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Johnson County, Iowa City at odds over funding for residents left out of COVID assistance program

Johnson County Board of Supervisors.jpg
Zachary Oren Smith/IPR News
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors rejects Iowa City's offer to fund 50% of the remaining eligible Direct Assistance Program recipients on August 10, 2022.

Johnson County, Iowa City and Coralville were the only municipalities in Iowa to give money directly to low-income residents. But disagreements arose over who should be on the hook for the final payments.

Maria Flores lives in a mobile home park in North Liberty. She said she is still working her way out of the debt she accumulated during the pandemic. She applied for Johnson County’s COVID assistance program, but she still hasn’t gotten a check — despite being eligible.

“In my case, I have a mobile home, and I’m on the verge of losing it. It’s an older mobile home, but I need to pay taxes on it,” she said.

Flores is one of 319 people in Johnson County with a similar story. But there is still no answer on whether these residents will get their assistance.

On Wednesday, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors rejected an offer by Iowa City to split the bill for funding 319 low-income applicants. Now, the ball is back in Iowa City’s court to determine if it will foot the bill for the 319 people.

Background: The Johnson County Assistance Program

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted households and caused a few municipal governments in Johnson County to get creative. As plans were being made for how to best spend federal relief money from the American Rescue Plan, a few county and city actors got interested in a direct assistance program.

The idea was to give eligible people a $1,400 check. No strings earmarking it for groceries or utilities or housing; just an injection of cash for low-income residents.

And so Johnson County put in $2 million, Iowa City put in $1.5 million and Coralville contributed $27,000. Before it began, the Direct Assistance Program could have sent a check to nearly 2,500 eligible applicants.

Johnson County Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass told IPR News that when envisioning the brand new program, it was hard to estimate how many people would actually apply. Staff anticipated as many as 6,000 eligible applicants. County staff, she said, discussed an “unlikely” outcome where there would be more money than what is needed for the eligible applicants. But that’s exactly what happened.

2,238 applicants were eligible for a check, well below the program's limit. But rather than all 2,238 getting a $1,400 check, 319 low-income people who cleared the eligibility requirements for the program are still waiting on their assistance.

If the program had the money, why were the 319 left out?

It all goes back to how the local entities structured the funding and where those remaining, unassisted but eligible 319 people live.

The process for doling out the Direct Assistance Program checks began with Johnson County’s pot of money. It was structured so that once the county’s ARPA dollars ran out, money from smaller jurisdictions (Iowa City and Coralville) would be accessed to cover the remaining applicants.

And that’s exactly what happened. Johnson County’s ARPA dollars were maxed out, sending money to applicants in University Heights, North Liberty, Tiffin, Oxford and Lone Tree, as well as 823 of Iowa City’s 1,428 applicants. According to a memo from Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin, the city estimates its total costs for the program to be between $700,000 and $750,000 – well below the $1.5 million the city put up for the program.

The agreement between the cities stipulated that the county would go first and Iowa City would put in as much as it took to cover its own residents. The 319 eligible people without checks are mostly from Coralville, North Liberty and unincorporated Johnson County – though county staff made a point to say that most of the applicants from the unincorporated parts of the county have Iowa City addresses and just live outside the municipal boundaries.

County staff were administering the program and realized that there would be some applicants left out despite the total amount of money being available. On June 27, the staff of Johnson County and Iowa City met. The county asked Iowa City to make use of their unused Direct Assistance funding to cover 319 Iowa City residents; more accurately, they asked the city to reimburse the county for covering 319 Iowa City residents. That action would free up the money to allow the county to cover the 319 applicants, meaning all applicants to the Direct Assistance Program would have been funded.

But the city preferred to follow the original process, leaving 319 applicants without assistance.

Iowa City City Manager Fruin said the remaining ARPA funds Iowa City didn’t spend in the Direct Assistance Program would be reallocated to other priorities like eviction prevention, housing repair and relocation.

Similarly, the county has the option to change the allocation of ARPA funds so that these 319 applicants get funded, but that would require the county to take the money from other programs. Those could include the affordable housing project on Prentiss Street, the gun violence prevention program, and the compliance tracking system for domestic abuse parolees.

As of Wednesday, both the city and county remained reluctant to shift funds to the Direct Assistance Program.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa