CATSKILL — Greene County lawmakers approved a resolution Monday calling for more direct federal COVID-19 funding, in light of projections that regional governments face losing about $2 billion in sales tax revenue.
A report released by the state Association of Counties last month looks at two different scenarios and makes projections for each. In the mild scenario, Greene County is estimated to lose $35.5 million in taxable sales and $1.4 million in sales tax, which is 4.3%. The severe scenario estimates Greene County will lose $4.4 million, or 13.4% of its potential sales tax. Columbia County’s loss is estimated at $38.4 million in taxable sales based on the report’s mild projection. The potential loss of sales tax is estimated at $1.5 million, or 3.6%. In the severe scenario, that number jumps to nearly 11% at $4.7 million.
“Every level of government is going to feel the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and local governments are bracing for that loss of revenue,” NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario said in a statement. “But we are also urging a partnership with the state as we confront the public health threat. We represent the same taxpayer at the local level and we have limited revenues. As the state enacts its operating budget, we ask for flexibility so that we can manage the fiscal impact locally. All units of government need a financial lifeline, and we will work with the state to rebuild the economy.”
In light of these projections, the Greene County Legislature’s Finance Committee passed a resolution calling for Congress to provide all counties with direct unrestricted federal aid, distributed based upon population. Lawmakers also requested that counties be able to use aid from the Coronavirus Relief Fund — a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — to supplement their revenue loss.
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, cast the only dissenting vote.
“We are going to put chains around our kids and grandkids to have to pay this back,” he said. “Federal money is just borrowed money.”
In the previous aid packages offered through the CARES Act, direct funding for counties has not been provided, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
“There was no direct funding to counties,” he said. “We are bearing the brunt of this. We are the ones with the public health departments. We are the ones with sales tax.”
The current proposal for the next round of aid includes a list of items not related to COVID-19, Groden said.
“Whether or not it passes in its current form I would doubt,” he said.
Bulich expressed his reservations about the resolution.
“I’m asking people to be cautious lending their names to this type of resolution,” he said. “That gives unrestricted use to make our government agencies whole. We’re going to have to give serious thought about what we consider essential in government and what we are paying for currently so we don’t have to keep borrowing money and rolling the dice every year.”
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (Heroes) Act is the fifth economic stimulus package to be passed by the House of Representatives in response to COVID-19. The act, which passed the House Friday, includes the Direct Support for Communities Act, which was spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19.
“The House of Representatives took action to deliver much-needed relief to our state and local governments,” Delgado said in a statement. “Importantly, the Heroes Act includes my bipartisan Direct Support for Communities Act, which creates a formula to ensure governments of all sizes — including rural counties, towns, villages and hamlets across upstate — receive federal funding to support essential and frontline workers responding to this crisis. It is urgent that we get these funds to our communities who are facing unfathomable decisions to furlough those working around the clock to keep us safe. Our rural communities are feeling the impact of this right now and we must not delay in getting this critical relief to those who need it most.”
The Heroes Act establishes $375 billion for local governments, which will be distributed in a 50-50 split, with half to cities, towns and villages, and half to counties. Of the portion designated for cities, towns and villages, 70% will go to Community Development Block Grant municipalities, with the remainder to be divided according to population. The funding designated for counties will be distributed by population.
This funding may be used to address lost revenue to avoid a reduction in services and an increase in taxes.
Greene County Treasurer Peter Markou said the county is in “great shape,” he said.
“As of May 13, we have $70 million cash on hand,” he said.
Sales tax for the month of April was down by 29.57% compared to 2019.
“Sales tax took a big hit but it’s not anything we weren’t expecting,” he said.
For the third consecutive month, the Finance Committee authorized Markou to cancel interest on delinquent taxes for the month of June.
“As of April 30, we had 1,193 properties that owed back taxes,” Markou said. “Of those, 636 had a mailing address from outside of the county.”
The treasurer’s office will no longer be accepting cash payments, Markou said.
“It’s too dangerous,” he said, referring to the pandemic.
Lawmakers asked about the status of the annual property auction.
“A lot of counties are pushing the auction to 2021,” Markou said. “We may do that. I’m not canceling anything yet. I don’t think we’ll do it in September though.”
Any arrangements to prepare for the auction are on hold regardless, Markou said, because the courts are closed.