RECLAIM Act To Boost Coal Communities Passes House As Part Of Infrastructure Bill Thursday, Jul 2 2020 

The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill that includes two provisions that would specifically help coal-reliant communities in the Ohio Valley.

The bill, called the Moving Forward Act, includes funding for roads and bridges, rural broadband, drinking water system repairs, renewable energy, and affordable housing, all of which Democrats say would create millions of jobs and help the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky indicated he would not bring the bill to a vote, calling it “political theater” too focused on cutting carbon emissions.

“That kind of rhetoric from our senator is really damaging to years of collaboration across party lines,” said Rebecca Shelton, the coordinator of policy and organizing for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which represents coal miners. “Ultimately, failure to move these bills forward in the Senate would be of true detriment to Kentuckians.”

The components specifically geared towards coal communities are the RECLAIM Act and the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, both of which have long been on the wish list for regional advocacy groups. The RECLAIM Act would invest $1 billion in cleaning up land and water polluted by coal mining, and would help turn old mine lands into economic engines in a region long marked by poor job prospects. The RECLAIM Act has passed the House in previous years with bipartisan support, but has stalled in the Senate.

The reauthorization of the AML program would help states and tribal governments reclaim mine land that has been abandoned for decades.

More than 100 organizations, including Shelton’s ACLC, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, signed a letter this March urging McConnell and other leaders to adopt both measures, saying, “Rebuilding regional economies takes many years. Coal communities and workers have powered American homes and businesses for more than a century, and they deserve support as America’s energy landscape changes.”

Joanne Hill, a retired nurse who lives in Pulaski County, Kentucky, has been urging McConnell to pass the measures for years. “We’ve knocked on Senator McConnell’s door time and time again seeking his support for the RECLAIM Act and funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund,” she said. “Up to this point we’ve been left out in the cold. It’s time for that to change.”

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Senator McConnell called the bill a “multi-thousand page cousin of the Green New Deal, which faces a veto threat from the White House.” The spokesperson went on, “Senator McConnell continues to advocate for pro-coal, pro-family policies and remains committed to ensuring funding is secured to reclaim abandoned mine lands as well as for economic development efforts in Central Appalachia.”

Advocacy Groups Unveil Plan For A 21st Century Coal-County Economy Monday, Jun 29 2020 

Environmental and economic advocacy groups from coal-producing parts of the country unveiled a policy agenda on Monday to help coal-reliant communities make a transition to a more sustainable future.

The plan includes items that have long been on the wish list for groups like Appalachian Voices and the Just Transition Fund, both of which were involved in drafting the plan. Items include creating jobs in coal-mine reclamation and investing federal dollars in infrastructure improvements.

The plan, which drafters are calling the National Economic Transition Platform, focuses on the needs of coal-reliant communities across the country, drawing connections between the challenges faced in West Virginia and Appalachian Kentucky to those faced in the Navajo Nation hundreds of miles away.

“The workers in the communities that gave the most to power our nation in the last century should be among the first to benefit from and to create the new economy that’s emerging in the 21st century,” said Adam Wells, the Regional Director of Community and Economic Development for Appalachian Voices.

Wells said the needs of coal-reliant communities are so high that coordinated federal intervention is necessary. “If we want the communities where we live to continue to be good places to live, there has got to be a disciplined and thoughtful, bottom-up intervention that happens to bring our economy and our social support systems into the 21st century,” Wells said. “And so failure is not an option here.”

Wells and others involved in the plan hope to present the plan to lawmakers and candidates at all levels of government, both to hold them accountable to coal communities and in the hopes that lawmakers would turn the plan into legislation in the coming years.

Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

Kayak on river

On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 

“Outdoor adventure is where the new world is as far as new tourism opportunities,” Currey said. “And rivers are cheap. We own them. They’re available once they’re cleaned up, you know, they’re an ideal platform to bring people from all over the United States to come.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bill Currey, chairman of the nonprofit Coal River Group in Tornado, WV.

But the idea of spending the day kayaking down the 88-mile long Coal River in southern West Virginia was not always so appealing. 

Coal was first found on the banks of the Coal River in the mid-1800s, and it’s been mined in these rugged mountains ever since. In 2012, the Coal River was labeled one of the most endangered in the country by conservation group American Rivers, largely due to pollution from the industry from which the river takes its name.  

