EAST GREENWICH—Town Manager Andrew Nota joined the League of Cities and Towns in calling on the state government to safeguard local services and protect those who pay property taxes. The League released a statement late last week urging the general assembly to maintain $12.4 million in funding for “distressed communities” and to continue raises in education funding despite the economic crisis brought about by the reaction to COVID-19.
“As Governor Raimondo and the state legislature grapple with the realities of significantly declining state revenues created by pandemic-driven changes, we cannot afford to view those effects at just a state government level,” Nota said in a statement. “What municipal leaders and local taxpayers know all too well is that when state revenues decline, the effects are most acutely felt in the state’s 39 cities and towns and directly by Rhode Island residents.”
Indeed, numerous costs have piled up for municipalities and school districts in the form of personal protective equipment, emergency and IT services and overtime pay for thinned-out staff. Monies are often made available for such eventualities through the Federal emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the scope of the fallout from the federal and state governments’ responses to COVID-19 is much broader than most of the eventualities that the agency is prepared for. As such, the League has raised concerns that deep cuts to local aid may be on the way.
The League hearkened back to the Great Recession, during which the state government, then under the leadership of Governor Donald Carcieri, slashed local and education aid by $220 million in response to the crisis. In their press release, the League argued that this slash led directly to tax increases, layoffs and service cuts, and made clear that such measures should be avoided.
Those less in favor of Governor Raimondo’s aggressive tax-and-spend policies, however, are likely to point out that the disproportionate tax burden Rhode Islanders shoulder, combined with the labyrinthine state bureaucracy that those taxes pay for, directly contributed to the local economy’s immediate crumbing in the wake of COVID-19. Rhode Island ranks second only to Massachusetts in terms of debt per capita, and within a week of Governor Raimondo’s initial response to the pandemic, Rhode Island became the highest per capita unemployment in the nation.
Despite this, the League is imploring the general assembly to continue increases to educational funding to the tune of an additional $35 million over the current fiscal year, though where that money will come from is anyone’s guess. Rhode Island towns have become wholly dependent on state funds in every domain, while the state itself has become increasingly dependent the ability of Senator Jack Reed to shake the money tree in Washington. A fact that the League of Cities and Towns is keen to encourage. The League’s latest press release praised the state’s congressional delegation for its ability to demonstrate the state’s need for increased federal stimulus funding, but warned that it would likely not be enough given the decimated tax revenues brought about by the state’s decision to cripple local businesses with mandatory closures.
For the time being, Nota and the League are raising the alarm of what is to come. While local businesses are slowly unshuttering and revenues begin to trickle in bit by bit, the fact remains that the money needed to fund some of the town and the state’s most cherished programs has vanished under the tides of the pandemic.