- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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May 17

The Johnson City Press on masks purchased by state that may not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s requirements:

In times of emergency, it is reasonable to allow a governor some latitude in decisions to meet the pressing needs of a state.



Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee exercised that flexibility when his office approved a $8.2 million no-bid contract for a manufacturer to produce masks as potential barriers to transmission of the novel coronavirus. Renfro Corporation, a global manufacturer of leg wear products in Cleveland, Tennessee, produced 5 million masks for local health departments to distribute to the public.

As Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts reported in Thursday’s edition, the masks’ usefulness against COVID-19 came into question when people noticed the knit, one-layer fabric was rather porous and partially see-through. State Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, liked the material’s effectiveness “to trying to keep chipmunks out of your garden with chicken wire.”

We are not experts on what constitutes a quality mask. We do know, however, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that cloth masks include multiple layers of fabric. The Renfo masks clearly do not meet that standard.’

In its rush to respond to a legitimate need, the governor’s Unified Command Group apparently bypassed the CDC’s recommendation.

When asked about the no-bond contract, state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, supported some latitude in the governor’s emergency powers. “During a pandemic, we have expectations that things will need to happen that won’t have that usual check and balance of bids, submissions, requests for comment, requests for quotes in that process,” Lundberg told Roberts.

Lundberg is right, but one expectation must remain in place: standards. The only standard the Unified Command Group cited in its response to our inquiry was that the material “allows for easier breathing by the user.”

Tennessee residents should be able to expect that even during an emergency, their tax dollars are spent wisely.

Lundberg said while he would reserve judgment until seeing the masks for himself, he told Roberts that generally wondering about the effectiveness of a mask that is at least somewhat porous is “valid.”

That’s a reasonable response for someone responsible for other people’s money.

One local legislator, however, turned to a tried and true method of dodging the question: playing the victim. Don’t want to answer the question? Cry foul.

More precisely, state Rep. Micah Van Huss cast his fellow Republican Lee as the victim. The Jonesborough legislator told Roberts the Press should spend its time “reporting on news that gives Tennesseans hope in our humanity instead of dividing them with a political hit on Governor Lee.” Van Huss ignored our second request for direct comment on the issue at hand.

Clearly, Van Huss publicly abdicated custodial responsibility over your money. He even boasted about his puerile response on social media.

If Van Huss actually read this newspaper, he would know that we have published numerous articles about “hope in our humanity” during this crisis. Our reporters repeatedly have written about relief projects, volunteers, creative coping efforts and inspiring people amid this pandemic.

Our job here, though, is not merely to play cheerleader. Sometimes we must ask tough questions in the interests of our readers.

Van Huss should be doing the same and answering them when asked

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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May 15

The Kingsport Times-News on local governments using rainy day funds during the pandemic:

Local governments looking at depleting rainy day funds or instituting knee-jerk tax hikes to help cover sales tax and other pandemic-related revenue losses are setting themselves up for calamity. We’re only three months into this historical situation and, frankly, we do not know if the worst economic damage is yet to come or if it is slowly fading behind us. We must prepare as if the bleakest days are ahead.

The state is planning ahead. In March, Gov. Bill Lee said Tennessee’s rainy day fund would get an unprecedented $350 million contribution to prepare for the future. State Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter said, “Clearly, we are in a time of preparedness and a time of many unknowns.”

Kingsport’s $16 million rainy day fund could easily cover the projected $5.5 million in revenue deficits in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The city is estimating a 2% drop in property tax collections in the next fiscal year, an 8% drop in sales tax collections, a 25% loss in motel/hotel tax receipts, and a 31% drop in fines and forfeitures.

To help balance the proposed 2020-2021 budget, Kingsport has proposed a number of cuts, even to its special programs budget by nearly 22%. This means that more than two dozen organizations within the city, such as the Arts Guild, NETWORKS, the Theater Guild and a number of Chamber of Commerce programs, will also face cuts.

In total, the city is cutting expenses by $3.9 million, leaving an estimated $1.6 million gap between those cuts and projected revenue losses of $5.5 million. To close that gap, the city proposes to tap gently into its rainy day fund. The city finds that income from property taxes is stable, but with record unemployment likely through the rest of this calendar year and into 2021, that will not remain the case. Nor can many residents out of work sustain increases in sales and property taxes.

The impact of the pandemic going forward is difficult to predict. The city is making educated guesses, but what if the expected second wave is severe, particularly given the reopening of the economy, which will increase infection? What if businesses close permanently? What if unemployment continues to rise?

Those are a lot of difficult “ifs” City Manager Chris McCartt must consider as he, staff and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen look at the remainder of this fiscal year and into the next.

“We will look again at this budget in September … to see what our revenues over expenses are and make changes as we see fit. We’ll do that again in January and in March,” McCartt said. “We hope it’s a budget where we can come back and make positive adjustments throughout the fiscal year.”

We encourage the city to look harder to close the projected $1.6 million gap in its next fiscal budget without planning to use any of its rainy day fund until that clearer picture emerges. The city may find that it needs every bit of that cushion.

Online: https://www.timesnews.net

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May 14

The Crossville Chronicle on technology increasing government access to residents during the coronavirus pandemic:

In perhaps one of the silver linings of the COVID-19 health crisis, the need to broadcast public meetings held electronically is allowing more people to observe how their government operates.

Our local governments have had to overcome a few hurdles. Facebook, for example, sets limits on how long you can be live in a 24-hour period. They’ve also changed some technology requirements.

That caused a hiccup in Saturday’s interviews for director of schools. Kudos to Elbert Farley, the technology director for the school system, who quickly adjusted to the circumstances and had videos of each of the hour-long interviews posted that afternoon.

Our school system and Crossville city government have broadcast their meetings - either through audio for the city or on Facebook Live for the school system - for several years.

The documents discussed in meetings can be found online, too. For the school system, visit ccschools.k12tn.net and find BOE Connect. There, you can find the documents that support each action item.

For the city of Crossville, visit crossvilletn.gov and find the City Council link, then click “Agendas and Minutes, 6/12/2012-Present.” There, you can find the packets of information for each item before the council.

The Cumberland County website, cumberlandcountytn.gov, offers a “Documents of Interest” tab that posts items like the agenda packet for the next meeting of the Cumberland County Commission, the county budget and other information.

The county, hampered by the lack of a full-time technology director and some technology issues at the Cumberland County Courthouse, has had to adjust quickly to this new way of conducting government business. Thanks to Ben Lomand, a dedicated conference line was made available, allowing the commissioners to dial in for their meetings.

Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster has posted those recordings within just a few minutes of the meetings being adjourned. Those meetings can be found at the county’s website, cumberlandcountytn.gov.

The order allowing our legislative bodies to meet in this way has been extended through June 30, so we can expect this new normal to continue a while longer. But we hope all our legislative bodies continue to make recordings of these meetings available to the public. Anything that allows more people to witness first hand the actions of their elected leaders is a positive thing.

Electronic meetings have come about due to necessity. They do not replace all the facets of face-to-face meetings that are vital to openness and transparency. Whether though public comments at the opening of a meeting or simply shaking your representative’s hand and saying, “I’d like to talk to you about an issue I’m having,” the opportunity to foster communication and understanding are more limited through the current electronic meeting formats.

And they don’t replace the journalists who are continuing to report on these meetings, providing concise explanations and context for everyone who simply has too much going on in their day to sit through four committee meetings lasting about an hour each. We are happy to continue providing that service to all our readers.

But these electronic meetings are but another tool to keep everyone informed. We hope all local governments continue to provide this expanded public access in the future.

Online: https://www.crossville-chronicle.com/

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