Currey helped found the nonprofit Coal River Group, which has been dedicated to cleaning up the watershed for 16 years. 

“These beaches are going from black, they used to be covered with coal, to white, and they’re beautiful,” he said. “That’s been a big improvement.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Coal River in southern West Virginia, made up of the Little and Big Coal Rivers.

And now that the river is clean, Currey and others in southern West Virginia are hoping the region’s natural beauty can help revitalize an area long dependent on coal. They’re betting on a different natural resource — outdoor recreation and tourism. 

It’s an idea gaining traction across the Ohio Valley, where many coal communities are diversifying their local business base. The coronavirus pandemic added to the challenge, with staggering economic fallout from closures associated with stemming the virus. But several coal-reliant communities and experts the Ohio Valley ReSource spoke to said the pandemic may unlock new opportunities to grow interest in the region and what it has to offer. 

The Good

First, the good. People are eager for a safe break from quarantine life and health experts agree, while not devoid of risk, recreating outside where the virus can disperse more easily is safer than many other activities. 

Case in point, kayaking. 

“You know, on a kayak you got a six-foot paddle,” Currey said. “Well, that limits who can get very close to each other.”

Boat launches on the Coal River have been swamped with visitors eager to get into the water on the weekends, he said. 

In Norton, Virginia, a small, traditionally coal-reliant community of about 4,000 people that borders eastern Kentucky, traffic counters show people are flocking to the nearby Flag Rock Recreation Area. The city has invested in campgrounds and hiking and mountain biking trails on the mountain as part of its strategy to diversify its economy toward outdoor recreation. 

“We’ve constantly been getting contacted by people asking, ‘When are you starting some of your classes or your outdoor activities such as outdoor yoga, or mountain bike rides, group rides and things like that,’” said Fred Ramey, Norton’s city manager. “So, I think there’s a pent-up demand.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Hiking trails in the Flag Rock Recreation Area in Norton, VA.

According to a survey from the National Recreation and Park Association released in late May, two in three park and recreation leaders report increased usage of their agency’s parks compared to this time last year, while more than 80% report increased usage of their trails.

Increased demand also comes with challenges, especially for group outdoor recreation activities such as whitewater rafting. 

Joe Brouse, executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, which serves Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas and Summers counties in southern West Virginia, said rafting companies missed out on the first part of the season due to coronavirus shutdowns. To comply with social distancing guidelines, they are required to limit things like raft occupancy. 

“The logistics of opening, because it’s not just reopening, are very, very challenging,” he said.

But the world’s new COVID reality — where air travel remains an unpopular way to travel — could boost interest in regional tourism,  Jack Morgan with the National Association of Counties. Appalachia is located within 500 miles of about 70 percent of the country’s population.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A display at the Norton City Hall promotes outdoor recreation.

“Appalachian communities are well positioned to capitalize on travelers who may be seeking recreation or that nature escape relatively nearby as opposed to a larger cross country trip or international trip,” he said. 

However, Morgan cautioned that diversification is a long, tough process. Many communities are in the beginning stages of mapping their next chapters. The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic comes on top of years of declining tax revenues from the coal industry. 

“This could be a significant bump in the road to many communities who, excitingly, are really starting to blossom and gain some momentum,” he said. 

That’s especially true for the restaurants, hotels and small businesses that tourists frequent after they come down from the trails. 

The Challenges

Ramey, the city manager of Norton, Virginia, said one of his primary concerns during this pandemic has been ensuring small businesses along the town’s brick-lined downtown survive. 

“One of the reasons why we really looked towards tourism as part of our economic plan is that we did have some of those resources such as hotels and restaurants and things like that,” he said. “We’ve been very concerned about the economic impact to those businesses and tried to do some things to support them through all of this and so we hopefully will all be ready to move forward at the appropriate time.”

That includes providing small “bridge loans” to businesses. Norton has given out about 50 loans, totaling nearly $250,000. The 60-month loans require no payments or interest for the first six months, Ramey said. 

Providing a financial boost for businesses is something the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority is also doing with the help of a $750,000 Appalachian Regional Commission grant that will allow the group to recapitalize an existing revolving loan fund. 

