Officials: County can rebound from pandemic

By David J. Coehrs - [email protected]

Fulton County experienced a mixed bag of financial, economic, and operational impacts in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, but officials say a rebound next year is possible.

While COVID-19 hasn’t resulted in real financial stress for the county this year, it did cause a decline in about $115,000 collected annually from statewide casino revenue, according to Administrator Vond Hall. That loss helped upend some capital improvement projects, such as fuel tank cleaning and painting, replacing fencing around the fuel tank, installing sidewalk, and resurfacing and striping parking lots.

But surprisingly, Hall noted, collecting sales tax instead of income tax gives the county an advantage during the pandemic. “When a purchase in the county takes place the tax is collected by the seller, sent to the State of Ohio, and redistributed back to counties,” he said. The sales tax has risen 6.7% year over year, leading to an increase of $552,392.99.

The pandemic did force the county to place many employees from nearly every department on paid administrative leave due to safety issues. Hall said the most discouraging aspect of COVID-19 was the necessity for departments to function virtually, eliminating direct public involvement.

It also impacted the county court system significantly, delaying cases and causing venue changes.

A bright spot did emerge during the difficult year, however. “We learned that our technology was initially adequate, but with the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, we could enhance and build upon what we had in the technology arena,” Hall said.

There are probably in excess of 100 businesses in Fulton County experiencing a significant negative impact from COVID-19. With no economic stimulus support they could be facing a bleak future, said Matt Gilroy, executive director of the Fulton County Economic Development Corporation. And yet, some local businesses are experiencing record sales.

“We’ve discovered that the pandemic and the restrictions to businesses due to the pandemic have affected businesses in a variety of different ways,” Gilroy said.

The county was able to distribute approximately $900,000 in CARES Act funding to 97 applicants through a small business grant program. In fact, just a handful of small businesses across the county have closed permanently due to the pandemic, mostly in the retail and service industries.

Generally, Gilroy said, Fulton County businesses are in better shape than those in other regions, since consumers have stepped up their local shopping, goods manufactured locally are in strong national demand, and county businesses tend to carry less debt than those located elsewhere.

“I am bullish about the rest of the year once vaccinations are widely available and COVID-19 has less opportunity to spread,” Gilroy said. He said consumers usually gain confidence to purchase more when they see a crisis ending, which was true as the 1918 influenza pandemic wound down.

“When our soldiers returned home from World War II we saw an economic boom and consumer confidence that increased. I think that will be likely by the end of 2021,” Gilroy said.

County Commissioner Jeff Rupp said Fulton County has weathered the pandemic as well as could be expected, although the last couple of months have been challenging as people retreat from colder weather.

”Now that we’re into the winter, and everyone is back inside and gathering together…the hospitalizations have gone way up again, deaths are higher, more people are being affected, and I think we have a long winter ahead of us, metaphorically and literally, going forward until we get to start seeing relief with the vaccine,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to help the citizens stay safe, but there’s still a lot of work to do until the vaccine gets more widely distributed and more people develop immunity to this horrible disease.”

Rupp said he was fearful of COVID’s effect on the economy after it first emerged and businesses were ordered to close. But the county saw sales tax revenues grow when citizens chose to shop closer to home to avoid the virus. Rupp also credited the nearly $1 million in CARES Act funding the county was able to distribute to area small businesses through its small business grant program.

“It was a huge blessing and benefit to small businesses in the area. We were very fortunate that we were able to help them out in the small way we could with that grant program,” he said.

Should the government’s current vaccination program continue without a hitch, Rupp believes normal living could begin to return by mid-2021.

“As long as the economy stays relatively healthy…I think we’ll be looking at a much greater, rosier picture coming into summer,” he said.

But he encouraged county residents to comply with the government’s COVID-19 protocols and not gather over the New Year’s holiday. “We just really need to do our part to help keep this disease at bay and spreading further until we can get through the vaccination process,” Rupp said.

Gilroy said the FCEDC will focus on three areas in 2021: regularly sharing economic stimulus and COVID-19 related information with local businesses; helping alleviate current workforce shortages; and supporting county businesses wanting to invest in construction, machinery and equipment, and employees. He said the FCEDC also intends to urge new housing starts to attract more residents.

“The long-term effect of the pandemic is an unknown,” Gilroy said. “We believe that consumption patterns are likely to change from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic.”

He cited, for example, changes during the pandemic in the way consumers shop – including an increase in e-commerce – and work due to social distancing. Gilroy said new strategies may become necessary in the county that could include local distribution and fulfillment centers to complement e-commerce, an increased demand for home office furnishings, and investing in machinery and equipment.

“While we all have been challenged in so many ways in 2020, I consider 2021 to be a unique time to explore opportunities,” Gilroy said. “Humanity has always come through crisis stronger and more resourceful. I am hopeful that our society will continue this historical trend in the years ahead.”

Hall said he’s confident Fulton County can resume normal conditions once the pandemic is stabilized. “Looking forward to a brighter year next year for our residents,” he said.

By David J. Coehrs

[email protected]

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.