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Nation & World

Local Governments Across America Say They're Desperate For Federal Help

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes giving federal funds to cities and towns right now. He calls the idea a blue state bailout. But local governments across America have lost more than a million jobs since the pandemic began, and they say they are desperate for help. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Ruston, La., is home to not one, but two colleges - Louisiana Tech and Grambling State - as well as a huge sports complex. Each fall, its bustling downtown is filled with students and other visitors.

RONNY WALKER: They stay in our hotels. They eat in our restaurants. They shop in our shops.

ZARROLI: But Mayor Ronny Walker, a Republican, says this year, everything went quiet, and his town has been devastated.

WALKER: You're going to lose - I would venture to guess we will lose 30 to 40% of our small businesses because they're just hanging on.

ZARROLI: With business down, the sales tax revenue that Ruston depends on slowed to a trickle. The town had to furlough 21 full-time employees and lay off 32 part-timers. Walker says he doesn't think Washington understands what's happening to local governments like his.

WALKER: For my businesses or anybody's businesses to open, you got to have water, sewer, electricity, fiber, police protection, fire protection. Those are all provided by the municipality.

ZARROLI: A recent survey by the National League of Cities indicates that cities and towns have lost 21% of their revenue on average since COVID struck. Irma Esparza Diggs, the league's director of federal advocacy, says local governments are falling into a fiscal hole it will take years to climb out of.

IRMA ESPARZA DIGGS: The effects of this pandemic and not just the public health crisis, but the economic crisis will be closely felt for the next three years.

ZARROLI: Democrats in Congress are pushing for more local government assistance as part of the next stimulus bill. But some Republican leaders say cities have brought the problem on themselves by spending too much. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a radio show earlier this year he favors letting states default on their debts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route. It saves some cities.

ZARROLI: McConnell says Congress should forget about aid for local governments now because he's not sure there's a demonstrable need for it. He calls the Democratic proposals a blue state bailout, a remark that even some Republicans took issue with. Quinton Lucas, the Democratic mayor of Kansas City, Mo., says McConnell's comment was preposterous.

QUINTON LUCAS: It's not just preposterous. It's incredibly aggravating.

ZARROLI: Lucas's city has seen a dramatic plunge in income, sales and property tax revenues since COVID struck.

LUCAS: The pandemic gutted our finances in a way unknown at any point, I think, during most people's natural lives.

ZARROLI: To save money, Kansas City stopped mowing the grass in some parks and even turned off its fountains. But a reckoning is coming. Lucas notes that the CARES Act passed last spring provided funding for cities of a half million people. Kansas City's population is 492,000. And while the city got money from county governments, it's not enough.

LUCAS: We're really trying to scramble. I mean, about 86 to 90% of our budget goes to salaries and benefits for folks. So, you know, you can make some cuts, but this ain't just not ordering paper clips in 2021.

ZARROLI: And without more assistance, both Democratic and Republican mayors say it will be a lot harder to do COVID testing and contact tracing, steps needed to address the pandemic that's played havoc on city finances. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.