“So we’re trying to pump some capital back into the tourism community that way,” said Brouse, the group’s executive director. 

In southeastern Ohio, nonprofit Rural Action has so far helped distribute about $35,000 in small grants. The program was started via a Facebook fundraiser to help support local businesses. 

Dan Vorisek, program coordinator for the resilient communities program at Rural Action,  the communities he works with in Ohio are in the early stages of reorienting their economies toward outdoor recreation and tourism. He said there is a contingent of businesses that are struggling, but others are using the pandemic as a chance to reevaluate their own models. 

“So, from what I’ve seen, it’s a combination of businesses just trying to make it to the next week, and then other businesses that actually have the opportunity to plan for the future,” he said. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Coal River Group has about 30 kayaks to rent to tourists.

The Optimism

In southeastern Ohio, Vorisek’s investors are still moving forward in developing the local bike trail network and surrounding communities. 

“They see the potential,” he said. 

That potential could be shaped by a broader urban reckoning. Many rural places haven’t seen the high coronavirus case numbers that cities have, although that may be changing as states continue to reopen. Telework, once a barrier for many companies, has become increasingly acceptable. 

That’s how Ramey sees it. 

“There could be a flight to places like ours now, and the Appalachian area,” he said. “If you can work from home, you can work from anywhere, and so that anywhere could be Norton, Virginia.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A kayak sits on the Coal River.

Back on the Coal River, Bill Currey agrees. 

“We’re like a national park that’s not designated,” he said. “Big city people are saying, through the pandemic, ‘I don’t want to live in this downtown where I can’t grow a garden like those people in West Virginia. I don’t want to live downtown and not go to the grocery store when those West Virginians are going out and they’ve got deer meat, they’ve got fish.’ It’s like, we’ve got so much of what the other part of the country doesn’t have.” 

But he adds if you aren’t ready to move just yet, you could always start by visiting and spending a day on the river. 

 

Ohio Valley Farmers Receive More Than $100 Million So Far In COVID-19 Relief Wednesday, Jun 17 2020 

Ohio Valley farmers have received more than $100 million so far in federal relief payments to offset the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, with potentially more payments on the way.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance program plans to distribute up to $16 billion in direct payments to farmers, with farmers able to apply for relief through August. USDA data released Monday show 220,280 farmers across the country have already received $2,895,127,039 in total.

Kentucky farmers have received $73,460,020, Ohio farmers have received $45,904,465, and West Virginia farmers have received $4,461,751. The Ohio Valley has generated 18,377 applications out of 274,678 applications nationwide so far.

These relief payments follow $616,287,779 in payments Ohio Valley farmers received through a separate federal program, the Market Facilitation Program, to offset economic losses caused by retaliatory tariffs on farm commodities by China and other countries. The Market Facilitation Program received criticism for some farmers receiving substantial payouts — twelve farms in Ohio and Kentucky received at least $500,000 — and for payments going to applicants who weren’t farmers at all.

Even with ongoing federal coronavirus relief payments,, a recent report published by the Food and Agricultural Policy Institute at the University of Missouri showed U.S. farm income could sharply drop by 12% next year, due to stagnant demand for commodities including soybeans and corn if more federal relief payments aren’t provided.

Ohio Valley Weekly Unemployment Claims Down Slightly To 82K Thursday, Jun 4 2020 

As the Ohio Valley continues its phased-in reopening, unemployment insurance claims are down slightly compared to the week before. The region is still reporting high levels of unemployment assistance applications.

At least 82,011 people in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor shows about 1.8 million unemployment claims around the country for the week ending May 30, bringing the country’s total jobless applicants to almost 42 million since mid-March.

Labor Department figures show Kentucky with 42,793 claims; Ohio with 34,638; and West Virginia with 4,535.

These unemployment claims come as the three states are reopening their economies. The data reported to the U.S. Department of Labor only accounts for unemployment assistance that has been processed.

Ohio Valley Anti-Hunger Advocates Worry Region Overlooked In Over $1 Billion Federal Food Box Program Friday, May 29 2020 

A new federal program is buying more than $1 billion in farm products such as dairy, produce and meat unable to be sold due to the pandemic’s disruptions to the food supply and send “food boxes” to needy families. But some anti-hunger advocates worry that parts of the Ohio Valley may be overlooked in getting this aid.

