County OKs $715,538 for 35 businesses

Margaret Allen

Asked to whittle $200,000 off federal COVID-19 aid for local businesses, Ellis County administrator J.D. Cox came up with a revised list of award amounts late Thursday night.

The 35 businesses will share $715,538. They had requested $5.07 million.

As the pie is sliced, food and restaurants get 37% of that; hotels, 25%; retail, 23%; recreation and entertainment, 9%; medical and health, 6%; and housing, .1%.

To receive the money, businesses must sign a memorandum of understanding with the county requiring it will be spent as requested, said Cox, as advised by county counselor Bill Jeter.

“The county is responsible that they spend the money the way they applied to spend the money, the way we reported to the state,” Cox told the Ellis County Commissioners, who met in special session Thursday morning to make the final decision on how the windfall is spent.

The feds, funneling the money through the state of Kansas to each county, gave a rushed deadline for handing out and spending the money.

The commissioners for the most part followed the recommendations of the 26-member committee and other volunteers that decided in a matter of a couple weeks the fate of the money. They allocated it to county and city governments, local schools, non-profits and businesses.

It was the business applications where the commissioners hit a snag.

By far the largest requests received, those applications, and recommended awards, gave the commissioners pause.

County Commissioner Dustin Roths, a business owner himself, but one that didn’t apply, said the county has to make it clear to businesses that the money must be spent as requested.

“I think the grant process is not easy for for-profit owners, we’ve never been involved with that,” said Roths, who owns Diamond R Jewelry in downtown Hays. “I would 100% caution these for-profit businesses when they get it … I would hate for these people to spend it or not spend it properly.”

“We are on the hook,” Cox told the commissioners. “So if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we have to pay the state back for something that wasn’t a valid project. The way we can mitigate that is by having the end recipient sign an MOU that they will use the monies as they said.”

The state of Kansas is auditing counties to ensure the money is spent as requested, and within the Dec. 30 deadline.

The commissioners bristled at the huge amounts requested by some, with six figures sought from some hotels and restaurants.

Rushed into existence a couple weeks ago at first news of the $5.74 million coming to the county, the volunteer committee marketed the program, took applications, found subcommittees to review the applications, then made final funding recommendations to the commissioners.

The commissioners made note of the fact the committee was operating with very little information, other than what was on the application.

“On these applications, and the group didn’t have access to this information, but some of these people that are requesting money are delinquent on their taxes,” said Commissioner Dean Haselhorst.

“That came to my attention earlier this week,” said Cox, noting the county asked the state for guidance on that.

“We can’t have these funds go directly to pay back-taxes,” Cox said. The county could, however, “require as part of our release of funds that they be current on all tax obligations. There are three that I’m aware of.”

Ellis County already has received the money from the state, he said. As the state required, it’s been deposited in one of the county’s non-interest bearing accounts.

While the commissioners asked for some adjustments, Cox and others said that despite the inherently unfair process, the committee did their best, and the applications are due in short order.

The commissioners have said they anticipate strong feedback from the committee, as does the committee, said Doug Williams, executive director of Grow Hays, one of the committee volunteers.

The process was too rushed, said Haselhorst and Roths, because of the short deadline from the state to have the county plan delivered by Aug. 15.

“You wouldn’t find anyone on the think tank who disagrees,” Cox said. “Our enemy is not good intention, our enemy is time, and that is the driving thing on all of this. Folks filled out applications. And your point is absolutely on spot: There were some who said exactly what they felt they needed to get by, and then others asked for a lot. So you struggle with that. The thing is, at this point in time, … the enemy is time. Because we don’t have the time to go back and redo how they would use the money.”

Cox planned to submit the county’s plan to the state Friday.

The state will reject any applications it considers ineligible. The county should know by Sept. 15 if any applications are rejected, Cox said.

The commissioners can reallocate any money left over from projects the state rejects, he said.

“One of the things that has been emphasized to us time and time again by the state is that this is a local program,” said Cox. “They look to us to make a local decision on what we want. You may hear feedback that the state said to do this or the state said to do that. That’s not true. The state is saying it’s up to us, it’s up to you all.”

The committee received $11 million in requests, the largest part of that from 56 businesses.

The commissioners Thursday approved grants as recommended for the city governments of Hays, Ellis, Victoria and Schoenchen, as well as for Fort Hays State University, Hays USD 489, Holy Family Elementary, Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, Ellis USD 388, and NCK Tech.

As submitted to the commission, business awards were already substantially reduced by the volunteer CARES committee. They opted to instead fully fund the requests of nonprofits that serve the community. The commission awarded the nonprofit money as recommended.

The commissioners at the special session asked Cox to squeeze in $200,000 for a new ambulance for Ellis County’s EMS department. They directed him to shave that amount, in an equal percentage, from the business requests.

These are the final direct aid awards to businesses:

Restaurants/bars: Defiance Brewery, $36,032; Paisley Pear, $20,000; Wild Rose, $18,016; Gutch’s Bar & Grill, $36,032; Thirsty’s, $36,032; and Gella’s Diner, $36,032; Clarity Consulting, $36,032.

Hotels/motels: Baymont Inn, $36,032; RSD Fairfield, $14,413; Fairfield Inn, $21,980; Super 8, $27,385; Inn at 117, $2,000; Garden City Investments, $27,024; and Econolodge, $15,494.

Retail: Grand True Value Rental, $18,016; Couture for Men, $18,016; Simply Charmed, $18,016; Kat’s Hallmark, $18,016; Hays Mall, $18,016; BOS Motorsports, $18,016; and RD Graphics,$18,016.

Entertainment/health/fitness: Southwind Crossfit, $10,100; Precision Valley, $18,016; Heritage Eatery & Bingo, $18,016; Rose Garden, $36,032; Elements of Massage, $2,700; and Heartland Gymnastics, $10,000.

Medical: Kendall Krug, $2,700; and Hess Medical, $40,000.

Misc.: Jensen Farms, $10,000; Mega K LLC, $37,474; Midland Marketing, $18,016; Premier Business Management, $18,016; H&J Productions, $4,800; and Centennial Towers, $1,038.