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County, town leaders anxious about federal relief, uncertain fiscal futures

County and town leaders are urging the federal government to act upon legislation which, they say, is much needed to aid them amid a pandemic which has cost them dearly in revenues needed to balance budgets.

On Tuesday, Senator Charles Schumer was among lawmakers announcing the proposed "Heroes Act," which provides a total $67 billion in coronavirus-related economic relief to New York State, its counties and municipalities. If enacted, the Democrats’ spending package would provide an estimated $34.4 billion to the state government, $17.2 billion for New York City, and $15.1 billion for other municipalities and counties across the state.

Speaking during a conference call involving leaders from three Buffalo suburbs, Grand Island Town Supervisor John Whitney suggested the formula won’t necessarily leave much for his town.

"The way the bill is written, is that 50 percent of the funding is going to county and 50 percent is going to cities, towns and villages. Of the 50 percent that's going to the cities, towns and villages, 70 percent of that money goes to Community Development Block Grant entitlement communities. Grand Island really doesn't have any community development block grant eligible areas," he said. "So, we're going to be getting, basically, whatever portion of the 15 percent of the package that we'd be eligible for."

Both local and county-level leaders, in two separate conference calls, reported sales tax revenue losses due to the pandemic which are leaving gaping holes in their budgets. Up to 30 percent of such revenues were lost in the month of April, as was suggested during a conference call hosted by the New York State Association of Counties.  Two of the counties represented during the call, Chautauqua and Suffolk Counties, discussed the economic development advisory councils and strategies put together to address the pandemic and the closure of non-essentials businesses ordered under New York on PAUSE.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone explained their collaboration put together a five-point plan, including a gift card purchasing program to support local businesses, a "job board" for residents to find available positions, and a technology enhancement program for local small businesses.

"One of the great challenges for our smaller businesses was how to transition into this new environment, and not having the technology to do it," Bellone explained. "Now, we're going to be assisting them with getting up to speed on what they need to be able to operate in this new environment. We're also doing additional pandemic shift business workshops, and a virtual network of business experts that these small businesses can go online with and communicate about the issues and the challenges that they're facing."

Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel suggested that if counties were measured individually for reopening readiness, his county will have met all of the seven metrics required under New York Forward. However, as part of the five-county Western New York economic region, Chautauqua County remains waiting for the go-ahead to reopen at phase one. They were dealt further disappointment later in the day when Erie County reported an uptick in COVID hospitalizations, dashing a 14-day decline that could have helped put the region in a position to reopen soon.

Many of his residents, he admits, have traveled to neighboring Pennsylvania and Ohio to shop while Western New York has been held under PAUSE.

Closer to Buffalo, Town of Tonawanda Councilman Bill Conrad spoke of the Town of Tonawanda's projected budget deficit of $5 million. Sales tax and mortgage tax revenues account for half of the town's budget, he explained. The town is already fearing cuts in parks and recreation services.

He was asked how much impact the announced pending reopening of production at the General Motors might have in restoring the town's economy. Conrad was excited by the news but said much more needs to be done to get the town back up to speed, and that would take a while.

"Immediately, I don't know if it'll kickstart everything. It'll be more of a gradual intake, especially retail, for sales tax and so on," he said. "But right now we're really concerned, especially with the state budget, because now the governor has the power to kind of amend that and we don't know how things are going to fill out right now."

Cheektowaga Town Supervisor Diane Benczkowski estimates he town is losing $6 million to $7.5 million in revenue, and like Conrad anticipates the return of the economy will be painfully slow.

"For us to make up all the sales tax revenue alone, it's not going to happen quickly," she said. "And it depends on how this rolls out, how many people actually come out. There's still a lot of people afraid to go out in public, so I don't see us rebounding with the sales tax revenue."

Benczkowski added that, while no decisions have been made, the town recently gave its public employee unions a 60-day notice of the possibility of layoffs.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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