Congress passed the next round of coronavirus aid legislation late Monday night, but the $900 billion deal leaves out any money to support state and local governments, which have faced historic losses through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The first round of aid, the CARES Act, included money for some local governments, but only those with populations over 100,000, leaving counties with smaller populations, like Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, out.
Ryan M. Piche, county manager for Lewis County, said with this next COVID aid package, rural governments have been completely left out in the cold, for a second time now.
“Communities over 100,000 in population were given unbelievable sums of money,” he said. “They’ve provided bonuses for their frontline workers, they’ve given shift differentials to public health employees, and yet small rural local government has still got nothing.”
The legislation does include money to be used by the state and local governments for certain COVID-related programs, like contact tracing and testing, but county leaders in particular have been calling for more substantial aid to offset lost sales tax revenue, lost productivity and reduced state aid.
“In terms of non-determined aid coming to the state and local level, that was absent in this bill,” said Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. “Certainly we hoped for different results from this package, but at least they are going to address some of our extraordinary cost concerns that we’re having to deal with during this pandemic.”
Mr. Gray said Jefferson County has been taking measures since March to cut costs, increase efficiencies and ensure the county is prepared to weather the ongoing financial storm. But the county can only cut so much of its own costs before residents start to notice an impact in service quality, and the length of the pandemic — which still has no end in sight — has made it difficult to stretch funds.
While initial discussions in Washington over the aid package did include direct funds for state and local governments, some congressional Republicans expressed concerns over the growing costs of combating the pandemic, and the measures were cut.
Both Mr. Gray and Mr. Piche said that makes them wonder if congressional leaders really understand the role local governments have played in combating the pandemic.
“It’s misguided when I hear comments out of Washington like, ‘Let states or local governments go bankrupt,’” Mr. Gray said. “We are the ones on the ground, we are the ones on the front line. Nobody in Congress is providing mitigation on the ground.”
Mr. Piche echoed Mr. Gray’s message.
“The entities that have been most affected and have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and fighting the pandemic, is our local governments,” Mr. Piche said. “So, it just makes absolutely no sense that we’ve been left out of the stimulus.”
Watertown Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith said, similarly to Lewis and Jefferson counties, the city has been working to increase efficiencies, but he isn’t waiting for federal aid to make the city whole again.
He said he believes allowing local businesses to reopen fully, with appropriate measures in place to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, would give local governments the necessary fiscal boost to weather the pandemic.
“I think if we can unshackle some of our local businesses, that in and of itself would help the local economy, and we would not have to depend on bailouts,” he said.
Mayor Smith said he believes targeted aid to support governments as they carry the costs of combating the pandemic is appropriate, but he questioned the wisdom or necessity of large, non-specific grants of cash.
“I’m not saying no relief money, but I think there’s one side of the coin where we have all this money lost, and people blame everything on COVID, but if you go back to pre-COVID days, they weren’t being efficient,” he said. “They were in the hole anyway, and it had nothing to do with COVID.”
Mayor Smith said he believes some the measures that were included in Monday’s package, like reauthorizing the federal Paycheck Protection Program, were a step in the right direction toward addressing the crisis, and he would like to see more measures taken to allow local businesses and governments to address the pandemic on their own terms.
“It’s different in the north country than it is in New York City, I don’t look at it all as a broad stroke,” he said.
Mr. Gray said he believes any aid package, regardless of if it gives money to local governments or not, can only be considered effective if the help it offers reaches the general population.
He said, based on what Congress passed in Monday’s package, it appears Congress does have an understanding of at least some of what’s needed.
“At the end of the day, it has to benefit the people in our jurisdiction — forget about local government,” he said. “This package definitely demonstrates that they see what the needs are in the population.”
St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators Chairman Joseph R. Lightfoot said St. Lawrence County’s finances are currently stable, and he’s not worried about an impending crisis, although he continues to have concerns over how the state of New York deals with the counties.
“New York state spends money without a care — like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “What happens is that the largesse of the state rolls downhill, and the state uses the counties like a pocketbook to dip into at their will, which puts undue strain on the counties.”
Mr. Gray, Mr. Piche and Mayor Smith also said they’re concerned about the financial status of the state.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is predicting a $15 billion loss for the state in 2020 alone, a number that could balloon to $50 billion over two years. To account for those losses, Gov. Cuomo has cut state aid to local governments and school districts, and has floated the idea of tax hikes as well.
“We’re already seeing the effects of New York state’s budget crunch,” Mr. Piche said. “So, New York state has problems that manifest themselves in local governments, and that means counties, cities and towns are going to bear the brunt of a lot of New York’s financial problems.”
Mr. Lightfoot said New York state has indicated it will hold up on reimbursing counties for certain costs, including reimbursements that support financially stressed hospitals and nursing homes. He said he’s worried that counties like St. Lawrence will be put on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain those facilities, while also facing down broader cuts to state aid, lower sales tax revenue and increased costs.
Both Mr. Piche and Mr. Gray said they remain hopeful that Congress will provide more funding in the new year, with the direction of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, who has said he will fight to secure local government funding. They both said local federal representatives, including Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, as well as U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; have been advocating for assistance for months, and they’re confident they will continue the fight for local aid in the next Congress.
But they both said it’s hard to keep the faith after so many months of inaction.
“They just keep moving the goalposts further away from us every time we get ready to kick the ball,” Mr. Gray said. “But, I am optimistic that we’ll eventually get some recognition for what we’re doing.”