The federal government will reimburse Columbia and Greene counties for most COVID-19 expenses, but that may not be enough to forstall severe economic consequences, officials said Tuesday.
County expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the purchase of personal protective gear for health workers, will be 75% reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], said Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. Costs incured by the health departments and emergency management operation centers will also be reimbursed.
“The local governments would submit expenditures to the state, and the state would then have to submit those costs to the federal government,” Acquario said at a press conference Tuesday morning. “The county cannot submit directly to FEMA.”
The Greene and Columbia county governments have each created a system to track expenditures for possible FEMA reimbusement, officials said.
“We set up our FEMA accounting procedures before an emergency declaration was made,” Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said. “There are thresholds we have to meet in order to be reimbursed.”
Officials in both counties are awaiting further instruction from the state on how FEMA reimbursements will be approved and distributed.
“We don’t know the particulars other than that we have to keep track of expenses,” Columbia County Treasurer and EMS Coordinator P.J. Keeler said.
The reimbursements will not make up for lost revenue, which is an ongoing problem for counties all across the state, Acquario said.
As the COVID-19 shutdown enters its third month, lost tax dollars and a potential reduction in state aid could spell trouble for county finances.
“We could potentially have a pretty large budget hole,” said Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell.
Greene County, which had a budget surplus before the pandemic began, is also expecting a loss.
“I am estimating a 10-20% loss in the value of sales tax, which would result in between $3.4 and $6.8 million of lost revenue,” Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
“That is my intuition right now, but I have no data,” Groden said, noting that the crisis is only a few months old.
Columbia County officials are trying to be proactive in addressing the expected budget shortfall, Murell said.
“We are freezing hires unless necessary, we are asking departments to cut 20% out of their contractual budgets and we are taking out large equipment purchases,” he said.
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors formed a committee to address the anticipated revenue shortfalls, Murell confirmed. The committee will also be looking for ways of reducing expenses to try to meet the anticipated deficits, he said.
“We looked at the budget we passed in December to see what we can possibly hold off on,” Murell said. “There are some substantial items, for example heavy equipment for the highway department, reducing the number of vehicles, paving.”
Columbia County also expects to save on plowing, due to the mild winter this year.
“We guarantee that we will purchase a certain amount of sand and salt, that we didn’t use this year. That should help us next year because we will have that in stock at beginning of snow season,” Murell said.
Greene County has also instituted a hiring freeze to cut costs.
“Any hiring will need to go through the county administrator’s office and be approved by the board,” Linger said. “We are looking at where we can cut costs for the rest of the year.”
Acquario said the newly-passed state budget gives the state budget director the power to cut reimbursements to counties, which would have a big effect on county budgets.
“The county governments are the only unit of local government providing state services locally, and those reimbursements would affect the counties mid-year,” he said.
In Greene County, the loss of state reimbursements could mean cuts to state-mandated services such as foster care, the department of aging, mental health and human services, Linger said.
With strict social-distancing restrictions still in place, Acquario said the Association of Counties is concerned about the timing of property-tax assessments, which are due to be filed by May 1.
“If these rolls were filed, would the public have the ability to aggrieve their assessment, both as a business and as a residential homeowner?” he said.
But the association is not recommending the May 1 filing deadline be changed.
“If that date were extended, it would push up towards the collection of school taxes and could create a fair amount of chaos,” he said.