Simpson County Judge/Executive Mason Barnes is halfway through his first term.
The year 2020 marked a decade in public service for Barnes, who previously serviced eight years on the Franklin City Commission.
“Having been a commissioner for eight years, I think it helped me get a little more prepared,” Barnes said. “There were some things I knew were not functioning well in county government when I ran in 2018, one of those was our ability to cover the increased retirement expenses the other was our ability to pay our 9-1-1 fees because we had been paying it on a landline fees and those landline telephones are going the way of the dinosaur they are becoming more extinct day-by-day. So I knew those two things financially, were the two biggest things we needed to deal with coming in and so that first we tackled the budget and got those two things squared away and really put ourselves in a better position. The county is probably in as good financial shape as far as cash reserves, as we have been in several years.”
COVID-19 hits Simpson County
In March 2020, as Kentucky entered a “state of emergency” order due to the pandemic, Simpson County placed a similar order following in mid-March.
“We did see a lot of closures and shutdowns that the governor issued,” Barnes said. “Early on the first few weeks of that, I will be the first to admit I was on board with where we were at because I didn’t want to see half of Simpson County wiped out from the virus.”
Barnes added that taking the extra precautions at that point to keep people social distanced slow life down made sense.
“I think for the first 4 to 6 weeks it really made sense because we’re in that period where we are trying to figure out what is this virus really, what is it really going to do to us,” Barnes said.
By mid-April, Barnes said more information was available and the virus was not doing what people were told. Around the same time period, Simpson County’s neighboring state of Tennessee announced they were reopening retail businesses and restaurants.
“I’m having a one-on-one phone conversation with Governor Andy Beshear and I’m explaining to him, ‘what I need you to do for us county judge/executives is what [President Donald Trump] has done for you governors.’ The president said here are the recommendations but it’s up to each governor what they do in their state. I was wanting [Beshear] to say, ‘OK, here are state recommendations but the local elective officials have got to be able to make some decisions that best suit or best fit their community.’ His answer was, ‘Absolutely not, no way. All of Kentucky is going to do the same thing at the same time.’ But you understand that the state of Tennessee on April 30 are opening their doors to their businesses and their restaurants and at that time in April, Robertson, Sumner and Davidson County in Tennessee had more cases in COVID-19 in those three counties than we did in the entire state of Kentucky. I told the governor, ‘When these stores and restaurants open up, our people are going down there. I need to be able to tell my store owners, my restaurant owners here in Simpson County that they can open, put in safety protocols and get these businesses back open and do so safely.’ I said, ‘Can I guarantee you that I am going to keep every Simpson County resident here if we do that, I can’t guarantee that because some are still probably going to Tennessee, but at least if they have an option here, I think we can keep a big percentage of them here.’ ”
Barnes said at the time, Simpson County also experienced people traveling from Tennessee with Lowes and Walmart open to the public.
In late April, Barnes put together an executive order permitting local businesses to reopen that he put on his social media and sent to the governor’s office.
“I said, ‘I’m not asking for this thing to go wide open, I’m just asking that we have the ability to do something sensibly and safely here to try to keep people here from going into at that time was — three counties just south of us with more COVID-19 cases than the entire state of Kentucky and you’re telling me you don’t care if my people go down there,’ ” Barnes said.
Barnes said he sought further information on his ability as a judge/executive to issue the order he created permitting shops to reopen from the attorney general’s office, but ultimately decided against the decision.
Within a few weeks, judge/executives and mayors from across the participated in a conference call with Governor Beshear.
“I asked the governor in that conference with a 160 other people on their, ‘Governor, would you be willing to give local governments some guidelines and let each local government do what makes best sense for their community’ and he said, ‘absolutely not, all of Kentucky will open together.’ ”
The only person who spoke up was Allen County Judge/ Executive Dennis Harper who said I agree with judge/executive Barnes we need to be able to do something.
Barnes said Simpson County continued through the closures and lockdowns, and in about mid July, Governor Beshear came out with the mask mandate. He said he thought that following the mask mandate would be another round of closures.
“At the time, I drafted another executive order and that was going to allow local businesses to stay open if they chose to and be willing to take the heat if it came,” Barnes said. “But thankfully, [Governor Beshear] didn’t reissue retail closures. You get to a point where enough is enough. You’re penalizing local small business owners while Lowes and Walmart and the big chains are open and people in those stores by the hundreds. It makes absolutely no sense.”
By late November, closures were issued by the state.
By early December, Barnes said he had drafted another version of an executive order but spent time talking to the local restaurant owners to learn more about the detriment and impact of the closures.
Barnes said with large amounts of positive cases being announced almost daily, his expectations were that the governor would expand the closure orders.
Barnes said he told the restaurant owners that his expectation was that on Dec. 14, the restaurants would open and if the governor did sign an expanded closure order, Barnes said he had plans to sign his executive order draft.
Barnes said all of the restaurants said they would open, but one did question if they could be shutdown for opening to the public.
“I said here’s the deal, in the order I’m going to direct that the local health department would still have the ability to do their normal restaurant inspections but they would not be able to order you close based solely on the reason that you were offering in-person dining,” Barnes said. “I want to respect the role of the governor, I intend to respect the role of the governor, but at some point, someone has to stand up for these business owners that have been absolutely strangled the entire year of 2020, and no one was really standing up. I’m not trying to downplay the reality nor the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus. I’m not trying to downplay its impact and effect on people. I’m not trying to minimize that it’s a very serious illness that can cause lots of problems and even cause death. I am fully aware of all of that, but I still think we are able to live our lives and our small business owners provide for themselves, and their families and their employees and do it in a safe manner.”
