CAPITAL REGION — U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, was joined by a bipartisan group of local government officials on Friday to urge the U.S. Senate to take up the $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill the House of Representatives passed in May, which would provide millions in aid to local governments whose finances have been devastated by the pandemic.
“Communities have been impacted through no fault of their own,” said Tonko, who represents the 20th Congressional District, which covers the heart of the Capital Region. “We’re not talking mismanagement or misappropriation here, we’re talking about a precipitous drain of revenues based on a pandemic that has gripped this nation.”
The Heroes Act, which the Democrat-controlled House passed on May 15, included nearly $1 trillion in emergency aid to local governments across the country. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, has refused to include any financial relief to local governments in its proposed relief bill, and negotiators remain far apart.
“I think the path to compromise is still pressure being placed on the United States Senate,” Tonko said. “I know that this week many groups were reaching out. As I said, we’ve heard it in bipartisan fashion from just every community in our district. People are concerned about the precipitous drop in revenues, and so that pressure is building.”
Among those participating in Friday’s Zoom press conference were Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman, Saratoga County Supervisor Tara Gaston of Saratoga Springs, Republican Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett, and Albany County Deputy County Executive Daniel C. Lynch. All said the communities they represent have seen deep revenue losses due to the economic impact of the pandemic.
Fluman said Schenectady County expects to have lost $10 million to $12 million in anticipated sales tax and other tax revenue by the end of the year, and will face another $6 million deficit in 2021. “That’s money we already expected to use for our basic government services,” he said.
“When other places were able to shut down, but grocery stores could stay open, gas stations could stay open, so did local government,” Fluman said. “We had to stay open. Our caseworkers had to be on our streets, our nurses still had to be working at our nursing home, our jail guards still had to be guarding our inmates. All these services we have here in Schenectady County have been affected detrimentally. The best thing the federal government can do is help bail us out.”
Barrett was the only Republican participating in the Zoom press conference, but another Republican — Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort, whose county is looking at a $1 million revenue loss for the county Public Health Department alone — has written a letter to the Senate leadership.
“Government leaders like myself have been juggling the real-time needs of our communities while watching an 18-wheeler packed full of expenses and lost revenue barreling down on us,” Ossenfort wrote.
Barrett estimated Clifton Park’s lost sales tax revenue at more than $1 million, but noted the town has also had to spend money on personal protective equipment, much of which was distributed to the public this spring when PPE was in short supply. But, he said, “the other part of this is we need to help our local businesses.”
As approved, the Heroes Act would provide $1.3 billion in crisis response aid to the Capital Region, according to Tonko’s office. In addition to local government aid, the bill includes money for hazard pay for essential workers; $75 billion for testing, contact-tracing and treatment; a new round of $600 weekly federal unemployment payments to displaced workers; an extension of the Payroll Protection Program for small businesses; and aid to school districts, colleges, community health centers and hospitals.
Gaston, who is active in the Natonal Association of Counties, said the bipartisan national association believes the entire Heroes Act should be approved, rather than having the local government aid broken out into a separate bill, as some House Republicans have proposed.
“The Heroes Act is what we need, and we need it now,” Gaston said. “Doing things piecemeal, it just means it’s going to take longer, and we’re not going to get the resources we need in a timely fashion.”
Tonko is running for a seventh two-year term in November, and is being opposed by Republican and Conservative candidate Liz Joy of Glenville.
Joy said Friday that she agrees that municipalities need federal financial aid, but she said the Heroes Act also includes things she opposes, like federal-level bail reform similar to New York’s, no-excuse mail-in voting with reduced voter ID requirements, and amnesty for illegal immigrants working in “essential” industries in the United States.
“I have no problem from a congressional perspective with helping municipalities, but there’s a lot more in the bill than that,” she said. “This $3 trillion Heroes Act bill gives the money with no strings attached whatsoever, and that’s not responsible.” She also believes revival of the $600 per week pandemic unemployment payments will hurt small businesses by giving people an incentive not to work.
Earlier Friday, she issued a press release criticizing Tonko for not agreeing to a debate organized by Schenectady County business owners, 105 of whom petitioned his campaign, “demanding” a meeting. Joy has agreed to attend their event, scheduled fort 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Bridge Church on Crane Street in Schenectady.
“Businesses are concerned about their future right now, because they’ve wondering if they are going to survive,” Joy said. “Accessibility to your representative is key. What business reps are really saying is they want to be heard.”
A Tonko campaign spokesman said the congressman will debate, but wants to hold them in “widely accessible and impartial platforms, such as public television and with the League of Women Voters.”
“[Tonko] has a rock-solid record of meeting with more than 100 local businesses per year, and will continue listening and working with them to ensure they have the resources they require to survive the pandemic, thrive and build back even better than before,” said spokesman Sean Magers.