Unfortunately, COVID-19 is going to be with us through the end of the year and into the following spring. With this in mind, Germany, Taiwan and South Korea have put cohesive federal policies in place to combat the virus. If the White House does not do the same, COVID-19 will continue to disrupt lives and wreak havoc. Similarly, without a uniform New York state mandate for reopening public schools, parents find it difficult to plan their own return to work.
Americans who lived through World War II understand what it’s like to band together for a common cause to defeat an enemy. In August 1941, President Roosevelt issued an executive order to create the Office of Price Administration. The OPA rationed consumer goods such as automobiles, tires, gasoline, fuel oil, coal, firewood, nylon, silk and shoes. In true patriotic fashion, all Americans did their part to support the war effort. Fast forward to today, 75 years later, it’s hard to get a warm, fuzzy feeling about our country coming together to fight COVID. Instead, millions of citizens are protesting in the streets, and on social media, that their Constitutional rights are infringed upon because they’re being forced to wear a mask.
In the public sector, retail chains are declaring bankruptcy at an alarming rate, and the hospitality industry is under terrible pressure. Unless things miraculously go back to normal, and soon, fully one third of small businesses in New York City are projected to disappear. In addition, the lack of a consistent federal policy on business grants and unemployment benefits will keep Americans anxious about the immediate future, and will mitigate consumer spending.
Village, town, county, and state governments are also under unprecedented financial duress. Incredibly, most municipalities are still praying for a federal bailout which will never come. Trump stated last May that he won’t bail out the states “because all the states that need help — they’re run by Democrats in every case.”
With all this bad news, our local governments need to be more creative than ever, to find ways to mitigate financial damage in the public and private sectors and create a brighter future. To that end, here are a few suggestions:
Make it as easy as possible to get a building permit:
When I was in charge of Economic Development at the Town of Hempstead, I regularly received calls that building permits were unnecessarily delayed for months or even years. This is true in many municipalities across Long Island. Going forward, all local government applications for building permits should be processed online and should be as simple to complete as possible. Also, all applicants should be allowed to build residential and commercial properties within the current zoning codes, without delay. An expedited online building permit process would foster economic activity that would create jobs and provide permit fees and tax revenue for local governments. Truly, a win-win.
Stop discretionary spending:
This means no more pork projects, constituent direct mail or take-home vehicles. Did your local fire department really need that expensive new fire truck this year or could it have waited? Was the municipal grant to install a new statue in a park really necessary during a financial crisis? None of the aforementioned items improve taxpayers’ lives during a crisis.
Departmental Efficiency Audits:
How many government employees are necessary to provide services? New York state, town and county governments need outside, non-partisan consultants to help determine how many employees are necessary to run an efficient department. Retiree positions shouldn’t be filled. Instead, excess employees found in a departmental audit should be moved into retiree positions in other divisions of a municipality to shrink the headcount. Regarding equipment, last year it was reported the Town of Hempstead clerk’s office still had 72 typewriters in use. How efficient can that be? Government must do better.
Stop Tax Cheats:
The federal government loses over $400 billion a year in revenue because of cheating on taxes. According to the Brookings Institution, that’s about $1 out of every $6 tax dollars that could be collected. On a local level, every time someone pays cash to knock off the sales tax, the county and state are cheated out of money that could be used to provide services or lower taxes. Stopping tax cheats is one way to help bridge the huge municipal deficits caused by COVID-19.
We are all living through the crisis of this pandemic, and leadership is needed on all levels of government. Elected officials must find ways to bring the virus under control, budget for the future, and become as business friendly as possible. Our physical and financial lives literally depend on it.