Record unemployment usually followed by state help

Friday, April 2, 2010
At Lewisburg's Community Development Committee meting, from left, Edmund Roberts, Tony Beyer and Carol Spence listen to a report by Mike Wiles, executive director of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board.

Tennessee counties that have the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment rate have been helped by the state through a program that's attributed to Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Recognizing that Marshall County now has the highest unemployment rate in the state, Tony Beyer, a retired banker and member of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Board, explained on Tuesday the way Bredesen's idea has helped other counties.

Beyer was quick to point out that he could not predict what might be done to help this county. The Lewisburg resident explained what was done in Perry County last year when its unemployment rate hit 27 percent.

"The state put about $10 million into (Perry) county's economy," he said.

"Stimulus money was provided to businesses to keep people employed," he said.

The Workforce Board was the conduit for federal stimulus money spent to hire 50 people for the Tennessee Department of Transportation on jobs that were not necessarily in Perry County, Beyer said. The state also used the stimulus money to have another 400 people hired by private business employers.

Those 450 people got jobs paid with stimulus money, he said. They were 450 people out of some 600 people without jobs in Perry County before the rate hit 27 percent.

Federal stimulus money is being provided to employers of Perry County residents for one year. The stimulus program is scheduled to end in September.

The program reimburses the employer for the cost of the employees who are to be paid the same rate they'd otherwise be paid. Those rates range from $7.25 per hour to $15.85 per hour.

"It worked pretty well," Beyer said. "I don't see anything like that coming to Marshall County."

The reason is that the state is strapped for money now and so the program might be "similar," Beyer said, "But I don't know how similar."

Some reactions to the availability to stimulus funds influenced the behavior of some people.

Unemployed people had to have less than $10,000 in "readily available" funds to qualify, Beyer said. If an individual had a cash-out settlement with a former employer and $5,000 in the bank, people realized that to remain qualified for a job paid with stimulus money, they might be able to buy a certificate of deposit for $3,000 and become eligible because they didn't have $10,000 in "readily available" funds.

Meanwhile, Beyer is watching Congress in Washington to know what programs that might be continued, trimmed or dropped. One is the summer youth jobs program.

About 80 young people were employed last summer in Marshall County, he said.

That program had not been reauthorized by the Senate when he spoke in Lewisburg City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. It had been included in a bill for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that's due a vote on April 19, Beyer said.

"The Workforce Board is planning on it" being passed, he said. But steps taken in anticipation of continued funding depends on a successful vote at Congress.

Furthermore, the program might be altered. Instead of paying all of a young person's wages, the federal funding might pay $4.25 toward a $7.25 per hour job. The employer would have to pay the difference.

"I don't know if the employers will go along," Beyer said. "The goal is to get money into your economy."

Beyer said he anticipated an announcement late this week, or early next week.

County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett had anticipated an announcement last month, but Beyer explained on Tuesday that the governor has been working closely on improving the state's education program. Bredesen's aide for the program that would implement relief for a county with high unemployment was also preoccupied on education issues.

Also during the Lewisburg Community Development Board meeting, Mike Wiles, the executive director of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board (JECDB) reported on goals for the county's continued qualification as a Three Star Community. The designation is administered by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and helps keep the county qualified for state grants.

Development of Interstate 65 Exit 32 where Mooresville Highway goes under the federal road is the top goal now, Wiles said.

Noting that a Tennessee Department of Transportation contractor is widening Mooresville highway now, Edmund Roberts, chairman of the Community Development Board and the JECDB, said now is the time to plan what should be done at the interchange.

Wiles said other goals for the JECDB include:

* Making good use of the Ladies Rest Room just north of the east side of Lewisburg's public square. He noted the building is one of only a few left in the state, so there's a historic value with the building that could be developed as an attraction. Educational or self-development facilities for women have been suggested.

* Improving education is another goal. The county school system needs to have more science and math teachers, Wiles said. Mayor Barbara Woods, a former school principal, acknowledged the point, but reported that students had been required to take more physics classes, but that only five college students in Tennessee had recently graduated with a degree in physics.

* Development of a land-use plan and a countywide transportation plan. Both are seen as tasks for a new job being authorized by town and county governments. Contracts with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development are being dropped. TDECD's Local Planning Office had been sending planners to help local governments, but there had been recurring turnover of the young planners sent to Marshall County. Those contracted local planners were using their state jobs as a stepping stone in their career plan to work for a private architectural and engineering firm, or in a larger municipal planning department.