COVID-related concerns top summit
By Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, regularly hosts listening events aimed at getting to the heart of his constituents’ concerns. The latest took place July 30 at Patoka Lake Winery and was aimed at the local business community. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch traveled to Crawford County for the event, and Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, took part as well.
It’s no surprise that the discussion centered around COVID-19 and the many challenges it has posed at all levels. Representatives of the business and tourism industries in Crawford, Dubois, Orange, Perry and Spencer counties raised issues topping the list of concerns in their communities.
A lack of quality child care has been an issue in Indiana for years; the problem has only been magnified by COVID-19, said several. If schools return to virtual education, it was noted, it will pose a huge hardship for parents who are working. Some said they know of residents who had quit their jobs because they didn’t make enough to pay the increased child care costs when their school-age children were doing virtual learning.
Neither Bartels nor Crouch had an answer for that issue but said that concern will be taken to the governor’s office.
While daycares have been able to re-open, the increased protocols, including paperwork and cleaning requirements, have proven difficult for providers. Facilities typically operate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and employees are often spending hours more on paperwork and increased cleaning.
Day care jobs are low-paying positions that are quite demanding and many are facing an employee shortage, it was noted.
Bartels asked for recommendations on how to streamline the requirements without compromising children’s safety so he can look at how the state might address the problem.
A participant said school officials in his community were grateful for Gov. Eric Holcomb’s mask order because it takes the pressure off schools. It was noted school corporations are looking for guidance once classes resume regarding how they should respond should COVID-19 concerns arise. (Crawford County Community School Corp. began the 2020-21 school year yesterday.)
“The biggest concern is liability,” said Bartels, noting administrators fear getting into trouble for a misstep. “That’s the bad part.”
Another education-related concern raised was the effect of COVID-19 on the state’s budget. Bartels said there will be no immediate impact.
Messmer, noting 51% of the state’s budget is dedicated to education, said the next budget cycle is when there will be budget cuts.
“We will do all we can to protect every dollar going to schools,” he said, adding it will take the state a long time to recover the lost income and sales tax revenue resulting from the coronavirus.
Crouch said Indiana closed the fiscal year June 30 with a $2 billion revenue shortfall and has spent $800,000 of the $2.2 million surplus.
Bartels said the next budget session “is going to be tough. It’s going to be how to cut the least out of budgets.”
The lack of broadband access, especially in rural areas, was another issue that the coronavirus has highlighted.
“Never has the need for being connected been driven home more with telework, telehealth and eLearning,” said Crouch, adding the General Assembly approved $100 million to expand broadband in rural areas; $28 million has been awarded with another $70 million to be announced soon.
However, when the funding ends, everyone will still not be connected, said Crouch.
“I truly believe the federal government has to step up, and I think they will,” she said. “This is like electricity. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity of life.”
Messmer said there is $62 million in stimulus funding for establishing mobile hot spots for education purposes during the next year. He said that is a viable option for providing access. Messmer also said cable and cell phone providers commonly provide greatly-reduced access for families qualifying for free and reduced lunches.
Concern about the school start date was also raised, especially regarding its impact on the tourism industry. A late August start date would greatly benefit many Southern Indiana attractions, tourism officials said.
Crouch said she hasn’t heard any discussion of a later start date.
Messmer said he believes local corporations will retain their control over school calendars.
“I don’t want the state to control local government and schools,” he said. “I’m a big supporter of schools setting what they want.”
Several areas of concern were raised regarding tourism. Irregular and inadequate mowing of state highway rights-of-way was mentioned. Bartels agreed it’s a problem, explaining that’s a contracted service and can be addressed when the new contract is awarded.
The reduction in interstate rest stops, from 31 to 11, was another concern.
“The honest truth is there are so many interstate exchanges opening up and providing services,” said Bartels. “Businesses are taking the need for rest stops away.”
It was noted rest stops are important to the trucking industry and are often utilized by travelers with pets. The Indiana Department of Transportation operates the centers. Crouch said she advocates for the state tourism commission to operate the centers instead.
The closed rest stops aren’t pleasant to look at, with concrete barricades at the entrances and exits. Bartels said he didn’t know what other recourse there was and added it’s his understanding that because both federal and state funding is involved, the sites can’t be returned to private ownership.
The Chamber of Commerce representatives voiced their concerns over not being eligible for paycheck protection funds because of their status as 501(c)(6) organizations. Several said they are, in fact, essential workers and, with the impact of COVID-19, are working harder than ever.
“There’s been no discussion, but I’m sure we will be discussing that,” said Bartels.
The housing shortage in many counties was another issue.
Crouch said a recent national research study indicated 39% of U.S. residents would consider moving to a more rural community as a result of COVID-19.
“I believe it’s going to change the way we do business, the way we live our lives,” she said, adding as culture evolves “it will provide a real opportunity for rural areas.”
Crouch heads the state housing agency and said prior to the pandemic the agency was looking at a statewide inventory of housing. She hopes that can get back on track in the fall.
“We need to have an overall comprehensive housing strategy,” she said. “The General Assembly can take steps to provide incentives allowing communities to move forward, but we’ve got to have the big picture.”
Bartels encouraged community leaders to come up with ideas for how the state can help.
“You need to tell us what we can do to help you, not the state telling you what you should do,” he said.
To end the meeting, Crouch, a former Evansville resident, said those living in southwest Indiana “often feel forgotten and that they don’t have as strong of voices” on the state level. She gave one example of progress in that area. The Indiana Destination Development Corp. is only a five-member board. However, she noted, two members are from this region: one from Orange County and one from Spencer County.
“We are really trying to make sure your voices are heard and understood,” she said. “You’re every bit as important as other parts of the state.”