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OPINION| Hey Feds: Local Government Needs You

The global pandemic has disrupted just about everything. Local politics is no different.

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Thanks to the coronavirus, the Richmond region’s city and county governments are facing steep challenges:

Local health agencies are tasked with tracking cases, supporting health providers and communicating urgent information to the public. In an encouraging sign of regional cooperation, the health districts of Henrico and Richmond have been working together to set up information hotlines and testing capacity.

Public schools – the arm of local government that often touches families the most – have been confronted with immediate and daunting challenges to instruction, ranging from student access to technology to how to meet state and federal education standards under quarantine. No matter how successful some districts have been in transitioning to remote learning, the lost weeks and months will have them playing catch-up for years.

Transit agencies are threading the needle between the demands of social distancing and the need to get essential workers, including health care providers, to their places of employment. Bus drivers, train conductors and ticket sellers are unexpectedly finding themselves on the front lines of a pandemic. GRTC, which operates buses in the Richmond area, faces an ongoing dispute with the bus operators’ union over hazard pay, while trying to stretch its already thin budget to provide service without fares.

Local governments are trying to conduct regular business while implementing emergency measures under unprecedented conditions. How are local legislative bodies supposed to satisfy open-records laws when they cannot even allow residents into their chambers? How can local registrars run free and fair elections while keeping voters safely distanced from each other, especially now that the General Assembly has rejected any calls to move election dates?

Behind all of these challenges is an even more formidable one: A fiscal crisis is looming. The economic damage from the shuttered economy is already devastating to local revenue. Closed businesses cannot pay property or sales taxes to Richmond or its nearby counties. Newly unemployed workers cannot pay Virginia income tax, with the state then stuck looking for how to provide essential funding to its counties and municipalities. Even hospitals and health care systems – important employers, landowners and political players here in Richmond as much as anywhere – are left wondering how to balance emergency care for virus patients with paying the bills. Bon Secours recently estimated that it could lose $100 million each month during the quarantine across all seven states in which it operates, including Virginia.

Local governments cannot meet these challenges on their own. Cities and counties must balance their budgets each year, and the COVID-19 crisis will make that task exceedingly difficult in the budget seasons to come.

Federal leadership – and dollars – are essential in keeping local governments solvent. The feds have already started the bailout process, especially targeting small businesses, struggling industries, and taxpayers; but the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act limited payments to local governments of at least 500,000 residents. Only Fairfax County qualifies from Virginia. Whether it comes directly from the national government or through the states, the feds cannot ignore the country’s backbone of local governments. It is county and municipal officials who will continue to ensure that new businesses open, kids are educated, parks and libraries are available, and elections run smoothly.

As has been widely observed, the last time the country faced a pandemic of such historic proportions was the Spanish flu outbreak at the end of World War I. Local governance operated in a very different environment in the early 1900s. Municipal public health agencies were barely developed, with very little capacity to address such a crisis. More often than not, they responded to the outbreak by feverishly downplaying it, trying to boost morale for the war effort rather than preventing spread of the disease. Chicago’s public health commissioner even argued that “worry kills more people than the epidemic.” Meanwhile, people watched their friends and family sicken and die in numbers far exceeding the rosy picture they heard from local leaders.

Thankfully, local governments today are very, very different. The increased capacity developed over the past few decades to meet the needs of their residents will be essential in beating back the virus and recovering from its effects. Municipalities and counties already are at ground zero of economic development and employment, as well as ensuring equity and transparency in our society’s response to quarantine. That effort’s effects may slow down, but should not derail, the vital investments we need to make in transit, in local services, in regional cooperation, in affordable housing, in education and in racial equity.

None of these essential efforts can be sacrificed on the altar of public health.

In fact, they might be the best way to help our society recover from the effects of the quarantine, one city, county and school district at a time.

Richard Meagher is associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about state and local politics at rvapol.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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