(WBIR - Sevier County) The State of Tennessee and a couple of counties in East Tennessee have been refunded most of the cash they sent to the federal government to reopen the Great Smoky Mountains during the shutdown in October. Getting the rest of the money back will require an act of Congress.
As the federal government shutdown dragged on in October during peak tourism season in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), the local economies in Sevier County and Blount County took a beating. Just 10 days into the shutdown, some economic experts estimated the region had already lost $33 million in tourism revenue due to the shutdown.
"We saw just the few days that the Park was shut down, it had a negative impact on our tax collection. Our sales tax had been up around four percent all year compared to 2012, but in October our sales tax was down compared to the year before. That was a direct impact of the shutting down of the Park," said Larry Waters, mayor of Sevier County.
On October 15, Tennessee and North Carolina stepped up sent the federal government $375,000 to cover the cost of opening the GSMNP for five days. The Smokies reopened on October 16, the same day a deal to end the government shutdown was announced. The federal government and all of the national parks reopened on October 17.
Sevier County is who technically cut the check to pay the federal government to reopen the national park, but the money came from a combination of cash from Sevier County, Blount County, and the state.
"It was 80 percent from the state, 10 percent from Sevier County, and 10 percent from Blount County," said Waters. "The money from the state was around $240,000 in the form of a grant. Then Blount County and Sevier County both pitched just over $30,000 each."
With the shutdown ending 24 hours into the five-day deal, the federal government only billed Tennessee and North Carolina for one day. Four days' worth (80 percent) was refunded to the states. In Tennessee's case, the federal government sent the refund payment to Sevier County because that is the entity listed as paying the bill.
"I believe it was like a couple of weeks ago they [the federal government] sent us the check for about $240,000. We have the money right now and we're in the process of trying the work out the details of how we're going to reimburse the state of Tennessee for their 80 percent and Blount County their share. It's just mechanics at this point as to exactly how they want to receive the payment and what amount and it will probably be done sometime this week," said Waters.
As for the $60,100 that was spent on reopening the Smokies for one day on October 16, Waters and other leaders said they knew going into the deal any reimbursement would require an act of Congress.
"There would have had to been a bill passed by Congress as well, we understood that. There was no guarantee that we'd be reimbursed. But we had Congressman Phil Roe and Senator Lamar Alexander saying they would support paying the states back. We're very hopeful that is going to happen," said Waters. "There is some legislation making its way through in both the House and Senate, but it will probably be next year before any decision is made."
Whether or not Sevier County gets reimbursed for that single day of operating the Park, Waters says it was money well-spent.
"I think for us [Sevier County] and for Blount County and for the state, it was worth it," said Waters.
Federal employees at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park told 10News they received full back-pay for the days they were shutdown in October. That reimbursement was received by the employees within the first couple of bi-weekly paychecks after they returned to the job on October 17.