By Steve Short
Gibson County Commissioners and Mayor Tom Witherspoon made history May 11 with the first virtual online meeting for a regular bimonthly session of the county legislative body.
The meeting was conducted electronically due to isolating measures underway because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nineteen of the 25 commissioners were “present” through Zoom videoconferencing software or connecting by cellphones and voted on a number of resolutions. County Clerk Joyce Brown conducted roll calls of votes.
Newly appointed Commissioner Steve Brasher of the Union Central Community made history participating in the first virtual swearing in ceremony led by Witherspoon.
Commissioners approved a resolution appropriating $10,000 for safety and sanitizing measures to be implemented throughout county buildings due to COVID-19.
The county’s first COVID-19 case was reported March 20. As of May 11, the state health department reported 14,985 cases of the virus statewide, including 1,325 hospitalizations, and 243 deaths. Gibson County had 54 cases.
“We hope to make it as safe as possible for the public and our county employees,” said Witherspoon.
The courthouse plans to reopen for public business May 18. The mayor said he hopes there will not be a rush to the clerk’s office regarding licenses and registration. The governor has extended a grace period through June 15. Residents can purchase vehicle license plates and registration online, by phone and mail.
Budget Chairman Mike Longmire said budget meetings have been postponed due to the pandemic concerns. The county will continue operating under 2019-20 budget plans with hopes of adopting a new, bare bones budget possibly by August. Longmire apologized for the postponement of budget meetings.
The Commission recessed until Monday, June 29.
“I hope we can meet at the end of June in person,” said Witherspoon. “I don’t enjoy this (virtual meeting); it’s a clunky way of doing business. But I think it’s gone pretty good. Thanks to each of you for joining us. I think everybody did really well. We’re doing the best we can, like all of you are.”
Witherspoon said Gibson County is on solid financial footing due to a lot of people working hard to achieve stability. But the disease pandemic is impacting the economy on the local, state and national level, with businesses being shut down and unemployment rising dramatically.
“The virus is in charge unfortunately,” said Witherspoon. “It’s calling the shots. We’re seeing the (case) numbers flatten a little. There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty with the state budget. We’re going to depend on state money and hoping state money will be available.”
He said budget shortfalls at the state level could be “staggering to say the least.”
“We don’t know yet how far reaching those effects will be,” the mayor said.
Witherspoon thanked frontline responders and workers for maintaining safety.
“Everybody has stepped up and worked together; we’re doing what’s best for Gibson County,” he said, wearing a shirt that said Gibson County Strong. “We are a strong county and a resilient county, and we will continue to look out for one another as we always do,” Witherspoon said. “Reach out to people who need help and use common sense until things open up. I’m hoping the hot weather and heat will break the virus’ back.”
The mayor thanked mayors in the county, State Rep. Curtis Halford, and State Sen. John Stevens for their cooperation and help. He noted that mayors in the county issued safer at home orders March 23, more than a week before Governor Lee took a similar action statewide April 2.
“We all came together to keep our people safe,” the mayor said. “I want this to be over as much as anybody. Nobody would want this. We like low unemployment rates. We will fight and claw our way out of this.”