We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us. As a County Commissioner, I see this legacy day in and day out, from buildings planned, to policies implemented, to the county’s organizational structure. I see the faces of some of those Commissioners in that legacy—including Frank Graham, Dave Horner, Keith Schnarre, Ed Robb, Billie Tritschler, and Don Stamper. But one on whose shoulders I stand all the time is Karen Miller.
Karen championed Boone County’s membership in the National Association of Counties (NACo). She was so passionate about NACo that she committed her time and talent for five years, first as an officer and later as President of NACo. As part of her platform, she promoted the importance of smaller counties with a rural population base, like Boone County.
Karen introduced me to NACo early on and I was hooked. The opportunities for learning and for technical and monetary support from NACo and its partners came rapidly. I discovered, as had Karen, that the more effort Boone County invested in NACo, the more NACo gave back. And, over the last eight years, NACo has given back time and time again. This is a case in point…
Assessing Our Economic Recovery Needs
A few weeks ago, NACo contacted me and asked if I would participate in a special project that was being supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project is designed to assess economic recovery needs at the county level in the face of COVID-19. To assess the county perspective, NACo invited representatives from eight counties across the country—Boone County, Missouri; Alameda County, California; El Paso County, Colorado; El Paso County, Texas; Howard County, Maryland; Johnson County, Iowa; Orange County, North Carolina, and Wise County, Virginia—to participate in a virtual focus group to share recovery concerns and plans for the near- and long-terms.
To prepare for the national focus group meeting, I reached out to members of the community to obtain different perspectives on our county’s economic health and recovery plans and needs for their particular sector of the local economy. Included in my own personal focus group were Matt Jenne, local businessman and current chair of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce; Stacey Button, President of REDI (Regional Economic Development); Paul Land, Plaza Commercial Realty; Ted Webber, RE-MAX, a residential realtor; Brian Whorley, a start-up entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Paytient, and the director of business development and planning for Boone Hospital Center; and members of the Emergency Support Functions teams, working under the direction of the Office of Emergency Management here in Boone County. While these individuals provided insight into some of the nuances in our county’s situation, the national discussion that NACo facilitated demonstrated that what we are seeing here in Boone County is happening to a significant degree across the country.
Broadband Access and Sales Tax Revenue
Two issues about which representatives of every jurisdiction in the NACo focus group spoke were the needs for adequate broadband coverage nationwide and for the ability of local government to capture sales tax revenues from online/remote purchases. Both of these issues existed pre-COVID-19 but their importance has been highlighted by the pandemic.
We knew prior to COVID-19 that access to adequate internet coverage impacts educational and business success. Now, we have seen that individuals and families lacking adequate broadband coverage are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic when education goes online; jobs are done remotely; health care and mental health care are rendered through telemedicine; and job applications and COVID-19 funding opportunities are available online. Focus group members encouraged NACo and the Gates Foundation to push ever harder for Congress to develop a solution to this issue—which is so similar to the electrification efforts in this country in the early 20th Century—and to ensure that the solution is monitored and providers are held accountable.
We also knew prior to COVID-19 that counties’ ability to pay for core services was becoming ever more difficult because of diminished revenue streams. This was particularly true in jurisdictions in which taxes on remote/online sales could not be collected. For the last two years, over 50% of sales have occurred online and, in jurisdictions like ours, which rely heavily on sales tax revenues to meet our budgetary obligations, that means we are relying on an ever-decreasing revenue stream to meet the same obligations—to maintain roads, run the court system and the jail, fund the maintenance of land records and personal records, run elections, and so much more.
Since COVID-19, not only has overall spending declined, but many more people are doing their shopping online, again, leading to a reduction in sales tax revenues to maintain those core functions of county government. Further, even as we move toward recovery, many of those who have shopped online for the last several months are likely to continue their online shopping habits.
The Impact of Higher Education on Our Community
An issue that resonated for Boone County and several other jurisdictions in the focus group was the impact on community-wide recovery by the future of the University and the other institutions of higher learning. Matt Jenne noted that the economics of Boone County is driven by college students. Student housing, restaurants and bars, especially in the downtown area, retail establishments, hotels for events including sports, the arts and entertainment, are all impacted by what happens at MU, Stephens, Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College. Our vulnerability, our Achilles’ heel, is the University—if its economic future looks dim, so does that of the community at large.
But Matt and Brian Whorley both noted that what might be perceived as the Achilles’ Heel can be the beacon of light to elevate and enhance the recovery of the entire community. As Matt noted, our community might be deemed vulnerable if the learning experience goes entirely online or virtual because that means that fewer people are utilizing the housing, food, retail, and entertainment opportunities of our community.
But, even with an educational experience that is mostly virtual, at a land grant university like ours, we have more opportunities for learning concentrated in our community than almost any place in the country. Where else is there a research reactor, a Journalism School, a Law School, a Vet School, a Medical School, and research centers from business to swine research? For Matt, the vulnerability is that we aren’t fully promoting our assets, including the research and development by faculty, students, and private companies that have allied themselves with the University that continue to flourish in our community. Brian echoed Matt’s comments, focusing on the community assets that still exist in Boone County, even in the midst of COVID-19.
