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Johnson County and its cities asked to chip in $500,000 a year for a new homeless shelter

The La Quinta Inn & Suites on Lenexa Drive off I-35 that Johnson County is purchasing to make into a permanent homeless shelter and services center .
Johnson County Post
The La Quinta Inn & Suites on Lenexa Drive off I-35 that Johnson County is purchasing to make into a permanent homeless shelter and services center .

Johnson County is planning to build a homeless shelter and service center in a repurposed Lenexa hotel. Kansas City-based nonprofit reStart, which would run the facility, told commissioners that it would need funding help from the county and cities.

After an hour-long meeting that was heated at times, Johnson County commissioners Thursday voted their intention to contribute $60,000 towards operating expenses to run a homeless service center and housing campus in a repurposed Lenexa hotel.

The money, which was described as seed money by some commissioners, would be the county’s first-year contribution to ongoing operating expenses of the Kansas City-based nonprofit reStart, which would run the facility’s operations.

In total, officials with reStart told the commission Thursday the group would need roughly $500,000 in local funds from both the county and cities to help pay for the shelter’s annual operating expenses, at least at first.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick called it a “monumental opportunity,” to help people who are homeless.

“I just think we don’t have a choice. If we don’t do this, who have we let down — not only people who are unhoused but our whole community. And I think that how we treat the least of these is (being discussed) on the dais right now.”

But some other commissioners were unhappy about reStart’s request for operating funds because the organization was chosen partly based on its private fundraising ability to handle those expenses.

“I’m really very concerned that you haven’t even started, and you need this much cash? It’s really high risk,” said Commissioner Becky Fast, explaining that residents in her northeast Johnson County district understand the need for homeless services but worry that the county would end up subsidizing the operating funds year after year.

Lenexa La Quinta hotel eyed for homeless shelter

County commissioners approved a plan late last year to use $6 million of federal coronavirus relief funds to buy the La Quinta Inn and Suites and an adjacent former restaurant at Interstate 35 and 95th Street.

Officials are now going through the due diligence process and have not yet closed on the deal.

The project is billed as a way to get people into a living space where they can also get the services they need to be able to get back into the workforce.

County Chairman Mike Kelly has called the La Quinta space a “unicorn” because it is well-suited for the purpose of housing and would not be as expensive as remodeling a different space or building from the ground up.

Officials estimate shelter would cost $1.5 million per year to run

reStart officials said they would raise money privately and seek grants, but estimated about a third of the $1.5 million needed each year in operating expenses — or roughly $500,000 — would be needed from cities and the county.

That’s particularly true in the early years of operation, reStart CEO Stephanie Boyer told commissioners Thursday.

Private donors usually like to know there’s support from the community and grant money usually comes after data from its history and sometimes a match can be obtained, she said.

After talking with some city managers, reStart and county staff proposed a support fund with contributions based on 76 cents per capita. The county would pay a base amount of $50,000 plus the same per-person rate in townships for a total of $61,192.

Lenexa would not be asked to pay the per-capita rate because the city is expecting to lose revenue from property taxes, transient guest taxes and sales taxes when the hotel becomes a homeless services center, said Assistant County Manager Joe Connor.

If every city government and the county agree, the total raised the first year would be $430,000.

Is that local funding sustainable?

Boyer said it is important to diversify the funding sources so the project isn’t too dependent on one donor.

“Having some structure of that base sustained funding helps us to leverage more private dollars,” from businesses and faith-based organizations, Boyer said.

She added that 43 of the rooms would be available through a federal housing voucher program that will also provide income for the project. Philanthropic support will grow year by year, she said.

But nothing obligates the cities to go along with that contribution amount or to continue in the same amount in future years, and nothing obligates the county to make up the amount if a city decides not to go along.

Fast expressed concern about what could happen if as many as a third of cities didn’t opt in. She also worried that reStart was endangering itself by taking on too much.

Boyer said charitable funding often fluctuates over time and her organization is adept at finding other sources to fill the gaps.

Hanzlick said she felt confident reStart could raise money, and that at some point the county and cities may not need to step in. “To me if the county can help get things started and provide you with a little bit of a safety net I’m comfortable with that.”

Arguments for and against

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara doubted the plan.

“You cannot go forward with something that is on such shaky ground,” she said. “We were told that we were going to find an operator that was financially stable and could come in and do this. You are not presenting a financially stable resource,” she said. “If you brought this kind of project to a financial institution they would laugh you out the door.”

Other commissioners said they could understand the need to get some buy-in by city governments.

Commissioner Jeff Meyers — himself a former Shawnee city councilmember and mayor — said it’s important that the county doesn’t go it alone.

“It’s a community item, not just a county item,” he said. “I hope there’s an understanding of the need. Every one of us on this dais has talked about the importance and the need for a homeless center.”

Kelly agreed: “I would hope that every city recognizes the community need. Other cities have recognized that this is a community need that at the end of the day requires a community-wide solution. What I fear is that waiting for somebody else to blink means that this recognized community need will never come to fruition.”

How did the commission vote?

Commissioners ultimately voted 4-3 to have staff move the funding plan forward as county officials get a use permit ready to present to Lenexa City Hall next month.

But two of those no votes — from Fast and Michael Ashcraft — were from commissioners who said they were unhappy that the discussion was cut short when the question was called and would have voted for it otherwise.

O’Hara also voted against it.

Items related to the homeless services center will come up again at the commission’s next regular meeting July 18.

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Contact her at roxieham@gmail.com.
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