ERIE – Neosho County Commissioners voted Tuesday to seek Community Development Block Grant funding to assist businesses impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19), with no advance notice to the public that the special meeting was taking place (see separate below about notice).
Matt Godinez, director of the Chanute Regional Development Authority and also with the Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission, met Monday evening with the Chanute City Commission and in a noon special meeting Tuesday with the Neosho County Commission about a grant program through the Kansas Department of Commerce to assist businesses during the COVID outbreak.
A total of $9 million will be divided among rural counties and cities under the CDGB program. Cities can apply for the grants as well as counties, and each entity can receive up to $300,000. The city or county can then provide up to $50,000 for each business and up to $35,000 for each job retained or created.
City commissioners gave a consensus decision for Godinez to proceed with the process, but will vote on the matter at a later date. Godinez said that was what he intended for County Commissioners to do as well, but they instead held a vote.
Since both Chanute and Neosho County are applying for up to $300,000 in funding, only businesses that are inside the city limits can apply to Chanute and only those outside the city can apply to the county. Godinez said businesses would not be able to double-dip.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Godinez said if one or the other entity is not funded, businesses in the other jurisdiction would not be able to apply to the other.
Other communities, such as Erie, Thayer or St. Paul, could also apply for funds, but Godinez said small staffs would be stressed to write the applications and would be less likely to be funded.
The city and county commissions will each consider approval of business grants on a case-by-case basis.
County commissioners discussed the different roles of the city and county under the CDGB program. Commissioner David Orr said he was concerned about the relationship with Chanute, and it seemed the city was taking over some of the county’s functions.
“At the rate we’re going, we’re not going to have a county,” he said.
The county’s grant application will be written by the Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission.
“We are the grant-writing organization of southeast Kansas,” Godinez said.
County businesses will submit their applications through the county clerk’s office and Chanute businesses will apply through the CRDA, after official votes are taken to accept and submit them. Under CDGB guidelines, public notice of those meetings, and the amounts each entity is seeking, must also be made at least five days prior to the meetings taking place.
The separate city and county grant programs are similar to the previous CDBG revolving-loan fund program. The City of Chanute shut down its RLF and returned undistributed money to the state.
The county’ RLF program was not used until it was converted to a microloan program for COVID-19 relief. When that happened, Chanute businesses were allowed to apply for the county’s funds.
Godinez said he was surprised that the state made that change. The new CDBG program is separate from the microloan program that distributed funds earlier this month.
Officials have scrambled to provide businesses relief from the COVID-19 outbreak and shutdown, and information has come out and changed rapidly. After Tuesday’s meeting, Godinez said so many economic development staffer tried to contact state officials that they crashed the website.
County Commissioners also requested $100,000 to assist meals programs along with the $300,000 for businesses.
During discussion on the microloans, non-profit organizations were allowed to apply if they had paid employees, but were turned down if they were staffed by volunteers. Commissioners later voted to provide funds to the Neosho County Fair Association, one of two non-profits to apply.
Godinez said under low-to-moderate income regulations, only the Thayer meals-on-wheels program would qualify for the rural funds.
During the noon meeting, commissioners also voted to loosen restrictions on attendance at their next regular meeting May 21. By that time, state officials could be in Phase Two of the state’s plan to reopen businesses, which would allow up to 30 people in mass gatherings, but still require six-foot spacing.
Commissioners said their meeting room does not have enough space to allow a full 30 people, but could accommodate people on the agenda.
Meeting called with no public notice
Tuesday’s special meeting of the Neosho County Commission was hastily called Monday evening, County Counselor Seth Jones said. The meeting centered on applying for new Community Development Block Grant funds just made available through the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Notice was posted Tuesday morning about the noon meeting on the County Clerk’s page and on the commission agenda page of the county’s website, but not on the home page. A notice was posted at 9 am on the courthouse Facebook page, but local news agencies – and thus the public – were not contacted by telephone or email, nor was the notice published in the Tribune.
County Clerk Heather Elsworth said Commission Chair Gail Klaassen called the meeting just before 5 pm Monday, which Elsworth said she advised was not enough time to get the public notice in the newspaper and that the earliest it could be posted electronically was Tuesday morning. Elsworth said Klaassen told her it would not be a problem.
Ironically, when earlier county loan funds were set to be distributed, Klaassen was reluctant to approve applications because she did not believer proper notice had been given to the public that the funds were available and that applications were being accepted. Earlier this month, county commissioners approved the distribution of $92,000 to businesses and one non-profit entity.
As to “notifying the public,” the courthouse Facebook page has 407 followers and the video of the special meeting had 607 views in the first four hours. The Tribune Facebook page has 5,821 followers and more than 3,500 households subscribe to the newspaper in print and online. Neosho County has a population of 15,951.
Jones said he was not involved in the notification process and County Attorney Linus Thuston was unavailable due to illness. Klaassen declined to comment.