The Farmers to Families Food Box Program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, awarded approximately 200 companies across the country contracts to purchase food and then distribute it to local nonprofits and food pantries. Kentucky and West Virginia were among  12 states where no companies were awarded contracts. Contracts awarded to Ohio companies are located near Cleveland, apart from Appalachia.

“By and large, Kentucky was really left behind. We’re not really going to benefit on the supply side of Kentucky producers being able to provide their products,” said Tamara Sandberg, executive director for Feeding Kentucky, a nonprofit network of food banks in the state. “We’re definitely not going to benefit on the consumer side because we’ve not been named in any of the winning bids.”

Sandberg said she is aware of some organizations in Kentucky receiving food boxes. Dare to Care Food Bank in Louisville is receiving boxes with poultry and dairy products, for example. But she’s still concerned large swaths of the state are being left out of the program.

She also said several Kentucky food banks had reached out to New York-based Tasty Brands, a school food supplier who was awarded several contracts, about receiving food boxes but were told all their food boxes were already being delivered elsewhere. Sandberg said the specter of receiving little of this aid is especially worrisome, given the Ohio Valley has recently ranked among states with the highest rates of food insecurity among some age groups.

“There has been a 40% increase in the people served by the food bank network, and a third of those people have never come to a food bank for help before,” Sandberg said. “The need for this food assistance amid this pandemic has increased exponentially.”

Cynthia Kirkhart leads the Facing Hunger Food Bank in Huntington, West Virginia. She said despite several local companies applying for contracts through this program, none of those companies received contracts. Kirkhart said her organization wasn’t sure if they were going to receive aid until an out-of-state company from Pittsburgh that was awarded a contract reached out to her food bank. She said she’s expecting food boxes to be received Thursday.

“We’ll do what we need to, to access these food resources and see what happens,” Kirkhart said. “This had to happen really quick with a certain level of uncertainty, but we’re happy to have the product.”

A spokesperson with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service said in a statement that because the program is new, some adjustments may be made in coming weeks, and that USDA was working to try to expand the program to underserved regions of the country.

Some Democrats in the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, including Marcia Fudge of Ohio, have also questioned the USDA on the reported lack of experience some contract awardees have in distributing food. Contracts were awarded to major meatpacking companies including Cargill, and an event planning company. The program runs through June 30.

Questions And Anxiety Mount Over COVID-19 Workplace Safety As More Businesses Reopen Friday, May 29 2020 

Gail Fleck is a school cafeteria worker in the greater Cincinnati area and lives with her 90-year-old father. She loves her job because she gets to work with kids. But she is worried she won’t be able to keep her dad safe if her work exposes her to the coronavirus and she unknowingly brings it home. 

“I’m scared, I’m worried. I feel like, we’re talking about life and death here and this is my father,” she said. 

Fleck, who didn’t want to name her workplace, said she hasn’t been back to work since before the schools went on spring break. When she ran out of sick days, she stopped receiving a paycheck. 

“I’ve just worked very hard at keeping myself and my father at home and not going out,” she said. 

Workers like Fleck across the Ohio Valley face difficult choices now that states are gradually reopening workplaces. Many don’t feel safe going back to work, and adding to the anxiety is the uncertainty about the enforcement of safety standards for businesses that are reopening. During pointed questioning at a Congressional hearing Thursday a top official with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was not able to say how many workplaces are seeing cases of COVID-19.  

Who Keeps Workers Safe?

OSHA is the main federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace safety standards. Ohio and West Virginia are among roughly half the states where OSHA has direct oversight of most work safety regulations. Kentucky is among the states with a federally approved work safety program administered by the state. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it is working with businesses to ensure they are complying with Kentucky’s minimum requirements.

“Notes of Deficiency, and if necessary, orders to cease operations will be issued to businesses that demonstrate they are not making substantive efforts to comply with the reopening requirements,” Kentucky Labor Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in an email.

Some work safety advocates have criticized the federal OSHA’s lack of involvement in workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety and Health Program Director at the left-leaning nonprofit National Employment Law Project, Deborah Berkowitz, said OSHA should be taking more action to help keep workers safe. 

