Saline County Making Most of Federal Aid

Help has been on a slow gallup from Washington, D.C. to middle America since the worst months of a worldwide pandemic swarmed the United States.

Saline County officials, along with some hired professional helpers, have been working for more than a year to effectively divvy up millions of dollars from the federal government. It was gifted to Saline County last spring.

“That’s a great thing,” said Jim Weese, chairman of the Saline County Commission.

But he doesn’t see it as a gift.

“It’s local tax money from the federal government, going back into the local economy,” Weese said. “The best thing is that it gives local governments the opportunity to decide where the biggest need is, and how the money could be best used, instead of the state or federal government mandating how it must be spent.”

There are some general guidelines for use of the money that is part of the the $2.2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, aimed to ease economic, governmental and personal effects of COVID-19.

A portion of $65.1 billion was sent to every county in America; $10.532 million of that was Saline County’s share.

Amounts were determined by population.

“We had to come up with a plan. It’s the proverbial flying the plane as you build it,” said Phillip Smith-Hanes, Saline County administrator.

The first half, $5.266 million, showed up in the county’s coffers last May from the United States Treasury. The rest is slated to arrive by early June.

“At first there was no guidance. Some (regulations) came in mid-May, and the Treasury received hundreds of thousands of comments,” he said.

Rules were finalized and distributed this past January.

“Until then, we operated on assumptions,” he said.

Results from a county survey last July, and a public meeting at the Saline County 4-H Building, provided the first public input on what to do with the influx of cash. Other public input followed.

“There were high-level things, such as public health, economic recovery, water, wastewater and broadband infrastructure,” Smith-Hanes recalled. “The community said, ‘We agree with economic recovery. Give the biggest chunks to local businesses.’ ”

One of those lots of cash is $3.5 million for business and nonprofits recovery.

“The next priority is housing,” he said.

While much has happened in job creation and upgrades in Salina and Saline County over the past seven to 10 years, housing is lacking, particularly workforce housing.

One target to fill that void is using $1 million to convert the former Ambassador Hotel at 1616 W. Crawford into affordable apartments, Smith-Hanes said, while another $500,000 has been earmarked to renovate other housing in the community.

The Treasury is using the U.S. Census Bureau map of low income census tracts to target “economically distressed areas,” he said, and identifying projects in these areas might result in added grant funding.

A goal is to “prove how COVID impacted economic circumstances,” Smith-Hanes said.

The county is constantly on the lookout for other monies that will augment assistance in a number of categories.

One area that stands out for Chairman Weese is the $500,000 designated for water and wastewater improvements within the county. The county awarded 11 grants to eight water agencies.

“It gives the opportunity for a lot of water districts to provide better quality water to their patrons, that they might not have been able to do,” he said.

Because of the interest in the program, the county dedicated half of the money it set aside for other community investments to additional water and waste water projects, with he remainder going to community mental health, Smith-Hanes said.

Among areas of need is air travel. Early plans were to help the Salina Airport Authority develop a roundtrip flight to Houston, he said, but a massive pilot shortage shelved those efforts in mid-March. Commercial air service out of Salina still includes flights to Chicago and Denver.

“We had committed $1.64 million to the airport authority, but the Houston flight never happened,” he said. “That frees up that money to do other things.”

Among the possibilities is investing $750,000 into another flight simulator for Kansas State University Aerospace &Technology Campus, which sports a pilot training program that’s ranked among to top five in the United States.

The county is working with Tim Rogers, executive director of the airport authority, to enhance commercial air service.

“The critical need for assistance is pilot training. Saline County is in a unique position to offer an air service partner financial assistance with a custom-designed pilot pathway program at K-State Salina.” he said. “K-State Salina has the capability to quickly train pilots to an airline’s specific requirements.”

The county aims to invest in a program that would allow consumers to link their credit cards to a computer application with incentives to promote buying local.

“When you patronize participating Saline County businesses, you get Saline Stars (the county’s exclusive local point system), which are equal to one U.S. dollar,” Smith-Hanes said. “Right now, we are recruiting businesses to participate and to redeem. Once we reach a critical mass of businesses, we are ready to launch the app.”

