County leaders across New York joined together to renew their plea for federal lawmakers to pass a coronavirus relief bill to provide aid to state localities.
A bipartisan group of county executives across the state called on congressional leaders and the president in a press conference with the state Association of Counties on Thursday to compromise on a new federal stimulus package that provides funding for states and local governments, which provide essential services to combat the pandemic and reopen their local economies.
Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, both Democrats, and Republicans Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro and Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente agreed: The state’s success in its fight against COVID-19 has come at a steep cost — both in New York lives and finances.
The state projects a $13.3 billion shortfall this year, and roughly $61 billion over four years, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. New York City, alone, projects a $9 billion loss in revenues for March 2020 through June 2021. This projection does not address cuts in state reimbursement.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly warned of widespread 20% cuts to state health care, education and localities if New York does not receive federal funding.
Albany County lost roughly $15.5 million in sales tax revenue in the first half of 2020 compared to last year, McCoy said. The county expects a $30 million to $40 million budget deficit.
“It could be $50 million by the end of the year,” he said. “It all depends on what the third quarter brings.”
The county has $60 million in its reserve fund, County Comptroller Susan Rizzo said.
While the state’s 10 regions have completed reopening nonessential businesses, excluding gyms and movie theaters or indoor dining in New York City, industries continue to struggle with the sluggish economic restart. The county’s hotel occupancy rate is below 1%.
McCoy would request $30 million in federal funding for Albany County if he had a say on Congress’ legislation, he said, as county and local departments have been on the front lines in providing essential health and public services to combat COVID-19.
“Congress and the president are forcing our hands,” McCoy said. “They need to do what’s right and fair and prioritize smaller counties that have been on the front lines of the pandemic and have been left behind in the last four stimulus packages.”
Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said it is unclear what the county’s final budget deficit will be.
“If the governor executes his minimum 20% reduction in state aid, we would have a $3.5 million deficit,” Groden said. “The unknown factor is sales tax. We are only halfway through the year and the receipts on sales tax are beginning to fall — car sales are down, people aren’t eating out in restaurants, our tourism and hotel industries are down. People are afraid to go out or they don’t like the limitations like wearing masks — that will keep some people home.”
While the economy in New York is reopening, there are still uncertainties, Groden said.
“We don’t know how it will rebound — will we get back to where we were in February or March? We don’t know. I won’t know the potential deficit on sales tax at least through the summer, if not September,” Groden said.
Another factor that could impact sales tax revenue is the status of schools. Back-to-school shopping is typically a boon time for businesses, but if schools continue to operate remotely, that will likely impact sales of clothing, school supplies and the like, Groden said.
While the sales tax deficit is widening, expenses for the county are up, he added. Spending on personal protective equipment for county employees, as well as overtime for the Greene County Health Department, have created an unanticipated rise in expenses.
“The Health Department hasn’t had a day off since March 15,” Groden said. “They worked every holiday, so those staff members are being paid overtime and I don’t have that budgeted.”
Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said the county has reserve funds set aside for emergency use, but the anticipated $3.5 million reduction in state aid was unexpected.
“The one thing we couldn’t foresee is the state reneging on their agreement to reimburse us for services we provide on their behalf,” Linger said. “That is where the $3.5 million comes from — it is a reduction in state reimbursements, for things like foster care, highway funding, those are things we couldn’t have predicted would have happened.”
The expected loss in state aid could mean cuts down the road in the county budget, and jobs could be on the chopping block, Linger said.
“We are looking at a lot of possibilities for the county budget, including possible layoffs or not hiring for vacant positions that are still in the budget,” Linger said.
It is not known yet how many, if any, jobs could be on the line. The county is expected to formulate the upcoming budget, and any layoffs, by December.
“We don’t want to see anyone lose their job, but that loss in state aid will hurt us,” Linger said.
In Columbia County, a budget work group was established to deal with anticipated impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on the local economy. The group consisted of Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell, Treasurer P.J. Keeler, Controller Ron Caponera, Human Resources Director Michaele Williams-Riordon, and County Attorney Rob Fitzsimmons.
“When it became clear that the coronavirus-related shutdown would have significant financial impacts and was not a short-term situation, there was no question that Columbia County would need to begin taking steps to prevent a total economic catastrophe,” Murell said. “We felt there was no other route but to be proactive, which would enable us to have options, rather than face employee extended furloughs and layoffs, as some counties around the state may be forced to look at if they’ve waited too long.”
The county has taken steps to reduce expenses to make up for the shortfall, including furloughs for county employees, leading to a total savings of just over $10 million. Even so, the deficit could exceed $13 million, and the county issued a Revenue Anticipation Note that would allow for borrowing up to $15 million if necessary, according to a statement from Murell. The note would be used as a last resort, and if no federal assistance comes through and the economy does not rebound, will become needed, according to the statement.
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, who ran against Cuomo for governor in 2018, said his downstate county has experienced a sharp decline in tax revenue that seemed impossible six months ago.
“While we continue to provide critical services to our residents, counties like Dutchess are facing dire fiscal realities that will only continue as the pandemic endures,” Molinaro said. “We implore Congress and the president to work together in a true bipartisan spirit and develop a comprehensive and meaningful funding package that brings both financial support and relief to counties throughout New York state.”
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