Mayors, county leaders 'sounding the alarm' for federal aid

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A group of mayors and county officials pressed their case Thursday for direct aid to state and local governments to be included in any future federal pandemic relief package, stressing that cities, counties and other localities have been squeezed hardest by the economic effects of COVID-19.

“Local leaders have been sounding an alarm for months,” Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley said on a conference call with reporters hosted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities and National Association of Counties.

Whaley, who serves as vice president of the Conference of Mayors, said that since the pandemic’s beginning, cities have been stretched to support their residents through nutrition programs, housing assistance and other forms of aid, all while first responders and medical services are overwhelmed by the health crisis.

“The need for public assistance is through the roof,” she said.

But since an initial $150 billion round of state and local aid as part of last March’s CARES Act, Congress has failed to follow that up, even as governors, mayors and county executives warn of calamitous budget shortfalls and economic uncertainty that could last years after COVID-19 recedes.

“Without help, it’ll be mid-2023 before cities regain half of their job losses,” said Jeff Williams, the mayor of Arlington, Texas.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, state and local governments have shed nearly 1.3 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including one-third of the roughly 150,000 jobs lost across all sectors in December.

The $900 billion rescue package Congress passed last month excluded state and local aid over objections from Republican members of the Senate who suggested that money would be a “bailout” for Democratic-led jurisdictions. But Williams, a Republican, said the urgency to shore up states and cities is bipartisan.

“In Washington, D.C., state and local aid has become an abstract category on a list somewhere,” he said. “This is not a big-city or blue-state problem.”

The $150 billion in state and local aid Congress provided in March has been meted out sparsely, the speakers on Thursday’s call said. Only 38 cities and 133 counties with populations greater than 500,000 qualified for some direct aid, while all other local governments had to wait for their states to distribute funds. And that money had to be used exclusively for pandemic response.

While states and local governments that did get money were able to put it to use on IT expenditures related to much-needed programs like unemployment and housing assistance, cities and counties say they need to be able to use any future aid flexibly to cover budget holes left by the pandemic.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden proposed this month includes $350 billion to shore up state and local governments, which the three groups that hosted the conference call have all endorsed.

“America’s communities are in the middle of a dark and difficult winter,” said Vince Williams, mayor of Union City, Georgia. “If Congress is truly committed to rescuing communities, the people that elected all of us, they need to demonstrate their commitment to lifting up local government.”

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COVID-19, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors
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