by Jim Coleman —
The Shelby County Commission voted 8-5 on Monday (Jan.11) to approve $2.5 million in aid to struggling food, hospitality and hotel industry workers – some of the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The aid approval comes as service industries in Shelby County and nationwide have been hit hard by mandates and restrictions aimed at curving the spread of the of the COVID-19 virus.
The aid will be available to those who have been laid off or had their hours cut due to the pandemic in Shelby County. An estimated 2,500 affected workers will be eligible for $1,000. It will be distributed by the Memphis Urban League.
The resolution also was supported by Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ administration. With seven commission sponsors, the aid was expected to be approved.
“They are desperate to receive this benefit. For many of them, $1,000 will aid in paying their rent, their utilities and some food at a time when their hours are being cut because of a reduction in tourism or an inability for the public to dine-in at a pre-pandemic level,” said Danielle Inez, Harris’ chief of staff.
In addition to restaurant and hospitality industry workers, hourly wage hotel and motel workers – such as housekeeping and desk workers – are eligible for the payout.
Money will be drawn from the general reserve fund to pay for the aid. The fund started fiscal year 2021 (July 1, 2020) at $91 million, but with previous expenditures, the approval of the relief payments leaves $74 million in the rainy day fund coffer.
While the plight of the workers drew sympathy from the commission, it was tempered by the potential impact of the aid on the budget. As the pandemic continues to rage and there is a still lack of accessibility to vaccinations for the general public, there are also concerns that the resolution could open the door to further aid down the road.
“There’s a couple of things that make me cautious about this resolution. The first being that there is no indication that the numbers are going down. The situation will continue, and we will still be in the same predicament going forward but with fewer resources.
“This kind of plan would be needed again in the future. It would no longer be a one-time consideration. I do join others in saying it’s time to let businesses open,” said Commissioner Mark Billingsley.
Further intrusion by the county government in the affairs of the business community was another sticking point. Tax revenues have been collateral damage in the war on the virus due to closures, various ordinances and fear. The aid would put further stress on the budget during a pandemic.
“This, to me, is the perfect example of how government is completely broken. The government breaks it. In this case, [it] shuts down restaurants and small businesses and then tries to fix it by taking taxpayer dollars out of the fund balance and assists the people that were hurt in the action taken by the government in the first place,” said Commissioner Amber Mills.
A failure on the part of the federal and state governments – not the county – to respond appropriately to the pandemic was fingered by a co-sponsor of the resolution during debate.
“We did not receive a national coordinated response. We did not receive any kind of efforts that would make our people have faith that the government was going to take care of this,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer.
She continued, “Almost a year into this pandemic there are countries that have been able to reopen because they acted swiftly. Not because they ignored the pandemic. Not because they said we need to have herd immunity. Not because they said, ‘if people die, they die.’ But because they acted swiftly. They shut down. They took the time to make sure they controlled the spread, and they got people the resources they needed in the meantime.”
To mollify critics and allay concerns of those on the fence, a letter signed by the Harris and the commission Chairman Eddie Jones has been sent to Gov. Bill Lee, asking for the county to be reimbursed by the state for the expense.
“I have signed a letter, along with the mayor, to the state to ask for these dollars to be reimbursed to us. We haven’t gotten an answer yet. We just signed that. As a reimbursement, there’s 2.5 [million dollars] coming back to us.
“So, that is on the table as well. I don’t know how the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) funding will come to us. Basically, what I saw didn’t include government. Basically, it dealt with schools, public health. That is what most of the funding went to,” said Jones.
Budget Committee Chairman Edmund Ford, Jr. added an amendment to the resolution, asking for language to be added stating any federal or stimulus dollars received, such as CARES, will be reimbursed to the fund balance “to the extent permissible by law.”
The CARES Act is money provided by the state to local governments and communities to fund their pandemic responses. It also includes $150 million in grant funds available to nonprofits to address COVID recovery efforts.
“The same exuberance, the same energy, can we see that when it’s budget time?” Ford asked of the proponents of the measure.
He also added an amendment asking the language of the bill to clarify who is eligible for aid. Both amendments were seconded by Sawyer.
Voting in favor of the resolution were Van Turner, Michael Whaley, Reginald Milton, Willie F. Brooks, Jr., Mickell M. Lowery, Ford, Sawyer and Jones. Commissioners Mick Wright, David C. Bradford, Brandon Morrison, Mills and Billingsley fell into the “no” column.
The administration expects the aid to be flowing at the end of the month. It could take up to three months to distribute the money. The Urban League will receive between 1.5 and 5 percent of the money to cover the costs of awareness campaigns and distribution.