Local leaders including Mayor Ravi Bhalla and Freeholder Anthony Romano have voiced support for U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s bipartisan bill that aims to provide economic relief to states, counties, and cities on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The $500 billion fund would dedicate greater federal resources to local and state governments as they respond to the current public health and economic crisis, while facing budget shortfalls, revenue losses, potential layoffs, and cuts in essential services.
New Jersey is the second hardest hit state in the nation, with more than 130,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 8,200 deaths.
All nonessential retail, schools, and entertainment businesses have been closed since March 16.
Hoboken was one of the first cities in the state to shut down non-essential businesses due to COVID-19. Since then, the city has seen its parking revenue drop by 75 percent while other sources of revenue such as construction, court fees, and hotel taxes dropped dramatically.
According to Bhalla, Hoboken loses about $1 million in revenue each month due to the pandemic, and the city has spent millions of dollars to respond to the virus, including testing of Hoboken residents and overtime for front line workers.
“We are faced with a very difficult prospective option of drastically cutting areas where we need services – whether its police, fire, public works, front line workers – or imposing a tax increase upon residents in a very difficult economy,” said Bhalla said during a conference call with seven other mayors and the senator about the bill.
“We do not want to furlough or layoff any more workers than we need to, but if we continue bleeding money then we’re concerned that is what the future holds,” he continued. “Hoboken is doing our part, and all we’re asking is that the federal government also do their part to make sure municipalities on the front lines of this virus can continue staying afloat.
“It’s very refreshing that Sen. Menendez has reached across the aisle with Sen. Cassidy to acknowledge and recognize that we need to take a bottom-up approach but with top-down relief. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing here with a focus on municipal relief coming from the federal government.”
The SMART Fund
The State and Municipal Aid for Recovery and Transition (SMART) Fund, coauthored by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), builds upon the existing $150 billion set aside in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help states and local governments.
It expands eligibility to include counties and towns with populations of 50,000 or greater, lowers the existing threshold of 500,000 people, ensures eligible entities receive additional funding, and increases flexibility for states and local governments to use the funds to plug revenue losses due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It also targets additional funding toward coronavirus hot zones to help combat the virus.
The SMART Fund, would deliver funding to state and local governments, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia based on a formula that takes into consideration areas of the country with the greatest need.
One-third of the fund would go to eligible entities, based on population size, to ensure they receive additional federal resources. One-third would go to eligible entities based on the number of COVID-19 cases relative to the U.S. population to target the public health impacts of the virus. The final third would go to eligible entities based on state revenue losses relative to pre-COVID-19 projections to target the virus’s economic impacts.
‘The proverbial house is on fire’
“As a former mayor, I understand the incredible toll fighting this pandemic is having on cities, towns, and states on the front lines to both wage this war and continue to support their local health departments, pay teachers and first responders, fix the roads, and maintain the parks,” said Menendez said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic may not know state borders, but it has certainly hit some states and regions harder than others. The proverbial house is on fire, and we need to focus the water on the hot spots, because if we don’t put the flames out, they will only jump until the entire block is up in smoke.”
Said Senator Cassidy, “Sen. Menendez’s state and mine were hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic. I thank him for his partnership. We worked hard to make sure state and local governments can maintain essential services necessary for employees and employers to survive. We must protect Americans’ financial future.”
Since Menendez first announced his plans to introduce the bill last month, leaders across New Jersey have endorsed the bill, including freeholders and mayors.
Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano thanked the senators in a tweet: “Please join me in thanking @SenatorMenendez @SenBillCassidy for his tremendous efforts and foresight in aiding our economy and providing us with a comprehensive rescue package.”
Gov. Phil Murphy concurred.
“New Jersey and our nation as a whole have faced continued challenges due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state,” he said. “This fund will provide us with a critical resource during this unprecedented time and prevent draconian budget cuts that would negatively impact our state’s fiscal stability and ability to meet the needs of New Jersey’s nine million residents. I thank Senator Menendez for his leadership and his unwavering commitment to the people of New Jersey.”