For months, cities across the Midwest, and the entire nation, have been on the front lines fighting the novel coronavirus. The effects of the pandemic have been devastating to local communities. It’s ground tourism, business, education — and basically everything else — to a halt. Through this, we’ve seen several rounds of funding from the federal government, and the critical health care infrastructure has been stretched, but not broken.
The truth is, communities across America are struggling. Along the span of the Mississippi River, decreased tourism means tax revenues are down; decreased retail sales on main street, lack of attendance at sporting events, and many other market disruptions are all contributing to the impact these cities and towns are facing. They’re struggling for access to resources, but because of federal limitations, small communities are stuck in the middle. Indeed, only Memphis had a large enough population to qualify for direct aid from the CARES Act.
The future of state and local funding is uncertain at best. COVID-19 has incurred tremendous health-related costs, and the economic fallout has dramatically reduced local sales tax revenue across the country. The revenue shortfalls for cities along the Mississippi River 10-state corridor range from 10 to 30 percent for the entire year. Shortfalls in Missouri as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a $1 billion reduction in revenue and that number is growing. To help our local communities, Congress must include local government revenue replacement in a forthcoming stimulus package to save vital public services like schools, first responders, food banks, and public works operations. A stimulus package needs to also include increased local government resources for testing so we can test beyond just the symptomatic or exposed population and get businesses open and people working.
The rules issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury maintain for many CARES Act accounts that states and counties “should” flow funding down to their local communities. But the rules don’t say “shall,” and that doesn’t do us much good as cities like Kimmswick, Hannibal, and Louisiana prepare for flooding while still carrying the cost of last year’s record floods. It challenges cities like Cape Girardeau and Clarksville as they try to secure personal protective equipment, and it challenges our larger communities as they begin to address homelessness and prepare summer cooling centers to care for their most at-risk seniors. A stimulus package should allow for direct funding to cities with populations of 200,000 or more so we can quickly and efficiently get resources to where they are needed most in our communities.
In the absence of direct, flexible aid for state, county, and municipal governments, states will be forced to raise taxes and reduce the availability of critical services. The result of a compromise to local government operations will be catastrophic health outcomes, a worsened economic crisis at the local level, and potentially major disruptions in public services like emergency response, schools, and utilities. To our representatives in Washington, act now – and act with both our largest and our smallest communities in mind.
Colin Wellenkamp is the executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.