A spotlight has been trained on communities becoming safer and healthier with a $250,000 grant for criminal justice and public safety. Applications are being accepted.

Another program was developed to assist law enforcement in dealing with mental health issues in the field. It has been approved by the commissioners, Smith-Hanes said, but a partnership with the county, Salina Police Department and Central Kansas Mental Health Center, is still under development.

The “end goal” is adding mental health co-responders in Salina/Saline County, said Capt. Paul Forrester of the Salina Police Department Support Division.

SPD tracked calls for service over the past year, “dealing with subjects in some sort of mental health crisis,” he said.

During that span, the police department responded to approximately 500 calls, or an average of more than one per day, Forrester said.

“The hope with mental health co-responders is to provide the best service to our citizens and provide the necessary resources to these folks,” he said.

SPD’s plan is to connect persons in need with mental health assistance.

“The goal is to provide services and not have to arrest these individuals and keep them out of our jail,” Forrester said. “The other goal is to reduce the possibility of having to use force against these folks when we do respond, by having mental health professionals on scene to be able to communicate with these individuals in hopes to get them the proper services they need without law enforcement action.”

The county has also invested $35,964 for 300 yearlong subscriptions to Cope Notes, an online service that sends daily text messages at random times, to boost mental and emotional health.

“I look forward to it every day,” wrote one person who subscribes, and commented on the county’s Facebook page.

“I love it! Keep it up,” according to another.

Others included comments such as “pretty cool,” and “This is great.”

One of the original intents of the federal legislation was to support local government workforces, Smith Hanes said.

“In some parts of the country, people got laid off during the pandemic. That didn’t happen here, but we still want to support essential workers, and we’ve done that in several different ways,” he said.

County workers were provided additional sick leave, and incentives to get vaccinated.

“The biggest way we’re supporting the local government workforce is to give them a payment to bring their salary in line with inflation,” Smith-Hanes added.

The federal money went to many sources.

For economic and workforce development:

  • $185,000 to Salina Technical College for truck driver training
  • $180,000 to Kansas Wesleyan University to help Salina police and Saline County Sheriff’s officers complete bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice
  • $133,000 to Kansas State University Aerospace & Technology Campus to enhance airframe and power plant mechanic training

There are plans for $1 million to target other important local needs, Smith-Hanes said.

  • $500,000 to improve childcare in Salina and Saline County. Lori Blake executive director of CAPS (Child Advocacy and Parenting Services of Salina) leads the Saline County Childcare Workforce Development work group that is exploring how to make the most of the allocation. The work group is a committee of PIECE (Partners in Early Childhood Education) a public/private community collaboration of more than 20 local organizations.

“We’re waiting to hear how half a million dollars could help,” Smith-Hanes said.

The situation today, Blake said, is a “three legged stool” with problems for childcare services, families, and employers.

“Providers and teachers can’t afford to stay and families can’t afford to pay,” she said. “Public investment is the way.”

With an influx of workers expected to take jobs available from a number of companies, chief among them the sizable Great Plains/Kubota and Schwan’s expansions in Salina, childcare could be among the obstacles of filling job voids.

  • $500,000 to improve rural broadband. A task force of internet providers and county citizens is forming to advise leaders on the issue of enhancing service to underserved areas.

There are a number of construction projects in the works “to accommodate a post-COVID environment,” Smith-Hanes said.

Few of the programs are final, he added. The monies are still rather fluid; still subject to change.

“As we have moved through the plan and discovered new areas of need, or areas where the need was higher or lower than anticipated, the Commission has approved adjustments to the target amounts,” Smith-Hanes said.

County leaders plan to release a number of other feature stories to provide more specific details about how the federal money will be spent.

“It’s gonna be exciting to see how the second round of funding will be allocated, and where’s it’s going,” Weese said. “I applaud Phil. He’s had surveys out there for the public to comment, and give direction about how the community would like to see it spent. Decisions by commissioners are in alignment with those discussions.”

Big plans and positive results are ahead for the counties and communities.

“It’s a really exciting time in Salina and Saline County,” Smith-Hanes said, “because it seems like this is a good time to be here.”

Stay tuned.

• Questions and comments may be emailed to Saline County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes at [email protected]