From a fiscal standpoint, it has been difficult to measure just how much the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted smaller counties, cities, and townships in New Jersey over the past nine months or predict the pandemic’s impact in 2021. Only now, as we approach the end of the calendar year are we able to see the extent of the fiscal impact.
For some jurisdictions, such as those charged with coordinating public health services, there are direct pandemic-related costs. For smaller communities not providing direct public health services, the impacts are just as real, though not quite as direct. For some, the fiscal challenges come as result of what they’ve had to expend responding to the pandemic. For others, the fiscal challenge is what they never received because of the pandemic.
This is not a distinction without a difference and this much became clear with some of the relief programs provided by the state and federal governments. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the efforts of officials on the state and federal levels to try and filter help down to the county and municipal levels, but assistance cannot be one-size-fits-all. It has to have a degree flexibility to be effective.
I say that because when you read through the guidelines on these “packages,” there is almost exclusive emphasis on eligibility being tied to costs incurred as a direct result of the pandemic. This might include the costs of purchasing Covid testing supplies, personal protective equipment, the hiring of medical personnel to perform certain pandemic-related functions, or specific overtime directly tied to responding to the pandemic.
Along with the eligibility restrictions, every program emphasizes the fact that there can be no duplication of programs; if program A might pay for something, you have no business asking program B to pay for that thing. This is understandable as we cannot afford double-dipping but it does provide a way for multiple programs to give the appearance of assistance without actually having to put the money on the street.
What many of these programs overlook is the revenues that small cities and towns will never realize because of the lost weeks, days, and hours when everything came to a standstill. This might include a significant number of projects that normally pull permits but were put on hold over much of the year due to the pandemic. This might also include lost municipal court hours or various fees from parks and recreation programs never collected because everything was shut down.
For Bridgeton and many similar communities, deficits are not confined to one big budget category, but emerge out of several dozen lesser line items in the budget. The need is not reflective of some large expenditure, but of what did not happen in a hundred small but significant ways over the past months.
This matters because individually and collectively, one way or another, these areas are tied to funding personnel and services across the whole spectrum of local government. For jurisdictions that put a lot of money out directly dealing with pandemic healthcare, these state and federal programs seem straightforward enough.
But for the jurisdictions facing budget holes not for what they’ve had to spend but from what they were never able to collect in a hundred lesser areas, these relief programs are far less certain. One suggestion is to cut by half the amount of aid potentially available to smaller jurisdictions around the state in favor of a lesser but guaranteed sum that will allow them to backfill the revenue holes from all of the day-to-day things that people did not or could not do because of the pandemic.