“The sad reality is that OSHA is failing here,” Berkowitz said. “They’ve actually just walked away from this whole pandemic and decided that though they could, they’re not going to do any enforcement. They’re not going to issue any mandates that are requirements, and instead, they’ll issue a poster or publication.”

Berkowitz was previously chief of staff and senior policy adviser for OSHA under the Obama administration. She advises if employers are not following the Centers for Disease Control guidance, the employee should file a complaint with OSHA. 

“Even though they’re not going to go out and do an inspection, I think they will call the employer and say a complaint has been filed,” Berkowitz said.  

She also said local health departments should be notified, in order for community spread to be prevented. Ultimately, Berkowitz said localities need to be smart about reopening and not sacrifice the safety of workers for the health of the economy. 

“But if you cut corners, and say that employers can do whatever they want at work, then most likely, you will see what’s happening in meatpacking plants and poultry plants right now around the country, and that is the spread of this disease will whip like wildfires around the workplace and back into the community,” she said. 

Heated Hearing

In an Education and Labor Committee House hearing Thursday witnesses with OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were questioned about their role in keeping workers safe in the era of COVID-19. 

Principal Deputy Secretary of OSHA Loren Sweatt defended her agency’s decision against a new regulatory standard on coronavirus safety.

In questions from Democrats on the panel Sweatt was not able to say how many workplaces have reported cases of coronavirus. She also told the committee that a lawsuit against the agency, filed by the AFL-CIO, prevented her from answering some questions about OSHA’s actions. 

Sweatt said there have been at least 1,374 whistleblower COVID-19 complaints as of May 26. However, none of those businesses have been sanctioned for retaliation against employees. She said there’s no statute of limitations on investigations of those complaints. 

“While investigations are ongoing I can tell you in certain circumstances, we have seen resolution almost immediately when the whistleblower calls to initiate the investigation,” Sweatt said. 

Sweatt clarified that a resolution means a worker getting their job back as well as back pay after allegedly being punished by their employer for making a complaint to OSHA. 

NIOSH Director John Howard said his organization has just started tracking coronavirus cases in the workplace, about two months after the virus was declared a pandemic. 

“We have been getting better at tracking occupation and industry for COVID-19 cases,” he said. “We have a new case report form that we are hoping that the states will start using.”

Howard said NIOSH is now beginning to track coronavirus cases in meatpacking plants. Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have all seen large outbreaks in meat processing facilities as workers try to keep up with soaring demand from consumers. 

Back To Work

Ohio Valley workers are left to navigate a lot of uncertainty as many of them return to work amid health and safety concerns. And some state actions appear to limit an employees’ options. For example, in Ohio, the state’s Department of Job and Family Services now has a form online where employers can report employees who quit or refuse to work due to concerns about COVID-19. Officials in Ohio say the form has always been available online but has only changed focus so employers can report workers who use the fear of contracting the virus as a reason for not wanting to return to work. 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have been working to reopen their economies a few sectors at a time. The first sector to reopen was healthcare. Now restaurants are opening to in-person dining, as well as recreational activities, fitness centers, and cosmetology services. Many of the facilities aren’t the same as they were pre-pandemic, with limited occupancy and increased personal protective equipment for customers and workers. 

Tom Tsai is an assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute. 

“The overall message, though is more important than the thresholds for reopening, is that this is not an on-off switch, but really a dial,” he said. “The states need to really consider having very clear metrics on what success or failure looks like.”

Tsai said there is already some “social distancing fatigue” people are feeling and that’s why it’s important to get the policy correct now.

“Because in some ways, once the floodgates open, in terms of trying to return to normal, it’s going to be very hard to reinstitute social distancing measures,” he said.

Ohio Valley Unemployment Claims Exceed 100,000 Thursday, May 28 2020 

As some businesses in the Ohio Valley reopen and welcome back both customers and employees the region continues reporting high levels of unemployment claims.

At least 100,863 people in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are making progress on unemployment claims filed in March as states begin a phased-in reopening.

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor showing about 2.1 million unemployment claims around the country for the week ending May 23, bringing the country’s total jobless applicants to about 40 million since mid-March.

