Aaron Walker, executive director of Cairn Health, expressed frustration that Sedgwick County will not be funding any nonprofit organizations with its American Rescue Plan Act funds. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Aaron Walker, executive director of Cairn Health, expressed frustration that Sedgwick County will not be funding any nonprofit organizations with its American Rescue Plan Act funds. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Since COVID-19 began, the nonprofit Cairn Health has struggled to maintain its budget to provide health services to low-income individuals in Sedgwick County. 

“We have seen a decrease in our revenues because we’re primarily funded through what would be considered fundraising, either through the United Way’s fundraising or through our own,” said Aaron Walker, executive director of Cairn Health. “And the amounts that have gone to that fundraising, both to us as an entity and to the United Way, have decreased sharply during COVID,” he added.

In January, Walker sent in a request to Sedgwick County for $300,000 of the county’s $100.2 million in COVID recovery dollars. He wasn’t alone — 232 other businesses and nonprofits also submitted letters of interest for the county’s portion of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. 

The money can be used broadly to offset the impacts of the pandemic. That can mean replacing lost government revenue and even directly assisting small businesses, nonprofits and households.

Walker hoped to use the money to retain staff, especially those who worked with patients. But he found out on April 4 that the money won’t be coming — to him or any of the other 232 groups that applied. The Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners voted 5-0 on March 23 to allocate all $100.2 million of its ARPA dollars for county programs, including public health measures, a court backlog and employee premium pay.    

“I almost feel like we need to apologize,” County Commissioner Jim Howell said at the  commission meeting on March 23. “We’ve almost created an expectation — there’s money to be doled out, so to speak, to organizations in the community that have these great needs. But there is no money left.” 

Sedgwick County departments submitted 152 requests totaling $215.4 million on top of $106.8 million in requests from the community. This totaled $222 million more than the county had to spend. 

Where Sedgwick County is allocating COVID recovery money

On March 23, the county laid out a plan to obligate all of its ARPA dollars

The three highest expenses are $35.4 million to address a court backlog and public safety, $22.7 million for the county’s public health response and about $21 million for premium pay for employees. 

The largest expense is going to address public safety and a backlog in court cases that largely grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly $7.5 million will pay to remodel the county’s administrative space — including the County Commission offices — into court space. While the remodel takes place, the county commission will move its offices to the Ruffin Building downtown. The ARPA dollars will also pay $2.6 million for that lease.

The public health response includes $21.3 million for the health department to continue COVID testing and vaccine distribution.

The county also spent about $21 million of ARPA money in 2021 to pay county employees extra for hours spent doing essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sedgwick County is allocating $21.3 million of its federal COVID relief dollars to the health department. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
Sedgwick County is allocating $21.3 million of its federal COVID relief dollars to the health department. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Help for small businesses, nonprofits top Sedgwick County COVID recovery needs 

Before deciding how to allocate its ARPA dollars, the county undertook an extensive community needs assessment. This included focus groups with organizations throughout the county and a survey that reached nearly 1,500 people. 

Assisting small businesses and nonprofits in staying open topped the list of survey responses with regards to community needs. It was also fourth among the priorities of the focus groups. 

Then, in December, the county began requesting letters of interest from community organizations interested in ARPA funds. These letters were not applications or a guarantee of funding.

The county received 233 letters of interest with requests totaling $106.8 million. The most interest came from organizations working in child care followed by businesses and nonprofits. 

“The process implied that it was going to be focused on the citizenry of Sedgwick County. The process implied that nonprofits were going to be of high consideration,” said Karina Forrest Perkins, CEO and president of Heartspring, a local nonprofit that provides services to children with developmental disabilities. “There were all these signs that they wanted to pursue a valid, thoughtful process, and at the end of the day, they decided to fund themselves exclusively.”

Sedgwick county nonprofits surprised, frustrated by lack of funding

Nonprofit leaders expressed disappointment at the county’s decision to solely fund internal programs and services — especially after many spent a lot of time discussing their needs with the county. 

“It just seems like an absence of leadership in a time when we needed leadership the most,” Forrest Perkins said. 

It was particularly frustrating for nonprofits that drafted letters of interest, said Cindy Miles, president and CEO of the Kansas Nonprofit Chamber.  

“I really don’t understand what the purpose was of them submitting the letters of interest and/or participating in focus groups because these organizations were not heard,” Miles said.

But Howell said that it is appropriate to use all of the ARPA dollars for county services and county recovery.

“One of the talking points that needs to be really remembered is we are offsetting the taxpayer burden so to speak,” Howell said at the March commission meeting. “Otherwise we would be using property tax dollars probably for these things.”

He added that commissioners have been warned to stay out of the decisions relating to ARPA funds to avoid conflicts of interest, so decisions to get community input were made without commission votes. County Commissioner Lacey Cruse added that the current spending plan includes about $10 million in contingency funds which could be used for community investments in the future if it is not spent on other items. 

Commissioner Pete Meitzner also pointed out that there are other resources available for small businesses, nonprofits and individuals, including Recovery Connect. The initiative connects organizations with resources to recover from COVID.

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Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership...