CH plans for lost revenue in COVID-19 crisis
The coronavirus pandemic “will likely lead to significant reduction in resources for the City,” stated Cleveland Heights City Manager Tanisha Briley in an April 14 e-mail. Briley said the city has laid off 114 seasonal and part-time employees, and has implemented other cost-containment measures: a wage freeze for non-union staff, a hiring freeze for non-essential functions, and spending limitations.
While no one can predict the magnitude of the problem, Briley wrote, “We know that income tax and property tax are the two major revenue sources for the City and we should expect a substantial decrease in those sources. Other revenue sources, such as fees and charges for services will also take a hit as residents and businesses cope with severe financial hardships.”
The statements came in response to a list of questions the Heights Observer e-mailed to the city’s communication department. The Observer also offered all city council members an opportunity to comment on the crisis. Councilpersons Michael Ungar, Melody Joy Hart and Davida Russell responded.
Russell said she is most concerned with the budget and how the city will operate once it reopens. As chair of the Community Relations and Recreation Committee, she said she is worried about lost revenue from the closure of the recreation center that helps fund programs for all residents, especially kids and seniors, and whether those programs can restart, given the health crisis.
Hart said that, while the city has done a “pretty good job on all of it,” she wants to make sure residents “have the food they need, the healthcare they need.” While she understands the rationale for the layoffs, she said, in the future she’d like a “heads up” from the city manager, so she has the opportunity to give input, and so she could be prepared to answer questions from constituents.
Ungar said he is pleased with the city’s response so far: “I think the way people have stepped up has been fantastic.” He complimented Briley for creating a Readiness and Response Team well before the president and governor called for changes. He agreed that city revenues will be impacted and wants to see financial modeling with a range of best-to-worst scenarios, “so we can say we’ve got our arms around it.” But, he concedes, “There’s no playbook for this.”
Hart said the city was running a surplus, and she hoped that money would be the first used to deal with any revenue shortfall.
Briley, Russell and Ungar all said city projects, such as Top of the Hill, are continuing as planned. Ungar said municipal bond rates remain low, and the state has deemed construction an essential business during the crisis. Briley said the Economic Development Department continues to work with new businesses, and several have indicated they are moving forward with plans to open locations in Cleveland Heights in the coming months.
Russell has taken to social media, urging residents to fill out their 2020 U.S. Census forms. She wants everyone to be counted to ensure the city gets its fair share from the state and federal governments, and said, “We’re going to desperately need that money.”
Briley said the city will be receiving additional Community Development Block Grant dollars, but noted the federal government’s recent $2 trillion stimulus package does not provide direct assistance to cities under 500,000 in population. (The city’s current population is about 45,000.) She hopes future bills will provide some relief.
Council adopted legislation providing payment relief for city borrowers in the Commercial, Storefront and Economic Development Loan programs, said Briley. Staff is researching a forgivable loan program and working to keep businesses up-to-date on new government programs as they become available.
Briley said city employees working non-essential functions are on paid leave, but are required to be available for work as needed. Essential employees are working from home or on site.
Ungar said the city has done an “excellent job” connecting staff and setting up virtual council meetings. Briley said the meetings were made legal by a new state law, passed in response to the crisis. Residents can comment on, or ask questions about, council’s upcoming agenda by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Briley said all first responders and public works crews have adequate safety gear, but the city welcomes donations of equipment from residents and businesses as gear gets tougher to buy. All police and fire personnel have N-95 masks, shields and gloves, and disposable suits, as necessary.
Personnel are practicing safe distancing. CHPD has limited its patrols to one officer per car. In traffic stops, the officer approaches from the passenger side of the vehicle. Briley reported that 11 police officers had been quarantined [because of possible exposure to the virus at a March social gathering], but all have since returned to work.
Ungar and Russell are concerned about elderly residents living alone. Ungar said he shops for a neighbor who is widowed and immune-suppressed, with no family nearby. Both say they’re working to create a system where any at-risk residents will get a daily safety check, either from volunteers or the city. They said the city needs a better database to identify those in need. “Your heart goes out to them,” Ungar said.
“Council and the city are working hard to address everyone’s needs,” said Hart. Russell asked citizens to follow health guidelines and be patient, adding, “With the help of the residents, there’s nothing we can’t conquer.”
Updates from the city manager and city council on Cleveland Heights’ COVID-19 response are available at https://tinyurl.com/clehtscovid.
Fred D'Ambrosi has been an award-winning journalist for 40 years, mostly as a TV news director in Cleveland, D.C., San Diego and Milwaukee. He's enjoyed living in Cleveland Heights since 2015.