines issued by the federal government. Each county handled disbursements differently. But, in all counties expenditures were to include direct responses to the emergency by addressing medical or public health needs, as well as expenditures incurred to respond to second-order effects of the emergency, such as by providing economic support to those suffering from employment or business interruptions due to COVID-19-related business closures.
The Benton County Commission sent out press releases urging businesses, first responders and government entities to attend Commission meetings where they would have time to ask questions about the CARES Act funds, and apply for assistance. No one attended the first of the meetings. A later Commission meeting was scheduled on June 10 so that cities could attend in the morning and first responders would attend in the afternoon. The only organizations to show up were the Cole Camp Ambulance District, the Benton County Health Department and the Warsaw Fire Protection District. As the word spread about the need to apply for CARES Act funds, more applications were given out and funds were granted that the County legal counsel verified to be in accordance with federal guidelines. 
Presiding Commissioner Steve Daleske said that one reason no one showed up for the first meeting may have been because some who qualified for assistance did not want to do all the paperwork. He also said that those applying had to show differences in their taxes between 2019 and 2020. If no loss of income was apparent, they would not qualify for funds under the “lost income” provision. He said that those who received funds for lost income would have to pay taxes on it. 
“When funds were requested for something that raised red flags, we sent the requests to legal counsel, before distributing of funds,” said Presiding Commissioner Daleske.
One request for CARES Act funds that raised “red flags,” was the Deer Creek Fire Protection District’s (DCFPD) request for funding for Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) to be used when making medical calls where COVID-19 was suspected. Although the request was made for the safety of DCFPD first responders, the SCBA requested was found not to be a qualified expense because the SCBA was not designed to be used as Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for medical calls, but was instead designed for use when fighting structural fires. DCFPD Fire Chief, Chad Hammond, became very frustrated when calls to the State Office of Administration as well as other governmental entities and the State Fire Marshall failed to help him get funding for his requested equipment.
“I had gone to the County Commission meeting on November 12, and requested an application,” said Chief Hammond. “It was hand-delivered by one of Commissioners to the wrong house, so that slowed the process. Then I was told that I didn’t qualify for funds because I was a volunteer fireman, and that there was no lost income. I am grasping at straws, trying to get funds for SCBA. Some of the funds our fire department raises for such expenditures are down this year. We usually raise about $8,000 a year through potluck dinners, but this year we are down to $4,058.”
Chief Hammond commented on some of the businesses that got CARES Act funds, stating that Charlies Buffet received more than $78,000 even though it is only open two days a week. He also said that L.D. Enterprises received two checks totaling more than $48,000 and two days afterwards, they closed down and “pocketed the money.” He said that he had been told that fire departments in counties around Benton County got something, and businesses didn’t. He says that he has heard that several ladies who own small businesses in Warsaw also plan to try and get CARES Act funds from the County Commission now that time is running out for applying. The disbursement of funds ends on December 30, and remaining funds have already been earmarked. Even if funds were still available, the two-month time frame needed to process applications would take more time than is left in the program.
Presiding Commissioner Daleske stated that fire departments in surrounding counties may have been treated differently than in Benton County because it was up to each county to disperse funds in their own way. He said that no fire departments in Benton County requested funds except for the DCFPD request for SCBA, and it was only turned down because it didn’t qualify for COVID-19 response according to legal counsel. DCFPD’s request was not turned down for any other reason.
Benton County Emergency Management Director, Mark Richardson, said that the State spent millions of dollars for PPE, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and more. Richardson picked up the PPE for Benton County and distributed it to all Fire Protection Districts and law enforcement personnel in amounts prescribed by the State. The delivery was made even before the Benton County Health Department received its PPE, and local fire departments appeared to have all they needed to “curb the spread of COVID-19.” 
Presiding Commissioner Daleske said that besides the PPE provided to the fire departments, there are other alternatives to SCBAs such as air respirators that are worn on the face and use cartridges to filter air.
A check with Linda Viebrock at the Benton County Health Department, verified that any first responder, health care worker or city or county employee is eligible to make an appointment at the Health Department to get an antibody test, a Rapid Response COVID test, and when available, a vaccine. 
“We are working with hospitals and getting a list of those health care providers to be given the first round of vaccines,” said Viebrock. “Nursing home residents will be given vaccines through Walgreens and CVS. We are thankful for the CARES money which is the only funding for this that we have received. We are also thankful to the County Commission for being so helpful to us.”
Presiding Commissioner Daleske said that they really care about those applying for CARES Act funds and are concerned about them. But, he said that if they don’t disburse funds strictly according to guidelines, the government will take back any funds they interpret as being misspent. He said that the State government has already requested that 10 specific files of those who received CARES Act funds in Benton County be sent to them for auditing.
More COVID and economic is on the way as Congressional leaders add stimulus checks to a $900 billion relief package.