Coronavirus relief funds won’t help cities, official says

Ethan Sterenfeld with the Laramie Boomerang, from the Wyoming News Exchange

Coronavirus relief funds won’t help cities, official says


By Ethan Sterenfeld

Laramie Boomerang

Via Wyoming News Exchange


LARAMIE — The $1.25 billion that Wyoming received in the last federal stimulus cannot help local governments make up for depressed revenues, even though that is the most significant challenge facing Wyoming governments, a representative of Wyoming municipalities told the state Legislature last Tuesday.

“The big thing that we can’t use CARES Act funding for is lost revenue,” David Fraser, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, told the Joint Appropriations Committee during a hearing on federal CARES Act funding. “That’s where we’re really hurting.”

Wyoming received the money through the CARES Act, which Congress passed in March. Part of it is expected to be distributed to county and municipal governments by the Legislature.

The restrictions placed upon CARES Act funds limit their use to costs directly incurred because of the coronavirus, such as building testing centers, Fraser said. The trouble here is that the fall in revenue due to the economic crisis that has accompanied the pandemic has put an additional hole in government budgets on top of the direct costs related to the pandemic.

No specific appropriations were discussed by the lawmakers, who listened to testimony from representatives of municipal and county governments about the pandemic-associated costs for which they hope to receive reimbursement.

Albany County and Laramie governments have not calculated all the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn on their budgets, but there appears to have been some damage, officials told the Boomerang.

Sales tax revenues in Laramie were 6% in April compared to a year earlier, Malea Brown, the city’s chief operating officer, wrote in an email. Revenues have also been hurt by recreation center and court closures.

Laramie has not finished calculating how much coronavirus-related expenditures it will ask the state to reimburse, Brown wrote.

Albany County also has not yet calculated the amount of coronavirus-related expenses it will ask the Legislature to reimburse from CARES Act money, said Jackie Gonzales, the county clerk. The county government expects to have more information about the effects on its budget within the next week.

Cities across Wyoming have estimated that they might lose up to 40% of the revenue that they typically draw from sales and use taxes, Fraser told the Joint Appropriations Committee. Half of the state’s municipalities have instituted hiring freezes, and one quarter of them have already had to furlough or lay off employees.

Counties are facing similar problems as municipalities with revenue shortfalls and CARES Act funding, said Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association.

They will be able to use any CARES Act funding they receive for the medical and planning costs of the pandemic, but the money cannot be used for revenue lost due to the economic crisis. Rieman said that the federal Treasury has made this situation even more difficult for local governments.

“The Treasury guidance hasn’t been helpful,” Rieman told the committee. “It’s become more complicated as we’ve gone along.”

Rieman referenced the bipartisan SMART Act as a possibility for further aid to local governments. This bill, which is currently before the Senate, would allocate a little more than $80 billion each to municipal and county governments across the country, and the funding could be used to make up for lost revenue.

Don Richards, from the state’s Legislative Service Office, cautioned that the SMART Act is unlikely to be debated and passed by Congress before the end of July.

The committee also heard testimony from representatives of the state’s senior centers. Senior centers across the state have suffered severe funding declines at the same time that their costs have grown, said Carmen Rideout, executive director of a senior center in Sheridan.

Every senior center had to stop in-person meals and activities, so they had to invest in meal delivery or curbside meal pickup. At the same time, donations have fallen, and government budgets for senior citizens are expected to shrink.

The CARES Act and a previous federal stimulus have already provided more than $5 million to Wyoming senior centers, but that has not made up for budget shortfalls, the Wyoming Association of Senior Project Directors wrote in testimony submitted to the committee.

The uncertainty of the next few months was a theme of the testimony from both the senior centers and the local governments. Because of the wide economic possibilities and the various plans for relief of local governments and organizations, they cannot be sure how much of a funding drop to expect.

“We hope that things will go better than we fear, but this may just be the start,” Fraser said. “We just don’t know what awaits us as we open back up.”

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