djr-2020-03-13-news-tupelo-presser-twp3

Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton and City Council members discuss the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic in this file photo.

TUPELO • In testimony before a congressional committee on Wednesday, Mayor Jason Shelton said direct federal relief to local governments is necessary or economic upheavals linked to the novel coronavirus pandemic could hamper fundamental public services.

A second-term Democratic mayor, Shelton stressed to federal lawmakers that towns, cities and counties play a pivotal role to the ongoing economic and social life of the country.

“The nuts and bolts of American society happens in our small cities and counties all across the country,” Shelton said.

Good roads, safe neighborhoods and basic utilities like water and power all depend on the efforts of local governments, and those governments are facing revenue shortfalls that imperil their ability to fully function, according to Shelton.

The U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee remotely convened Wednesday to examine how state and local governments have responded to the diverse challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shelton was among four witnesses invited to offer testimony and answer questions from the full committee, which is chaired by Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Bennie Thompson.

Thompson and Shelton were both highly critical of how President Donald Trump has responded to the ongoing crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tupelo mayor deemed Trump’s crisis management inadequate and said the president has actually worsened the impact of the disease.

“While some loss of life from the pandemic is likely unavoidable, in my opinion many of these deaths could have been prevented by a quicker and more uniform response by our nation’s commander and chief,” Shelton said.

In his opening remarks as chairman, Thompson made similar criticisms and said that local leaders like Shelton “have taken action where the president has failed to do so.”

Under Shelton’s leadership, Tupelo was one of the first cities in Mississippi to issue a shelter-in-place order. In the city, a masking order is currently in place even in the absence of a statewide masking order.

However, Shelton acknowledged that there has been resistance and some noncompliance to some of his efforts. He partially blamed a conspiratorial atmosphere sowed by Trump, who has repeatedly criticized or disagreed with the public health recommendations of figures within his own administration.

Shelton agreed with Thompson that local leaders like himself are closest to the unfolding crisis, but he said local efforts cannot fully succeed without federal support.

“My purpose here today is about the hardships faced today here from local governments which are on the front line responding to our nation’s health and economic crises,” Shelton said. “Our efforts, however, are being hamstrung by the lack of rational, stable and science-based leadership in the White House.”

Other than the president, Shelton mostly focused on the need for federal resources to ensure that local governments can continue to function effectively.

The federal CARES Act allocated direct aid for COVID-19-related expenses to states, territories and some local government units. Only local governments – be it a city, county or something else – with a population over 500,000 were eligible for direct federal aid through the CARES Act.

However, even as many cities or counties are not eligible for direct aid, Shelton said the public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19 have produced “a direct negative impact on the ability of local governments all across our nation to provide the basic services that every single American depends on in carrying out their normal day to day activities.”

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com

Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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