Acknowledging Our Assets
Brian noted that this community is one that serves technology and innovation through its strong research “bench” both in the University and the private sector, and in the support of organizations like the various Chambers of Commerce and REDI. That support, combined with a lower cost of living and a wide range of amenities, makes the area ripe for growth. Brian pointed out that in the world of COVID-19, where Zoom or WebEx makes communication fluid as long as you have adequate internet access, being located in NYC or California are less advantageous.
Thus, people in the start-up sector are considering a move to places like Boone County. As Matt had said, it’s a question of marketing our community to attract those businesses and individuals. And, as all of the representatives on the focus group had stated, it’s contingent upon our having reliable and adequate broadband access.
The Importance of Communication
Stacey Button confirmed the need for better messaging—inside and outside the community—to position us for a stronger recovery in a COVID-19 world. She noted that, while there has been communication to minority and women-owned businesses about resources, including federal and state grant funding and opportunities for innovation and creative solutions to identified needs, that communication could be improved. At the same time, REDI has become a center for connecting businesses with resources and connecting workers with jobs.
When needs are articulated, whether it’s personal protective equipment (PPE) or the staples of everyday life, like milk, businesses are pivoting, finding ways to re-tool their production lines to meet identified needs. Stacey also agreed that the quality of life in this community is something that continues to be an asset that will draw people from across the country and encourage them to move to Boone County.
The Impact on Housing and Retail Sectors
Ted Webber, a local realtor who specializes in the residential market and co-hosts the Real Estate show on KFRU every Saturday, spoke about the current market, and offered some insights about what those market trends might reveal. Ted noted that the inventory of houses available for sale has dropped by about 40% from the level seen in 2019. While he would usually see 800-900 houses on the market, today that number is around 500. His conversations with potential sellers have revealed that, since COVID-19 hit, more people have decided not to put their houses on the market, by and large because they didn’t want to have people in their houses.
If they have made any changes, it has likely been to remodel. Craftspeople and remodelers are therefore experiencing huge amounts of work. Ted stated that houses marketed at $300,000 or less are moving very quickly and that it’s a seller’s market. Higher priced houses, although moving a bit more slowly, are nonetheless moving. When asked who the buyers of all of these houses are, Ted revealed that most of the buyers are new to the community, coming here for new jobs. He indicated that, to his knowledge, very few of those individuals had been impacted by layoffs in local businesses and institutions.
Paul Land, who specializes in commercial realty, stated that, as COVID-19 took root in our local community, he and some others began a communication process in earnest, encouraging the commercial real estate community to make decisions in 30-day increments, and, especially for those with resources, to “step up and do good.” As Land stated, when someone has been good to you, has always been on time with their rent, and has worked well with you, the season of pandemic is a time to do the right thing.
That attitude has helped many of those in the business community to survive—through rent forgiveness, short-term rent relief, the Payroll Protection Program and more. These solutions have helped to stave off fear, both in business owners and in their workers. Land noted that there hasn’t been a one-size-fits-all solution since the businesses involved are so different, but, as long as businesses are willing to pivot, to make a change, to adapt to the orders put in place by the Health Department, they can manage the damage done by the virus and they can survive.
Land acknowledged that the hospitality and retail sectors have taken the biggest hits but believes every industry will have to develop its own protocols that work for that industry. A willingness to adapt is key to survival. He noted that some of the changes that have already and will continue to occur, like teleworking, can be unsettling since the picture this creates, with parking lots 20% full, is not what we are used to. But, Land reiterated, it’s all about learning to live with change.
Health and Other Service Needs
What our local social service experts and representatives in the focus groups spoke about with one voice is the coming wave of need that will hit local service providers as individuals and families begin to feel the full effect of the end of the moratorium on foreclosures, repayment of utilities, rent forgiveness, and their need for health and behavioral health services.
They also spoke to an issue that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has identified as a critical need to ensure the economic health of a community. Even in times not affected by a global pandemic, across the board access to quality childcare is essential.
All agreed that the brunt of the wave of need for resources will hit local communities hardest, with local providers and local governments expected to manage the outsized request for services. In many states, Missouri included, state legislators and governors have acknowledged the fiscal impact of the pandemic in part by cutting budgets in two areas—higher education and social services. Thus, while the need will have grown exponentially, the resources will have been cut.
How Can NACo Help?
At the end of the national focus group meeting, we participants were asked how NACo and the Gates Foundation could help us navigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 on our communities. We reiterated our request that Broadband access be front and center for the federal government, with transparency and accountability in the implementation of any plan being of primary importance. We noted that rural electric cooperatives had done similar work in the early 20th century and thus, the model for success exists.
We asked for technical support from NACo and the Gates Foundation and for peer support from jurisdictions across the country, to learn from our colleagues who have already experienced some success in finding a path forward. And, we asked that our voices be heard––because we are the boots on the ground. We live in our communities, we are the ones who know our communities best, and we are the ones most dedicated to ensuring that the needs of our local communities are met. I’m confident that NACo is a hugely valuable partner in that process.