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In congressional testimony, Columbia's Benjamin makes plea for COVID-19 relief for cities

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Steve Benjamin 2020

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin

The novel coronavirus has walloped the nation’s economy, leaving businesses and governments grappling for answers as to how they are going to handle their budgets in the coming year.

As cities deal with the fiscal fallout from COVID-19, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin on May 29 called for more direct federal funding to cities that are facing an unprecedented economic crunch. Benjamin was one of seven mayors who testified before U.S. House of Representatives Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which is headed by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also were among the mayors who testified.

Much of Benjamin’s testimony centered on a plea for “direct and targeted fiscal assistance” from the federal government to cities across America. He cited Columbia as a direct example of a city that is facing uncertainty for the coming budget year.

“In Columbia we project more than $20 million in revenue loss for the next fiscal year’s budget,” Benjamin testified. “Cities are facing major public health and public safety challenges at the same time we are facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

“Demand and need for core local government services has increased significantly at the same time we are all projecting unprecedented levels of revenue loss.”

Columbia City Council is still in the midst of wrestling with the coming year’s budget. City Manager Teresa Wilson has said she’d resist laying off employees as long as possible, but the budget will almost undoubtedly come with programmatic cuts. City officials have pledged to have a balanced budget approved by the end of June, but have stressed they will likely have to go back and make amendments through the coming year.

Benjamin, who has enjoyed national visibility through his connections to high-profile Democrats and via his former presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, used his testimony to push for the passage of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. The bill includes, among other things, nearly $400 billion in assistance for local governments.

While the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed the HEROES Act — which clocked in at $3 trillion total — on May 15, it has not yet been approved by the U.S. Senate.

During the May 29 hearing, Clyburn — the U.S. House majority whip — leaned on the Senate to take up, and pass, the measure.

“These cities need emergency federal relief now, to prevent a collapse of their economies and public functions,” Clyburn says. “To prevent these harmful outcomes, the House passed the HEROES Act, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars in relief to small and mid-sized communities. I encourage the Senate to send that bill to the president’s desk for his signature.”

As noted by NBC News, President Donald Trump has called the HEROES Act “dead on arrival,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, has said a new COVID-19 relief bill “won’t look anything like” the HEROES Act.

However the would-be next coronavirus relief package ends up looking, Benjamin, who is in his third term as Columbia’s mayor, insisted that cities across the U.S. will need significant federal help.

“I and almost every other mayor in the nation are clear and adamant that the next bill must include direct, targeted, flexible fiscal assistance to cities,” Benjamin said. “Almost every state and local budget forecast predicts a revenue gap for this year and next year. In 2019, state and local governments’ tax revenue total about $2.4 trillion. A 10 percent reduction in revenue — which is an optimistic forecast — therefore totals $240 billion.

“Simply put, absent flexible federal fiscal assistance, state and local governments will be forced to lay off employees, cut services and take other measures.”

Benjamin insisted that mayors don’t view COVID-19 relief to cities as “manna from Heaven” coming down from Washington.

“We are talking about the repatriation of tax dollars back to the local level where we can take care of our citizens’ needs,” the mayor said.

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