America’s cities are hurting. Our nation is battling the twin challenges of a public health crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous economic fallout that it has wrought on our communities. In fact, research from the National League of Cities shows that nearly 100% of cities will see a revenue decline this year.
To meet these outsized needs, cities need Congress to act. We need legislation passed that gets America closer to a full national economic recovery with direct federal aid right now – and the HEALS Act recently unveiled by the Senate provides exactly zero additional dollars to support our nation’s cities. Local governments are calling for $500 billion in direct federal funding to protect families, municipal workers and America’s economic future.
How can we truly reopen the economy if we aren’t providing support to the places where we all live, where commerce takes place, where children go to school, and where the new ideas that drive our economy are created?
“We are at a critical junction,” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said at a recent press conference held by NLC and the United States Conference of Mayors. “As we look into the future of economic recovery, there will not be a recovery if cities are left to die.”
Local funding should not be a partisan battle, where one political party is supporting funding for our nation’s hometowns and the other is more focused on liability protections for business, but we are clearly seeing divergent priorities in the Senate and House.
Mayors don’t have time for this type of politics right now. As Mayor Van R. Johnson of Savannah, Georgia, said during the press conference, “Our hometowns are at risk, we cannot keep fighting Congress and the administration for funding while we are too busy fighting economic ruin.”
Cities are America, and America needs help. Mayors were among the first to respond to the pandemic by instituting stay-at-home orders and doing what was necessary to flatten the curve. And they continue to be on the front lines – together with the essential workers, the fire, sanitation, public safety, and public health employees – guiding our cities through this storm.
Cities support a large public workforce, with payroll, retirement and workers compensation accounting for nearly half of their budgets. But with the onset of the public health crisis, cities have taken on unprecedented increases in unbudgeted COVID-19-related expenditures. In our latest survey, 74% of cities have already been forced to make unavoidable cuts in response to these expenditures. At least 32% of cities indicate that they will have to furlough or lay off more employees without additional federal support, adding to the 1.5 million public sector jobs lost since March. This poses a serious threat to city budgets, with grave implications for staff and services.
Infrastructure has taken a particularly hard hit. City expenditures for infrastructure typically go toward electric, gas, transit and water utilities, as well as sewerage and solid waste management. But these expenditures are being dramatically altered. NLC found that 65% of cities are being forced to cancel or delay infrastructure projects. Detroit, Michigan, cut its demolition funding by 80%, totaling $40 million, thereby shelving capital improvement projects and delaying the demolition of some 20,000 abandoned buildings. Fargo, North Dakota, slashed its improvement budget by $7 million, even though the city engineer indicated many of these projects are “shovel ready.” And, Round Rock, Texas, postponed nearly $3 million of capital improvement projects related to park improvements and public safety training enhancements.
Cities are also struggling with how to tackle homelessness and housing affordability during a time in which municipal budgets are enormously strained. Cities are doing the best that they can, but the mortgage and rental forbearances put in place to help during the pandemic are rapidly coming toward a close, and the number of potentially new homeless could rise exponentially.
As some places have begun shuttering or restricting economic activity again or are moving in that direction, the vast majority of Americans are worried the pandemic will drastically impact the local economy. If our hometowns are not helped in this time of need, what will make up the fabric of America?
Cities are essential, and they will do what is necessary to provide people with the confidence to support our economy and thrive. But they can’t do it alone. Congress must meet this moment with what is needed to thrive – and invest in our communities through the current legislation being debated right now.