Rep. Monica Murnan (D-Pittsburg) spoke at this week’s Pittsburg City Commission meeting to provide an update about the Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) program and how the federal COVID-19 relief money provided through the program has been spent in recent months.

“So, the State of Kansas received a lot of money, $12 billion, in the Coronavirus Relief Fund, and that happened back in, you know, the beginning part of the pandemic and the State of Kansas basically divided those dollars into three rounds of funding,” Murnan said. “It has slowly rolled out but it feels really fast.”

It is essential that the state and the recipients of the relief funding properly document how they are spending the money, Murnan said, but that is easier said than done, and all of the funds must be spent by the end of the year.

$400 million was distributed in the first round of funding and went to county governments.

“In Crawford County we received $7.8 million and a little bit of change,” Murnan said. “That dollar amount was formulated on basically a math problem that included population, it included active COVID cases, a lot of different things.”

Almost all of that money has already been distributed, she said, and most of it has gone to organizations in Pittsburg.

“Round two of the SPARK funds at the state level came in at about $314 million, and that really went for public health, economic development and the idea of connectivity,” Murnan said, and Pittsburg again benefited significantly.

“The big winner is the great work that has been happening under the leadership of [Deputy City Manager] Jay Byers and [Assistant Superintendent] Dr. Brad Hanson from the school district in using really creative, high-tech ways to connect kids to their school who do not have connectivity,” she said.

SPARK round three, meanwhile, is largely focused on funding COVID-19 testing, Murnan said.

“Another really interesting part of round three is the idea of housing stability,” she said.

SPARK funding is being used to reimburse landlords whose tenants have been unable to pay their rent because of job loss or other economic hardship caused by the coronavirus crisis, Murnan said, “the idea being we want to keep people where they are in a pandemic.”

A major question that remains to be answered, she said, is whether there will be additional relief funding.

“That’s up to the feds at this point,” Murnan said, noting that the money distributed so far came from a federal stimulus package and it is unclear whether another national-level stimulus package will be approved.

Another issue that has emerged in recent months is COVID-19 relief funding fraud, she said, in the form of people’s identities being used to file false unemployment claims.

“So I get phone calls on a regular basis that say ‘I didn’t file for unemployment but my employer thinks I did,’ or ‘I got a letter at home saying I filed for unemployment. I didn’t! I promise, I didn’t.’ And this is just part of a nationwide problem. The Kansas Department of Labor is taking it on,” Murnan said, adding that unemployment fraud can be reported to the KDOL both online and by phone.