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Congressman Price Meets with Chatham Commissioners

by Casey Mann, Senior Correspondent

Congressman David Price (D-4) met with the Chatham County Board of Commissioners at its March regular meeting. Price, who represents a majority of the county, provided details of the pandemic relief bill. The meeting was also an opportunity for the commissioners to share concerns in the county to learn ways that Price may help in Congress.

Pandemic Relief

Congress passed the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan on March 10. In Price’s meeting with the Board of Commissioners, he highlighted many of the parts of the bill that could impact Chatham County residents. Price began with the “substantial support” for state and local governments and the efforts made in Congress to provide flexibility for how those funds can be used. Price noted that in previous relief bills, the ways the funds could be used were greatly curtailed, including the prohibition on using the funds to recoup lost revenue. According to Price, this bill allows local governments to have more control over how the funds can be used. 

Price also highlighted the extension of unemployment benefits, rental and mortgage assistance, and additional funding for food and nutritional assistance. While these benefits will help the most vulnerable during the pandemic, Price stated that the one item that may have the greatest impact on poverty is the increase in the child tax credit.

“This bill should see us to the other side of the pandemic, but we all know there are other things we need to do as well,” Price said, adding that he hopes Congress will be able to extend some of the temporary benefits for families beyond a single year.

In addition, Price discussed the payment protection program included in the law. He acknowledged, when pressed by both Commissioner Diana Hales and County Manager Dan LaMontagne, that the previous PPP programs largely benefited bigger, better established businesses that “gobbled up” the funds. “[This bill] was organized in such a way that priority was given to minority, women, small, disadvantaged businesses,” Price said. “[There are a] number of categories that have not traditionally had ready access to capital which we well know to be a defect of the original PPP program.”

Addressing Chatham’s concerns

Members of the Board of Commissioners also shared concerns of Chatham residents with Price, often asking what Congress may be able to do to assist. Hales started the discussion by asking what Congress is working on about affordable housing. 

Price began by reinforcing the housing assistance that is in the relief bill, but then asked about what “the plan is in Chatham County.” But he continued before receiving a response.

“In larger counties, this is being addressed by municipal governments and housing authorities,” Price said. “We all understand that in the Triangle, the way that people are being displaced, gentrification is going on big time with people being pushed out. With housing prices going up, affordable housing is an ongoing crisis.”

Price said that with Chatham Park, the 7,000-acre planned community under construction in the Town of Pittsboro, affordable housing would continue to be a concern. He said he would be a “strong supporter of whatever bargain you can strike to get whatever you can from the developer.” He closed with providing the Board with the contact of his staff person who deals with organizations and governments to figure out the types of affordable housing funding for which the county may qualify.

Commissioner Jim Crawford also asked about affordable housing, suggesting that Congress could expand block grants, a program of federal funding for projects that is administered by the state, such as Community Development Block Grants. 

“There are a lot of projects that couldn’t be finalized because the money wasn’t there,” Crawford said. “That helps us on the local level and helps us in finding private partners.”

Price agreed with the suggestion, saying that the programs are established with a pipeline where money can flow, as well as being “extremely popular politically.” 

Commissioner Franklin Gomez Flores raised concerns about immigration, noting the significant Chatham population with Latin American descent.

“A lot of individuals have made great sacrifices, whether it’s through the military or because of COVID,” Flores said. “Given the sacrifice and commitment [to the country and community], what can be done on the immediate front [in regard to permanency of residence.]”

Price stated that the Biden administration has indicated a desire for a comprehensive immigration reform bill which would include the Dreamers, migrant farmers, and the million of undocumented immigrants who need to find a path to legal status and citizenship. Price said that the Democrats’ goal is to have a comprehensive approach, but with a Senate margin that is very narrow, the “indication is that Republicans will exploit the issue.” Earlier in his career, it was more of a bipartisan concern.

“What will likely be the path,” Price continued. “is to attempt to get some votes on behalf of some pieces, likely Dreamers and farm labor. Hopefully that would not be the end, but would open the door for broader immigration reform.”

The Board’s inquiries then moved to infrastructure support, especially broadband. Price responded that he believed there might be an appetite for infrastructure legislation, especially broadband, as COVID has illuminated much of the digital divide with children attending school online. Price said he hoped that it could be viewed similar to how “rural electric” programs operated in the past. He recalled a story about the town in Tennessee where he grew up that has high speed broadband because of a partnership between the local government and a cooperative.

Crawford reminded Price that as North Carolina law prohibits those types of partnerships, the solution has been left up to the providers to decide if they want to expand services or not. 

“Is it possible for you, on the Federal side, to force companies or coerce states to allow local governments to use the money or have a role?” Crawford said. “This is basic cultural justice.”

Hales also pressed Price on broadband reform, noting that, in her time serving with representatives from each of the county commissioners across the state with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, “every single county is having this problem.” And while the Association has made broadband a top priority for years, the coalition has been unable to “get the legislature to move the needle.”

Price agreed that broadband is a significant issue and “somebody somewhere” needs to forbid the practices as they are currently in the state. Noting the “real question is having gap funding available” as telecommunication companies have indicated that they cannot expand service “without gap funding.” 

“I look forward to digging into this,” Price said. “Getting these local discussions to a better place where we can have a model for other communities.”

The conversation closed with Chairman Mike Dasher asking about the potential for climate change legislation coming out of Congress. Price noted that the Biden administration has made climate change a priority, establishing a cabinet level position and in his appointments to other key positions, including that of Micheal Regan, formally of the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, to head the EPA. In addition to the effort to rejoin the Paris Accord, Price acknowledged that additional “restoration work that has to go on.” This includes restoring fuel efficiency standards, clean power plants, and improving tax incentives for solar and wind energy production

“We lost a lot under the previous administration,” Price said. “Republicans aren’t helping much….It makes you wonder if there’s anything where you can have all hands on deck. There must be somewhere where you can get some sort of bipartisan legislation.”

In the end, both the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, county staff, Price, and his Congressional staff all agreed to continue dialogue to ensure that the concerns of Chatham County and its residents have a line of communication to work to address issues.

“When the Democrats use the majority, they get things done,” Crawford said.

“It’s not a comfortable majority, but we’re getting what we can, done,” Price said.