The numbers are staggering. Over 1.3 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Over 80,000 deaths. Unemployment approaching 20%, not seen since the Great Depression. Through all of this suffering, the role of local governments in America is more critical than ever, a bedrock for our society. Municipalities continue to provide the essential services that are fundamental to our way of life — the safety, health and welfare of more than 200 million residents across the country. Dedicated public servants — police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, water and sewer plant operators — continue to serve the people of their communities each and every day, often placing themselves in harm’s way, including potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Cities, in particular, are the engine of the American economy. Small businesses are the largest employers in this economy, and cities create the atmosphere and foster the spirit for businesses to thrive and allow residents to make a good living. Investing in cities can stimulate the entire American economy. Small businesses — the sandwich shop down the street, the local barber, retail stores and other entrepreneurs striving to make a living — are the building blocks of the economy. Cities serve a vital role nurturing these enterprises through loan and grant programs, workforce development and technical assistance. Investing in cities truly is investing in their people.
In March, the federal government passed the first of three and a half packages of coronavirus relief legislation. While the aid and assistance have been considerable, there has been no direct aid provided to the majority of cities, towns and villages. During the pandemic, communities have depended on their cities to continue to provide essential services, even while cities’ finances are beginning to buckle under the strain of plummeting revenues. Without relief, the choices required of local leaders will impact directly the quality of life for residents.
Through the National League of Cities, cities, towns and villages are calling for $500 billion of direct federal aid and economic relief over the next two years to support communities on the frontline of America’s response to COVID-19. Federal relief — more importantly federal investment — for America’s cities can save lives. Without investment in local governments, especially cities, our nation’s communities will be less safe, less healthy and less prosperous.
In Winston-Salem, the city government is facing a revenue shortfall exceeding $18 million over the next two years from declining sales taxes, water and sewer fees and occupancy taxes. At the same time, the pandemic has created unexpected expenses, such as the need for personal protective equipment for our first responders and other employees in regular contact with the public. As a result, the city is facing a budget deficit next fiscal year that it has not seen since the Great Recession. In order to continue to provide essential services to the city’s residents, the upcoming budget will employ austere measures to control spending and will rely heavily on cash reserves to balance. Reliance on the city government’s “savings” is necessary during these times, but it is not sustainable. Federal assistance will enable the city to weather these challenges.
Cities are not seeking a bailout from the federal government. The city of Winston-Salem was one of the first local governments in the country to receive a Triple A credit rating, the highest rating that a government can earn. Winston-Salem has maintained that rating through fiscal discipline and sound financial management. Direct federal assistance is not about bailing out cities that have mismanaged their government. It is about sustaining a partnership and providing much-needed support to those, like Winston-Salem, who acted quickly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early days of the economic shutdown, the city acted quickly, contributing $1 million to the COVID-19 Response Fund for Forsyth County, approving relief to small business owners and utility customers, and providing shelter to the homeless and medically fragile.
Clean water. Safe neighborhoods. Timely emergency response. A thriving economy and entrepreneurial spirit. A nurturing quality of life. Cities contribute to these necessities every day. Without a federal partnership and the investment in America’s cities, it will take a very long time for us to recover. Cities are essential. Winston-Salem is essential.