U.S. Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act to ease the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic last week, but state and local governments are still trying to parse how to implement the $150 billion allotted for them.
Government leaders in Durango, Cortez, Bayfield and Ignacio have been told funding will be disbursed to states and local governments in several weeks, but fast-changing circumstances in the COVID-19 outbreak might change that.
“There is so much uncertainty for our businesses and our people, and we have to start planning for our new reality and determine how to maintain essential services while doing what we can to support our community,” Melissa Youssef, Durango’s mayor, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
For cities with a population of less than 200,000 residents, the future of their federal support is even more unclear, said Mark Garcia, Ignacio’s interim town manager.
In the meantime, towns in La Plata County are “planning for a significant revenue decline,” Garcia said.
Amber Blake, Durango’s city manager, said the amount of funding disbursed to local governments is not sufficient to meet the loss in revenue they will experience. The city relies on sales tax revenues to fund 60% of its general operations, and current projections show at least a 30% decline in sales tax revenue as a result of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youssef also said additional legislation from U.S. Congress is necessary to help fill in gaps created by lost revenue, so “we can continue to provide critical services to our community.”
“Our reliance on tourism is tough in a global health pandemic,” Youssef wrote. “I want to be positive and hope that people are going to be ready to get out and start traveling again, but it will likely be a slow start.”
Bayfield’s interim Town Manager Katie Sickles is working with the town’s finance consultant to identify what could realistically be cut from the town budget, while rushing to draft ordinances that protect residents who have been laid off from being penalized if they miss a payment deadline.
Sickles is working with Pine River Shares, a community nonprofit, to provide rent relief for residents. The town manager also wrote an ordinance to allow a deferred payment schedule for water and sewage fees for over 24 months.
After past-due accounts of water and utilities started piling up, Sickles wrote an ordinance waiving penalties of shut-offs so “people have time to recover.”
She is also working on providing 80 hours of paid sick time for employees who contract COVID-19 or the flu, or who have been exposed to the disease.
“As a town manager, you have to be proactive,” Sickles said.
Garcia said he is also concerned about the availability of personal protective equipment, such as face masks, and he hopes the federal government will do more to provide masks for emergency responders, law enforcement officials and health care workers.
With elections next week in Bayfield and Ignacio, the towns have been prepping face masks and protective gear for people staffing the drive-thru voting booths, which takes them away from emergency responders and health care workers, Garcia said.
“Everybody’s done a really good job of understanding the situation, and I’m impressed with how they responded,” Garcia said about Ignacio residents, despite the lack of support for necessary resources from the federal government.
Sickles, in Bayfield, said the stay-at-home order is a chance for families to bond, as well as a crash course for many in learning new technology.
“Every morning, I saw the same man go running, and now I see his son going with him,” Sickles said.
Blake said in an email to the Herald that Durango residents and businesses are also working together to come up with innovative solutions.
“I am confident that we will come together as a community and not only survive this pandemic but come out a stronger, more cohesive community,” she said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.