Labor Department figures show Kentucky with 53,738 claims; Ohio with 42,363; and West Virginia with 4,762.

These unemployment claims come as the three states are reopening their economies. The data reported to the U.S. Department of Labor only accounts for unemployment assistance that has been processed.

Economists Grapple With Pandemic’s Effects As Ohio Valley Officials Brace For A Fiscal Blow Tuesday, May 26 2020 

Kentucky’s state budget officials told lawmakers Friday that general fund receipts may decline by 495 million dollars next fiscal year. It’s just the latest example of the unprecedented financial hardships ahead for the Ohio Valley’s state and local governments due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 38 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance in the past nine weeks, about 2.5 million of them in the Ohio Valley states of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Even economists find figures like that hard to reckon with. John Deskins directs the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. He says the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic challenges standard approaches to economic modelling and forecasting, which rely on recent patterns in data. But data since mid-March are completely unprecedented.

“The notion that the national economy would go from 3-point-something percent unemployment to 20-something over the course of 6 weeks? We’ve never heard of that before!” he said. 

Then there are the unknowns regarding what happens with the virus itself: Will there be a large second wave of infections? When will a vaccine arrive? But even with those uncertainties, economists like Jason Bailey say the outlook is grim. Bailey is the executive director of the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and says even the rosier scenarios in his control forecast show economic conditions will likely be worse than those during the 2008 financial crisis. 

“The control forecast is still a terrible forecast when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the unemployment, when it comes to revenue for government,” he said. “It’s still worse, by far, than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.” 

So while details of the economic forecast for Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia remain murky, the existing data reveal the outlines of mammoth losses that economists and local leaders expect the coronavirus to have on state and municipal budgets. Experts say the unprecedented budget shortfalls could lead to layoffs for public-sector workers like school guidance counselors and city maintenance workers; cuts to funding for local festivals; and the shelving of arts and cultural programming.

Just how big those cuts will be may largely depend on the outcome of the current Congressional debate about further federal aid.

Cities and Towns

Without further stimulus from the federal government, Kentucky cities expect to lose about $85 million between them by the end of the next fiscal year, and as much as $180 million the following fiscal year, according to a survey of mayors conducted by advocacy group the Kentucky League of Cities. 

Mayors reported the shortfalls could result in cuts to parks budgets (85 percent of respondents), public works (80 percent) and police services (54 percent). Of Kentucky’s 416 mayors, 102 responded to the KLC’s survey. 

In recessions, the experts say, education, social services and the arts are the first budget items to go. 

“Some people disagree about whether cities should be in the business of parks and recreation,” said KLC executive director J.D. Chaney. “But if this crisis has shown us anything, it’s that people can work from anywhere. So if you want people to live in your town, you have to make it a nice place to live.” 

A March bill from the federal government, the CARES Act, included $150 billion to reimburse cities for expenses related to the coronavirus. But that funding is limited to cities with more than 500,000 people, leaving small and mid-sized cities worried. Besides, Chaney said, he started hearing from mayors across Kentucky that the issue wasn’t an expenditure problem: It was a revenue problem. Residents weren’t paying their utility bills; property, retail and income taxes were expected to plummet. 

“Before this all came about, we were sort of doing a balancing act to provide services with the limited budget we already had,” said Todd DePriest, mayor of the eastern Kentucky city of Jenkins, population less than 2,000. “Just looking at utilities, we’re somewhere between 10 and 20 percent in terms of collections compared to where we were before. That don’t sound like a lot, but when you’re already borderline operating anyway, it really cuts into what you can do.” 

DePriest has already started making changes: Police cars will receive maintenance less frequently, and purchases like new tires for utility vehicles will be put off for as long as possible. 

Seeking Federal Aid

The state of Kentucky also expects significant revenue loss related to the pandemic. In a recent report, the Governor’s Office for Economic Analysis projected a revenue shortfall ranging from $318.7 to $495.7 million, and fourth quarter totals may be as much as 23.7 percent lower than in the same quarter the previous year.

The shortfall is largely a consequence of skyrocketing unemployment in Kentucky and around the country, with roughly 2.5 million people in the Ohio Valley filing for benefits since mid-March. 

