Negotiations on a new wave of federal emergency assistance are underway in Congress — but direct support for states and communities remains a sticking point, despite calls from national organizations like APA to deliver the additional relief communities need to rebound from this crisis.
As we enter another month with COVID-19 restrictions in place, already limited budgets continue to be stretched to the breaking point. Planning departments across the country are being forced to make drastic cuts to planning staff and implementation dollars for essential capital projects that would move communities toward recovery. Now more than ever, state and local governments need direct, flexible federal emergency funding.
APA spoke with planners across the country who are seeing the initial impact of COVID-19 from the front lines. These are their perspectives as told to Emily Pasi and Brenna Donegan of APA's policy staff.
Chad Nabity, AICP
Grand Island, Nebraska
Back in May, Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele announced the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city's budget: an estimated food and beverage tax loss of over $437,000, a 12% decrease in city sales tax, and over a million dollars loss in yearly revenue. In the months since this announcement, the city has struggled to find new ways to reduce spending of the estimated $2.2 million remaining in the budget.
"Hall County and Grand Island have been hit especially hard with COVID. This has drastically impacted the budget for the current year and will continue to impact us in the future. The budget impacts of COVID have been and will be very detrimental to our community. ...
"Simply put, our economy is collapsing, and we're feeling the impact here at home. Congress can help by quickly coming to a consensus on legislation that addresses the fiscal crisis facing local governments & states."
Penn Hills, Pennsylvania
Damian Butler-Buccilli is a planner for the municipality of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. For Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Entitlement communities like his, federal funding is a lifeline on which planners rely to ensure safe, high quality of life for residents earning low to moderate incomes:
"We are dependent on these funds every year to provide critical resources to our residents such as major infrastructure improvements, quality of life improvements and major rehabilitation programs to affect blighted neighborhoods and properties.
"Due to the unfortunate COVID-19 disaster we have seen an urgent need for more local services. This is something that needs to be addressed to better improve the lives of the residents of not just my community but those around me."
While long-time planners are struggling to keep their current jobs, new graduates are finding it impossible to find any job at all. Interns and co-op positions are often among the first cuts made when a planning department is forced to limit their budget. As a result, the next generation of planners is denied an opportunity to learn in the field, begin their careers, or offer their fresh perspectives on community projects. Recent graduate Kohl Malo describes the struggle of job hunting amidst a pandemic:
"I'm a student, just graduated. I had numerous offers of employment fall through the past few months due to the shutdown, and I believe federal and state aid that actually serves LOCAL and SMALL businesses and firms is critical for my own survival, and many others like me."
Amy Walbridge, AICP
While all are affected by the pandemic, it is important to recognize the disproportionate impact COVID-19 is having on different types of communities. Amy Walbridge, AICP, explains why weak market cities like hers are especially dependent on federal funding to survive the pandemic:
"Sen. [Rob] Portman already knows recessions are much harder on some economies than on others — this goes for weak market cities in Ohio. Second, he knows in Ohio, we no longer fully recover from recessions, so any new downturn results in another permanent setback. Third, because Ohio and its cities can't run a deficit, they don't have the capacity to take on the financial challenges delivered along with this pandemic.
"Federal action is essential to get the recovery Dayton, Ohio needs. Because it can rely on borrowing, federal funding is crucial during times like these and can ensure that Dayton and its people get the help they urgently need."
Colleen McGue, AICP
In addition to planning efforts aimed at COVID-19 recovery and reinvention, communities also need emergency funding to keep everyday planning systems up and running. Infrastructure projects are just one example of essential planning work that is being halted or delayed due to budget cuts. Colleen McGue emphasizes the necessity of federal relief in helping make Sarasota, Florida's, local economy and built environment strong and resilient:
"Here in Sarasota we are in need of financial assistance to keep planning for a strong economy. We still need to be planning to improve our local roads and other infrastructure so we can continue serving our residents and visitors, offering them the best quality of life possible. As a planner, this is important to me. As a constituent, I really want to see our economy continue to flourish and thrive here!
Susan Wood, FAICP
As a transportation planner in Denver, Colorado, Susan Wood saw the first impacts of the pandemic restrictions on transit ridership, which plunged more than 60 percent when the city announced shelter-in-place orders. Service has been greatly reduced in response to the lack of demand, and the Regional Transit District (RTD) instituted a furlough program to make up for the drastic revenue shortfalls. Without sufficient staff or funding, Wood says transit service throughout the city will be impacted:
"Several consequences of the loss in staff include the inability to do more than maintain the needed functions to keep the agency running. ... it is likely that our service will shrink, and this could result in a reduction in frequency of service or area of service. Undoubtedly, this will deter new transit riders from using our service (lack of convenience) and will disadvantage those who rely on transit for mobility even more."
Beyond the significant blow to the mobility of transit-dependent residents, the reduction of city transportation services will also hurt the environmental health of the area. "Transit is an important key to taking single-occupancy vehicles off the road, which will limit to amount of pollutants generated that contribute to air quality issues," says Wood. "Denver is well-known for its 'brown cloud' and is currently in non-attainment for ozone."
Thanks to funds from the CARES Act, RTD will be able to keep operating. However, any projects to extend rails and commuter lines to improve mobility throughout Denver have been put on hold, and the future profile of RTD is unclear even after the initial federal support package:
"With the pandemic, the possibility of completing these projects in the foreseeable future is bleak. Our revenue shortfall is such that even if receipt of federal grants is a possibility, we would have to forgo the opportunity unless the requirement for a local match were waived.
"From a funding perspective, RTD is receiving $232 million in funding through the CARES Act. This is wonderful because it is allowing us to keep operating in 2020. Our greater concern is a projected large shortfall in revenue that will occur in 2021. We are unsure of the magnitude due to the fluctuating nature of our economy currently."
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