W.Va. counties at risk of bankruptcy, seek federal relief

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin spoke as a special guest at the Bridges Without Boundaries business summit in April 2019.

FAIRMONT — Federal government funding to replace the lost revenues of local governments is essential for a stable future for West Virginians, said the director of a state association that represents counties.

Jonathan Adler, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, said financial relief for local governments is “vital for a stable economy going forward” following the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent societal lockdown.

Adler said federal relief money is needed to ensure public safety.

“Our local health and emergency services are at stake without relief,” said Adler.

Adler estimates county governments across the state have collectively lost “well over $100 million” throughout the mandatory shutdown of West Virginia businesses, governor’s stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and other social distancing approaches of the past several weeks.

Adler’s biggest fears as far as county government is concerned, however, lies in the months ahead when the damage caused by the coronavirus recession becomes move evident.

“If property taxes take a huge decline because people have lost their jobs, or moved away, or businesses have failed, that’s a real concern,” said Adler.

Much of county government’s many services are funded by property taxes.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced bipartisan legislation this week to deliver critical, federal resources to states and communities on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight.

The State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition Act targets $500 billion for emergency funding to every state, county and community in the country, while prioritizing assistance to the areas with the greatest need.

Without this federal assistance, government leaders have warned of deep cuts to essential services. Essential county or municipal services include police, firefighters, paramedics, teachers, sanitation, public health an public works employees and other frontline workers.

SMART funds could be used to help state and local governments meet the current demand, expand testing capacity and contact tracing, provide further assistance to residents, local hospitals, small businesses and schools, in addition to maintaining critical services residents depend upon.

“The SMART Act would inject money direct to local governments. It would go directly to counties and cities,” Adler said. “It would be a huge, huge help to local governments.”

Unlike previously allocated emergency funding, the SMART Act includes flexible, and dedicated funding to local governments to ensure it is distributed fairly and efficiently, Manchin said.

“If Congress doesn’t act now, our local officials will be forced to make difficult choices between providing essential services like first responders and retaining their employees to balance their budgets and avoid bankruptcy,” said Manchin. “It is unacceptable to allow our small businesses or our local governments to face bankruptcy for doing the right thing during this crisis.”

All counties and municipalities in West Virginia would receive a portion of these funds, according to Manchin’s office.

Jennifer Piercy, County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia executive director, agreed with her counterpart Adler that Manchin’s support for the SMART Act is crucial for the long-term health of county governments.

Our counties needed immediate help “in getting us needed pandemic funding relief” and Manchin’s joint Democrat-Republican effort shows the senator is a “champion for bipartisan solution,” said Piercy.

The SMART Fund builds upon the $150 billion set aside in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help state and local governments. It allows every state, county, municipality, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia to qualify for direct federal assistance, regardless of its size.

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