The coronavirus recession will erode city budgets in many insidious ways. It will slash the casino revenues that Detroit relies on. It will squeeze the state aid that is a lifeblood to Rochester and Buffalo in upstate New York. It will cut the sales tax revenue in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where a healthy government depends on people buying things.
The crisis has arrived faster than the damage from the Great Recession ever did. And it will cut deep in the fiscal year ahead, with many communities likely to lose 10 percent or more of the revenue they would have seen without the pandemic, according to a new analysis. That’s enough for residents to experience short-staffed libraries, strained parks departments and fewer road projects. The hardest-hit cities like Rochester and Buffalo could face 20 percent losses.
“The Great Recession was a story of long, drawn-out fiscal pain — this is sharper,” said Howard Chernick, a professor emeritus of economics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who worked on the new analysis estimating revenue shortfalls for 150 major cities across the nation.
These numbers give a sense of the possible economic pain for cities if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a new relief package that includes aid to state and local governments. It also rebuts some of the prevailing, largely Republican arguments that have stalled those negotiations: that federal help will bail out only blue cities and those that have mismanaged their finances.
Many cities facing steep losses are in states represented by Republican senators, like Florida or Louisiana. And the analysis found little relationship between whether a place was fiscally healthy before the pandemic and the most dire projections of revenue shortfalls.
What matters more in this pandemic moment is how a city generates money: Those highly dependent on tourism, on direct state aid or on volatile sales taxes will hurt the most. Cities like Boston, which rely heavily on the most stable revenue, property taxes, are in the strongest position — for now.
The estimates, to be published in the National Tax Journal by Mr. Chernick, David Copeland at Georgia State University and Andrew Reschovsky at the University of Wisconsin, are based on the mix of local revenue sources, the importance of state aid and the composition of jobs and wages in each city. The researchers predict average revenue shortfalls in the 2021 fiscal year of about 5.5 percent in a less severe scenario, or 9 percent in a more severe one.
These projections cover not just municipal budgets but also every local government entity that spends money on services to residents in a given city, including counties and sewer or school districts (those budgets are adjusted for the share of residents who live within city borders). As the pandemic has worsened in many parts of the country this summer, the researchers now believe their severe forecasts are more likely.
Some of the most vulnerable cities are those like Rochester that rely heavily on state aid, which is also likely to shrink, as it did in the Great Recession.
Rochester already has deferred millions of dollars of nonessential expenses like new uniforms or fire trucks. It furloughed or reduced the hours of about one in 10 city workers, many of whom will return as the city reopens further. Officials delayed an incoming class of new police recruits and canceled the next class of firefighters.
“We can’t produce money, we can’t borrow our way out of this, we can’t tax our way out of this,” Mayor Lovely Warren said. “But our residents expect that the trash will be picked up on trash day. They expect that the snow will be plowed when it snows. They expect that when they call 911 that a police officer will show up.
“For Washington to ignore that reality — “it hurts.”
“It’s wrong to punish the victim,” she added. “The city here is the victim.”
Other city officials around the country say they have tried to plan prudently for down times. But the pandemic has brought added costs, while state laws have limited their ability to raise revenue.
“This is really what the federal government was built to do: to handle these events that are bigger than the borders of a city and bigger than the borders of a state,” said Dave Massaron, the chief financial officer for the city of Detroit.
In Detroit, one-fifth of the municipal budget typically comes from casino revenue. And casinos have only just reopened, at reduced capacity. The city managed to save money when its recreation centers closed, and it hasn’t spent as much as usual managing downtown traffic. This coming year, the city will also mow the grass less often on vacant properties it owns.
With such moves, officials believe they will be able to get through fiscal year 2021 with a balanced budget. But after that the decisions will get harder, especially without federal help.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 12, 2020
Can I travel within the United States?
- Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine for 14 days. Here’s an ever-updating list of statewide restrictions. In general, travel does increase your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at your house in your own “pod.” “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. says. If you do travel, though, take precautions. If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline. But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
“The city needs only to look back into its past to understand what happens when you have a structural imbalance and you don’t have a way of addressing it,” Mr. Massaron said. Before Detroit exited bankruptcy in 2015, emergency response times averaged 18 minutes. All 65,000 streetlights needed replacing.
Other cities heavily dependent on sales taxes felt the implosion of the economy more immediately than cities that count on income or property taxes. Revenue from income taxes will lag behind unemployment; property taxes are set a year or two in advance. Consumer spending, particularly by the biggest spenders, dropped sharply early in the pandemic. And it is expected to fall now for millions of workers whose added $600 federal unemployment benefits expired at the end of July.
Broad shifts in how Americans eat during the pandemic have affected tax receipts as well: Restaurant meals are taxed, but in most states the groceries people cook at home are not.
In Colorado Springs, which relies heavily on sales taxes, those revenues plummeted in late March and April. But they crept back in May and, to everyone’s surprise, the city saw slightly more in sales tax revenues in June than it did in June of last year. Mayor John Suthers attributes that to the resilience of the local military and defense sectors — and to all the online shopping residents have been doing.
Thanks to a 2018 court ruling, states can now collect sales taxes on purchases through Amazon or other online retailers, regardless of whether those retailers have a physical presence locally. That’s a silver lining.
“Without the Supreme Court’s intervention, in the last three years this would have been a whole different ballgame for us,” Mr. Suthers said.
Orlando, Fla., is projected to suffer about as much as Colorado Springs in these estimates. But with the county responsible for many services, the Orlando municipal government will be spared the worst of the pain. Orlando City Hall’s revenues rely heavily on property taxes, which were already set to grow next year. And, like Colorado Springs, the Orlando area has long benefited from population growth and a construction boom — the other side of broad demographic shifts toward the Sun Belt that have left Northeastern cities like Rochester more vulnerable.
“Maybe Orlando isn’t in the same dire situation as other places,” said Chris McCullion, the city’s chief financial officer. But he, too, is calling for direct federal aid, as is Mr. Suthers, a Republican mayor. “This is really, really important for the long-term health of cities and states,” Mr. McCullion said.
At risk is not just services for local residents in any given city, but the possibility that disparities will widen between cities that can weather this crisis and those that can’t, if they are largely left on their own.
“One legacy of the Great Recession was exposing and increasing inequities between communities,” said Amanda Kass, the associate director of the Government Finance Research Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Now those disparities could grow even wider.