Local governments look to Congress for help with COVID impacts
- By Lia Russell
- May 21, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has hit local and state governments especially hard. Municipalities and counties have forced them to dip into reserve funds and face the prospect of grappling with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come.
County leaders said that federal legislation could provide a lifeline as they lose revenue and have had to consider making deep cuts that would mean furloughing or laying off essential frontline workers.
National Association of Counties President and Douglass County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson told reporters that the organization had recently totaled the cost to counties during the pandemic at around $144 billion through Fiscal Year 2021.
"While costs are skyrocketing, revenues are plummeting," she said. "However, we are encouraged by movement on Capitol Hill this week, especially with the [State Municipal Assistant for Response and Transition] Act."
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the SMART Act on May 18. It would provide $500 billion in funding to state and municipal governments to offset the economic impacts of COVID-19. Senators Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have signed on in support.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed sweeping relief legislation that includes almost $1 trillion in relief to state and local governments. That bill, dubbed the HEROES Act, was scoffed at by Senate Republicans and garnered a veto threat from the White House.
Commissioner Tim Bubb of Licking County, Ohio, said that the pandemic has been particularly devastating for county workers who work in sectors such as law enforcement, first response, and jails.
"We're burning through our reserve funds. We got some [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act money, with more to be redistributed by the state of Ohio," he said on a call with reporters.
"We're being very conservative because it's hard to tell how we're going to come out of this."
Country Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson of Johnson County, Kansas, said that her county had taken steps after the Great Recession of 2008 to prevent another economic catastrophe such as having to declare bankruptcy.
"We're a AAA-bond rated county. Rating agencies [usually] look at our funds and make sure we have somewhere between 25 to 30 percent [of our budget] in reserve. During the recession, we were able to work with bond agencies and come up with a four-year plan [to recover]."
However, because the COVID-19 pandemic was so unprecedented, she said it was difficult to gauge how the county and state would be able to respond this time.
"In this case, because it's so concentrated and so fast, we don't have that level of planning or recovery time. This is why the federal recovery funds really help. It [has] hit us at a different rate than before. We can get by for the next year or two, but we want to reiterate the impact on local governments."
Correction: This article was updated May 22 to correct Penny Postoak Ferguson's job title.
Lia Russell is a former staff writer and associate editor at FCW.