EDITORIAL: Federal aid is essential

HOW WOULD YOU go about finding $13 million? Let’s assume you don’t have it in a shoe box under your bed. It might take a few seconds longer now to get your imagination in gear. That’s the toll a pandemic can take on our thoughts, never mind our bodies. So keep the focus on $13 million.

That’s what the leadership of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors and other county officials have been working on as the economic impacts of the coronavirus have mounted and local business is barely waking up from a near standstill. A release last week from the board’s chairman, Matt Murell (R-Stockport) explained why the county needs $13 million and where they intend to get it.

Nobody should be surprised that the county expects to lose at least that much from its main sources of revenue: the county’s share of sales taxes, unpaid property tax bills, and reimbursements from the state and federal governments that will somehow get lost in the mail. And $13 million is what’s needed assuming the impact of Covid-19 remains close to being under control. If not, the lost revenue could amount to $20 million or more.

The county’s options are limited. Late last year the supervisors adopted an annual county budget of just under $160 million. Like all municipal and state budgets, Columbia County’s spending plan has to balance. By this spring it was clear the statewide Pause of all but essential commercial and governmental operations had blown a hole in the budgets of all levels of government. At that point a committee of the supervisors and county officials began the unpleasant task of pay cuts, staff furloughs and other cost-cutting measures. But all those moves and the addition of rainy-day funds have still left the county $3 million shy of its goal.

The solution was to authorize a $15 million revenue anticipation note, a way of borrowing against future revenues without actually calling it “borrowing.” The chairman vows they will only bor***w this $15 million if they really, reeeeealy need to.

He means what he says. But he and his colleagues must be as dispirited as their constituents while watching how members of the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate show no support for a new round of federal funding to help preserve state and local services while the pandemic continues to undermine the economy along with public health.

People make our damaged economy work; local government supports them. Many of them can’t just pick themselves up and continue as normal as the pandemic winds down. They need help. They need GOP senators to acknowledge that it costs less to invest now in small businesses, community institutions and municipal government, which supports almost everything local, than it would to reassemble them from scratch.

As citizens we have a responsibility, we should refuse to allow a virus to determine good fiscal policy any more than we should allow fiscal policy determine public health standards. But if we’re going to rid society of the coronavirus we must depend on the federal government, because Congress has “the power of the purse.” The United States can issue bonds to borrow what the nation needs.

Whatever method Congress uses, it needs to come fast. The funding from the last round of legislation is essentially done. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the next round. The nation faces an unparalleled threat brought on by the coronavirus and the collateral economic and physical damage it leaves behind.

It is time for the Senate in Washington to approve the House bill or something close to it. We need to tell Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) that whatever our political differences, the structure of the nation is at risk and the quickest and most responsible way to lower that risk is to fund local and state governments. This is where federal policy gets local. Take it personally. The time to speak out is now.

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