County hears requests for relief funds

Allen County Commissioners need to figure out how they will administer $2.4 million in federal relief funding. Two groups, the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center and the City of Humboldt, are among those asking for help.

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September 15, 2021 - 10:35 AM

Cole Herder, city administrator of Humboldt, appealed to Allen County commissioners to help with his city’s upcoming project of laying new water lines. Looking on is Paul Zirjacks. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

With multiple groups already vying for a piece of Allen County’s $2.4 million federal relief pie, county commissioners want to take some time to figure out the best way forward.

The discussion followed requests from two unrelated entities seeking help with mental health needs in the county and infrastructure upgrades to Humboldt’s water system.

A few weeks ago, Thrive Allen County and the Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission offered to administer the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the county for a fee of 4% and 5%, respectively. 

On Tuesday, commissioners considered handling it themselves. But hiring someone in-house to administer the grant could be more costly in the long run as it likely would create a full-time, permanent position. An advantage, though, is that they could use that person to handle other grants.

Commissioner Bruce Symes said he also wants to look at setting deadlines for groups to apply for the funds, or lay out some sort of reasonable timeline to follow that would offer a more organized approach.

Commissioners agreed the first step is to decide how they want to administer the program, and then work on other issues.

The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to award the funds, and projects must be completed by the end of 2026.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Nathan Fawson, director of the Southeast Kansas Mental Health Center, asked for $285,000 for new computer systems, building upgrades and new service providers in high-need areas.

Cole Herder, Humboldt administrator, wanted the county’s help with a massive water system upgrade that will cost more than $13 million. Or, he said, the county could use the ARPA money to replace the city’s ultraviolet system at the wastewater treatment plant. 

Mental health 

Efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health treatment are working, Fawson told commissioners. 

More people are speaking openly about their mental health, and more are seeking help. But that puts new burdens on mental health professionals and systems, Fawson noted.

In 2016, SEKMHC had 13 therapists in six counties. Now, the number of therapists is 30 and growing.

“It’s been refreshing over so many years to experience the stigma of mental health treatment lessening, and the acceptance and support increasing,” Fawson said.

“With that increase is greater demand for our services, and it’s become necessary not only to enhance our facilities but to enhance the quality and level of mental health treatment we provide.”

The mental health center needs a new electronic health record system, Fawson told commissioners.

They’ve been working on it for some time, after the provider of their current system was bought out by another company and will be discontinued. 

SEKMHC staff have been researching new systems for about two years. They studied about 15 different programs, and narrowed the list to three for further study.

They’ve discovered their experience is becoming more common: Companies merge, and end support for existing systems to force providers into purchasing new programs.

They studied one system but decided to wait and see what would happen. Sure enough, that program was discontinued after about six months.

Allen County Commisioners Jerry Daniels, left, and David Lee listen and take notes during a presentation.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

One of the big concerns in finding a new system is sustainability, Fawson told commissioners. They want to make sure that whatever system they purchase, it will last for at least 10 or 15 years.

And there’s a significant cost. Fawson estimated it will cost about $500,000 for a new electronic health record system. 

It will cost another $250,000 to purchase new financial software to go with the system. The current system includes that service; none of the ones currently being studied offer it.

Fawson asked commissioners to use the ARPA money to cover 25% of the costs, or $125,000 for the record system and $62,500 for the financial software. He’ll ask other counties to contribute their fair share as well.

SEKMHC serves six counties, but 25% of its consumers come from Allen County, he said.

In addition to that request, Fawson also asked for $15,000 to upgrade Allen County facilities in Iola and Humboldt for ADA compliance. That includes renovations to restrooms, lowering the reception desks for those in wheelchairs, and other improvements. Fawson said the costs likely would exceed his request.

Finally, Fawson asked for help paying for new service providers in three areas: a new psychiatry provider, new staff for the After Hours Crisis Services, and a new substance abuse counselor. 

Again, Fawson asked the county to use the federal funds to pay for 25% of the total cost of those positions. 

Those positions represent areas of great need, particularly when it comes to psychiatry and medication services. It often takes two or three months from the time a patient first contacts the center to the time they can see a provider for medication.

Crisis support also is essential as the state has limited options for in-patient treatment. It can take days to find a placement for someone, and that person must be constantly monitored by law enforcement and health care staff.

Infrastructure

Cole Herder didn’t cite an exact dollar amount when he asked for help with Humboldt’s aging water system infrastructure.

The city has a lot of needs, he said, and he wanted to give commissioners the flexibility to decide how they might be able to help.

The system has surpassed its lifespan and is failing, he said, showing photographs of rusted pipes and corrosion.

An in-depth engineering study revealed a significant need for quick action, at a cost of nearly $13 million.

Humboldt will apply for a mix of loans and grants from USDA Rural Development. But that will still leave significant costs to consumers.

He estimated a customer who uses an average of 55.60 gallons of water each month would see their bill increase from $55.60 each month to $75.70, if the city is able to qualify for a 45% loan/grant from the USDA. The costs could be even greater.

The city also needs to improve its ultraviolet system at the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Because of the Neosho River and rock quarries in the vicinity, the city has limited options to treat sewage. It must use a mechanical system that tends to be more expensive than other types of treatment methods.

A new UV system is expected to cost $249,200.

Herder suggested the county use ARPA funds to pay for that project. Or, he said, they could help however they see fit.

Humboldt will get $268,369 in ARPA funds on its own. They likely will either use that money to pay for the UV system, but if the county takes care of that, they likely will commit the funds to the other water project.

Herder cited calculations based on the U.S. Census population numbers that show Allen County’s share of the ARPA funds works out to $191 per person. Humboldt’s share works out to $145 per person. He implied Humboldt residents should be able to benefit from both, since they pay taxes to both the city and county.

IN OTHER news:

Mitch Garner, road and bridge director, updated commissioners on chip-and-seal and mowing projects. Work was expected to resume this week near 1800 and Nebraska roads. Two tankers had to be sent back because of bad oil that didn’t stick to the roads. That happens sometimes, Garner said.

Jonathan Goering, with Thrive Allen County, reminded commissioners about several activities and meetings coming up, including the Fly Kansas Air Tour on Sept. 23. He also expects to hear proposals Thursday for airport improvements, and will present a recommendation to commissioners at next week’s meeting.

Becky Voorhies, also with Thrive Allen County, appeared in front of commissioners as a final step in the CDBG grant the county received last year to help businesses during the COVID crisis. The county received about $132,000 and helped 20 businesses.

Sherrie Riebel, county clerk, gave commissioners a run down on plans to host the Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Meeting on Sept. 23.

Commissioner Bruce Symes asked to approve $400 to pay athletes from Allen Community College to move 400 boxes of old medical records at the Medical Arts Building. The records will be shredded.

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