Federal COVID relief bill could bring millions in local funding

CAPITAL REGION  — The proposed $350 billion in state and local pandemic aid would provide hundreds of millions in funding to Capital Region counties, cities, towns and villages to counter pandemic-related revenue losses, according to preliminary estimates provided to Congress.

This bill, unlike the local aid package approved last March, would include funding for municipalities regardless of population size, so even the village of Ames (pop. 185) in Montgomery County or town of Galway (pop. 3,545) in Saratoga County would get some financial assistance.

The aid is part of the massive $1.9 trillion COVID relief package proposed by President Joe Biden that also includes more money for vaccination efforts and $1,400 direct payments to individuals.

19th Congressional District Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, said the legislation adopted his aid distribution formula, which he sought to be sure even small communities received aid.

“Our local governments have local critical revenue during the pandemic, that and (increased costs) have meant critical projects were put on the back burner,” Delgado said during a telephone town hall meeting Wednesday evening. “They all need direct federal assistance, I have heard this across the board.”

Using a formula that weighs poverty and unemployment levels as well as population, the COVID-relief package moving through the U.S. House of Representatives would provide funding to Capital Region county governments ranging from $60 million for Albany County to $6 million for Schoharie County. However, the relief package faces a battle in the Senate, where Republicans are opposed to the size of the proposal.

Under the House version, Schenectady County would get $30 million, which County Manager Rory Fluman said was good news, though he added a note of caution. “All the best indicators are that this is highly likely to happen, but the strings attached are not written yet,” he said. “But the cities, towns, villages and schools will also be getting direct aid, and that’s a huge relief to the county.”

Potential payments to local cities include $78 million for Albany, $53 million for the city of Schenectady and $7 million for Saratoga Springs. (Cities of more than 50,000 population have access to more money that small cities.) Much of the money would be distributed through a modified version of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program.

Congressional Democrats say the goal of local aid is to help counties, cities, towns and villages avoid layoffs because of losses in sales tax and other revenue that they have suffered since the pandemic began last March.

In the Capital Region, county and local governments have so far been able to avoid having to lay off municipal workers by drawing on reserves, but many local leaders have warned that unless they receive federal aid to cover losses, layoffs will become unavoidable.

The legislation is expected to come to a floor vote in the House either Friday or Saturday, with the potential that it will have no Republican support. Local aid is among the items to which Republicans in the U.S. Senate have raised objections, and Democrats are still trying to ensure they have the needed Senate votes.

Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort is one Republican who has been calling for aid to local governments for months.

“Certainly, $10 million to Montgomery County as part of a package is a tremendous relief,” he said. “Is that $10 million going to be tied to documenting details on the ground, is it a one-time unrestricted payment? We are still looking for more details on that.”

Ossenfort said he has directed county department heads to document all increased costs and revenue losses to their departments attributable to the pandemic, from costs of personal protective equipment to the spike in construction costs after steel prices shot up last year.

The estimates of how much money communities would receive if the legislation also clears the Senate and is signed by Biden were provided by the Congressional Research Service, and are rough estimates.

For New York state, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has insisted the state needs $15 billion in federal aid for its coffers alone, the bill would provide something close: $12.665 million.

Pandemic related revenue losses continue, with statewide sales tax collections down by $95 million for January alone, according to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. “The COVID-19 pandemic continues to weigh heavily on New York’s local governments, even as vaccines are being distributed and infection rates are declining from all-time highs,” DiNapoli said in releasing figures last week. “Congress must pass a COVID relief bill that helps our local governments during this crisis.”

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, has estimated that revenue losses for local governments across the country will continue into at least 2022.

Fluman said he agrees with that assessment, since local government revenue losses can linger for several years after a recession. “If we receive the 30 million we can’t spend it all this year, but we do need to have protection going into future years,” he said.

Fluman estimated Schenectady County has spent at least $2 million in unanticipated costs due to the pandemic, as its Public Health Services has had to gear up first a contract-tracing effort and now a vaccination campaign.





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