Vaccine shipments arrive in city, county
Simpson County as part of the Barren District Health Department, received 100 vaccinations the week before Christmas.
In early January 2021, Simpson County Emergency Management Director Bob Palmer began coordinating with first responders and the district for medical workers to receive vaccinations.
“The biggest challenge [going into 2021] is for people to realize we are still dealing with the virus,” Barnes said. “It definitely has worn out its welcome. We all would have liked to have seen the virus just come and go.”
Barnes said looking ahead to summer 2021, he believes Franklin will have enough vaccines for individuals who want to get vaccinations in Simpson County.
“People don’t need to fear outdoor events and functions — we’ve learned that,” Barnes added. “My biggest fear of going forward is there is going to be a segment of the population, not just here in Simpson County, but throughout the state and across the country and maybe around the world, that is from this point forward going to be absolutely terrified to be around people,” Barnes said. “I don’t think we have to be.”
Barnes said he has encouraged the fiscal court, parks director Terry Joiner and the parks board to have outdoor baseball and softball leagues at the park for kids.
“High school basketball is happening indoors in gymnasiums right now — if we can play high school football a contact sport, and we can play high school basketball inside a gymnasium, surely we can have spring softball and baseball leagues for kids to play ball outdoors,” Barnes said.
“I think we have learned some good lessons [from COVID-19] that I hope continue and that is good hygiene practices,” Barnes said. “I hope everyone remembers 2020 and says, ‘My gosh I better wash my hands and keep myself cleaned up.’ I hope we learned that when you do feel bad or you’re sick, don’t go to work or the store stay at home. So practicing good hygiene, keeping ourselves clear of other people when we feel sick or feel bad. I hope those are two practices we keep forever and forever.”
Growth plan for the future
“One of things that I said we really need to have here in Simpson County was a true comprehensive community growth plan,” Barnes said. “Change is inevitable so, the purpose of the growth plan is to have a road map for what type of change we want and how we want to direct that change. We need to be planning now where do we want residential growth, where do we want industrial growth. We don’t want to just pop up industrial parks in a random fashion. We need a plan for when we are out industrial space in the three parks we are at — and we are getting close. We are seeing residential growth now, so we want to plan that out, too. And, which districts do we want to protect like our historic downtown. I think we need protections there. I think Simpson County and our heritage and agriculture — I think there is some agriculture space that we need to say, ‘This is protected.’ So we need a good road map to look forward so 20 or 30 years from now, when we’ve gone form 20,000 to 25-26 or 27,000 people — it’s not a question of if we do that over the next 20 years, it’s a question of will it really take 20 years to see that much more growth. We’ve got to do it in the right manner. While we’re one of the smallest counties land wise, we are by far not the smallest population wise. We don’t necessarily have the space to grow unless we do it right.”
In late 2019, a committee of community leaders including the industrial authority, chamber of commerce, tourism, the mayor and city manager was formed to discuss growth plans.
“As we moved into 2020 we were hit it with COVID-19 and all in-person meetings were going by the wayside,” Barnes added.
Previously to the start of the pandemic, a survey regarding the growth plan was put out on social media for people, to give the public a chance to weigh in on what they would like to see for the community.
Barnes said the county received “great feedback” from the online survey.
The number one response to what people would like to see in Simpson County when asked on the survey was a fully functioning 24/7 fire department.
“I am obviously in big favor of that, especially as we grow,” Barnes said. “We’re going to work on what the price tag for that would be. We can’t staff the fire department 24 hours seven days a week on our current funding for the fire department.”
Barnes said that broadband internet was also listed as a high priority on the survey, but the county is currently working on making that happen.
“I was told when I came in that I couldn’t make [broadband internet] happen,” Barnes said. “Right after the election in 2018, I brought the Franklin Electric Plant Board and Warren RECC together and we had a meeting. Quite honestly when I left that meeting, I really wondered then if we were going to make this happen. We kept having meeting, after meeting until I finally got them to agree to at least try a pilot area, which they have done two — Macedonia Road and the Blackjack area. Once they agreed to do the pilot area, I was out of their way and let them do what they needed to do.”
Barnes said while they were beginning work on the pilot route, the pandemic hit and there was a delay of getting workers into homes.
“They are back to doing that, the rate of hookup is really great. I was really hopeful to see expansion to this, but the federal communication commission has a tossed a monkey wrench at us. They put out some sort of reverse bid on funding the internet providers and at the last minute they equated wireless broadband to hardwire to the home. So my concern is we’re going to see wireless people come in and offer something that they really can’t deliver. It’s going to put a damper on what we’re able to do to actually pull fiber internet to homes in the rural community.”
“Nothing has proved the importance of internet like the pandemic people had to work from home and you had to have access to the internet,” Barnes added.
Barnes said he would like to continue progress on broadband internet and I would like before the end of this first term to at least have the comprehensive growth plan in a draft form and the whole community thinking about which direction we are going.
Barnes said he has made the decision to file to run for a second term.
“I think there are some things that are just true — I think Simpson County is generally a really good place to live, Barnes said. “You would hear a lot of city and county doesn’t get along — I don’t think you’ve heard that these last two years. Everybody has role to play and everybody has a part they have to do and I think we are all doing it the best we can and I think we are all getting along pretty well.”