Federal COVID relief money shouldn’t go to fix Jackson County’s courthouse mistakes

Rebecca Slezak/rslezak@kcstar.com
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Yes, Jackson County’s courthouse in downtown Kansas City needs a major overhaul, but using federal COVID-19 relief money to pay for it would be a mistake.

That’s exactly what Jackson County Administrator Troy Schulte suggested Monday during a meeting of the county legislature’s Public Works Committee.

Schulte said the county could spend “the majority” of the county’s $136 million in American Rescue Plan cash to pay part of the cost of a $255 million, eight-year courthouse renovation project.

“These (funds) are for, basically, that ‘build back better’ conversation, where you can use it for infrastructure,” Schulte said.

The American Rescue Plan, passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, allocated $350 billion for state and local governments for a wide variety of purposes. Rebuilding an aging courthouse does not appear to be one of them.

Nor should it. It’s difficult to imagine a more inappropriate use of federal COVID money than to repair a public structure that has suffered from self-imposed deferred maintenance and inattention for decades.

Federal pandemic relief dollars should not be used to bail out any county facing the consequences of its own neglect.

What should ARP/COVID relief money be spent for? The Treasury Department has provided a long, helpful list of suggestions, including vaccination programs and equipment, health care capacity, COVID prevention and mitigation efforts, and mental health programs.

ARP funds can be spent on “capital investments to public facilities,” the Treasury says, but only to “meet pandemic operation needs.”

Monday, Schulte suggested — with an apparent straight face, though he was wearing a mask so we can’t know for sure — that spacing county employees might satisfy the feds. “We can make an argument that that would allow us to spread our folks out a little bit more,” he said.

That may be what the county tells Washington, but everyone in Jackson County knows the truth: The courthouse needs major renovations to its plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems because those systems are old, and the problems were swept under the rug for many years.

The downtown courthouse fails to meet modern code requirements. It has “egress issues,” as one consultant said Monday. It needs better fire protection and sprinklers. There are access problems for the disabled, and the restrooms are insufficient.

COVID caused none of this. And the fight against COVID won’t be helped by fixing old pipes, or moving desks a few feet apart.

For guidance on how the relief money might be spent, county legislators might look across the state to St. Louis, which just passed a $135 million COVID relief spending package.

With its ARP funds, St. Louis will provide $500 cash payments to 10,000 poor families. It will invest $8 million in enhanced delivery and outreach for COVID vaccines. It will provide $49 million in funds for housing assistance, support for the homeless, legal services and public benefits outreach.

Crime prevention and employment assistance are also part of the COVID relief blueprint in St. Louis.

Federal regulations say ARP money can be spent on classrooms. Small business relief is a valid use of the money. Child care subsidies and better pay for critical workers are also on the list.

Not every relief dollar will be spent wisely. But other cities and counties understand COVID relief money should be spent to relieve COVID suffering, not as a windfall to solve a preexisting local problem.

We support renovations at the downtown courthouse. Monday, Schulte suggested the plan involves moving county administration (like tax collections and the legislature) into another building and using the courthouse for judicial reasons only. That sounds like an interesting idea.

Thursday, Jackson County spokeswoman Marshanna Smith said the Legislature will study the proposal before considering it. “We are committed to continue using the funds received wisely, effectively, and appropriately,” Smith said in an email.

Chances for future federal relief bills will be crippled if the nation believes the money was spent on projects unrelated to COVID-19. That’s certainly the case here, and argues strongly against using federal funds for this project.