By Nathan Ham
Dale Folwell has learned a lot about how the COVID-19 coronavirus affects the health and economy of people in North Carolina through his own personal experience.
Folwell tested positive for COVID-19 on March 23 and was hospitalized in Winston-Salem. At first, he said he was one of those asymptomatic folks with no headache, no fever, but suddenly, he was in a battle for his life. A trip to the doctor showed dropping oxygen levels after he developed a cough. Folwell went to the emergency room at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center where he was admitted for five days before becoming well enough to return home. It was a serious ordeal for the North Carolina Treasurer.
“It made me realize how serious this is. As you are going through it, you quickly realize the difference between being religious and being spiritual,” said Folwell as he credited his recovery to a lot of prayer and just focusing on breathing to stay alive.
Now after returning to work in Raleigh and seeing the numbers of unemployed workers continuing to add up each week, Folwell says it’s time to understand the economic toll that this is taking on the state.
“There has been a lot of energy spent on the medical virus, but we’re just starting to see the economic virus that is afflicting North Carolina,” Folwell said. “People don’t care what political party you are a member of, they are worried about putting food on their table and going back to work.”
Folwell said that the state treasury department is responsible for managing money that is eight times larger than the total of the state budget. Some of these things include pension plans, health plans, and federal money such as the funds coming from the CARES Act ($5.5 billion).
For Watauga County, the annual amount of pension money received from the treasurer’s office is $38,710,753 for 1,838 retired individuals. In Avery County, that number is $10,266,202 for 571 retired individuals. In Ashe County, the pension total is $16,519,721 for 831 retirees. Those numbers are just a small slice compared to the major metropolitan areas and the pension payments there.
In uncertain economic times like this, however, the smaller, rural areas are the ones that seem most likely to suffer.
“What I’m seeing is that some of these rural counties that had just barely climbed out of the recession of 2008 are going to be in a very challenging situation where they are going to have to watch the pennies closer than ever,” said Folwell.
Folwell added that local municipal budgets are also going to take a bigger hit than in larger areas, simply because people are not getting out to spend money, travel, or stay overnight.
“If you’re locked down, you’re not mobile. If you’re not mobile, you can’t consume. So no one is paying fuel taxes, sales taxes, occupancy taxes, and the like. That is having a dramatic effect on the local budgets,” he said. “I think you are going to see, in a very short period of time, the stress that municipal cities are facing.”
Looking ahead to the economic recovery that we are all hoping to see, the treasurer says it will require finding a balance between caring for the sick while at the same time not punishing the healthy to get things back on track.
“I think North Carolina has the potential to pull out of this faster and stronger than anyone. We came into this crisis with over $4 billion in the unemployment trust funds, over $2 billion in un-appropriated budget money this year and over $1 billion in the rainy day fund,” said Folwell. “We have to have transparency and the right data so we can create the right policy to get us going again. We cannot put the citizens or the businesses in the border counties at a competitive disadvantage to the states that neighbor them.”
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