The unemployed, explained Jason Bailey, “Are not buying, so they’re not paying sales taxes, and they’re not employed, so they’re not having income taxes withheld.”

Corporate taxes are also expected to fall short of original estimates, as commercial and industrial activity will likely remain low in the coming months. “If movie theaters start going bankrupt, all of a sudden you’re going to see a lot of urban real estate that’s not paying taxes,” said Rea Hederman of Ohio’s right-leaning Buckeye Institute. 

“As these budget cuts start to come down,” said Policy Matters Ohio executive director Hannah Halbert. “Looking at those cuts through an equity lens, and even just a health-disparities lens, that will tell its own story: What gets cut first, which districts are harmed, and how that deepens or lessens people’s shots at a fair future.” 

Since states and localities have to balance their budgets, the depth of those cuts will largely depend on how much stimulus comes from the federal government. Organizations including the National Governors Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties have called on Congress to provide additional aid. 

“Many state and local governments are facing a June 30 deadline to adopt budgets,” the groups wrote in their appeal to Congress. “Without federal assistance, states, territories and local governments will be forced to make drastic cuts to the programs Americans depend on to provide economic security, educational opportunities and public safety.”

A $3 trillion bill dubbed the HEROES Act passed the Democratic-led House, but faces opposition in the Republican-led Senate. The 1,800-page bill includes items from the Democratic wish list that will surely face scrutiny, like student loan forgiveness and payments of up to $6,000 per family. Kentucky Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed skepticism about further spending until there’s more data on the effects of previous bills. 

Pandemic Could Make Food Insecurity Worse Among Older Adults In Ohio Valley Monday, May 25 2020 

A new study shows the Ohio Valley has some of the nation’s highest rates of food insecurity among older adults, and anti-hunger advocates say that situation could be made worse by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual study was published May 21 in partnership with researchers from the University of Kentucky, researchers from University of Illinois, and the nonprofit food bank organization Feeding America. The researchers used Census Bureau survey data from 2018 which asked households with adults aged 50-59 a series of questions to determine whether they were food insecure.

Kentucky had the nation’s highest rate of food insecurity among adults in this age group, with 17.3% who were food insecure. West Virginia and Ohio also ranked among the five states with the highest rates, 16% and 14.6%, respectively. All three states also ranked among the ten states with the highest rates of older adults having “very low food security,” classified as a more severe form of food insecurity in the study.

“These three states also have a higher reliance on manufacturing and extractive and service-related industries, and those jobs have been declining,” said James Ziliak, the founding director of the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and co-author of the study. “This is also an age group that’s at greater risk of disability, and disability is a strong indicator of food insecurity.”

Ziliak said adults in this age group may also have difficulty finding employment or better-paying employment as they reach the age when people traditionally retire, increasing the chance of food insecurity. He said as jobs have declined in industries including manufacturing and fossil fuels, jobs have also disappeared in auxiliary industries that supported those “core industries.” Ziliak also believes the impacts of the region’s opioid epidemic plays into the higher rates of food insecurity.

With the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic causing millions in the Ohio Valley to file for unemployment, Ziliak said food insecurity among older adults could soar in the region in the years ahead.

“The economic consequences of this pandemic are clearly much more extreme than what we had in the Great Recession. Now, it’s not known how long it’s going to persist, but current projections don’t look very good,” Ziliak said.

A separate analysis issued by Feeding America in late April estimated the potential increases in food insecurity rates among all people in each state, depending on the potential increases in unemployment. The analysis estimated food insecurity rates could increase by at least 35% in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia — totaling about 941,000 new people who are food insecure — if unemployment rates were to increase by at least 7.6% in each state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture increased food stamp benefits in late April provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as a part of a larger emergency measure to provide economic relief from the pandemic. Feeding Kentucky Executive Director Tamara Sandberg said that increase has been very beneficial for those struggling and argues that the increase needs to continue into the months and years ahead.

“We believe those increases need to be tied to the economic recovery and not just the public health crisis,” Sandberg said. “It’s going to take a while for the economic recovery to remain in place.”

Ziliak said the federal government should also send more direct payments to people, as done previously through the CARES Act. That, combined with increased SNAP benefits, could help combat food insecurity in the near term, he said.

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