Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Possible $24m in Covid relief for Wilmington, $200m for cities statewide on transit

Downtown Wilmington Covid
An empty downtown Wilmington minutes after Governor Roy Cooper’s ‘stay at home’ order went into effect in late March 2020. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

12:57 p.m. Saturday – The Senate approved the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan on Saturday. It will now return to the House of Representatives before it can be signed into law by President Joe Biden. The package consists of the previously expected $350 billion for cities and states.

WILMINGTON — The city could receive $24 million in federal Covid-19 relief funds if the U.S. Senate’s current draft of the American Rescue Plan is signed into law in coming days, according to the city’s legislative liaison, Tony McEwen. 

McEwen said the $1.9 trillion relief package could also funnel $200 million in public transit funds to eligible cities across North Carolina, including Wilmington.

“All in all, the possibility of these considerable recovery and stimulus funds appears to be even more likely than it was just yesterday,” McEwen wrote in an email to city leaders early Friday afternoon.

His estimate depends on how the Senate’s $10-billion reduction of local government funding would affect the city’s own piece of the pie. 

“My math tells me that should [the $10-billion cut] be across the board for all cities and counties, it would mean we would likely be reduced to around $24 million,” he wrote in an email to City Manager Sterling Cheatham and other city officials.

Under a version of the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last Saturday, Wilmington was allotted $26 million, according to McEwen. But the Senate introduced its own version on Thursday, slashing the amount of proposed aid to cities and counties from $130 billion to $120 billion. 

The $10 billion that was pulled away from cities and counties would be redirected to the state, “specifically to be used for broadband expansion,” McEwen said.

“There has been a chance that the Senate would make some changes before passage, including taking out the minimum-wage hike, which they did,” McEwen explained. “We have been monitoring intel on whether local government funds could get cut at the last minute. That cut has occurred, but it was far less than what it could have been.”

McEwen, who worked nearly six years for former U.S. House of Representative Mike McIntyre (North Carolina, 7th District), was hired by the city as a full-time legislative liaison in early 2014.

Wilmington spokesman Jarod Patterson said city officials began several weeks ago preparing for a possible influx of federal funds. When asked how they plan to use the money, he could not yet provide a definitive answer. 

“I’d have to confer on Monday, but what I do know right now is that ever since this was put on the radar screen as a possibility, the city began exploring needs and options, and where to best deploy those resources,” Patterson said early Friday evening.

City officials are identifying where the money could be most effective as far as short-term recovery from the pandemic and “making the city more resilient moving forward,” according to Patterson.

“If the aid package is passed into law, staff will provide these considerations to city council as guidance so they can act quickly to put these relief dollars to work in our community,” Patterson said.

The bill’s likelihood to pass through Senate received a significant boost late Friday night. After a nine-hour standoff, Senate Democrats came to an agreement with moderate party member Joe Manchin on emergency unemployment benefits. The new proposal includes weekly jobless payments of $300, in addition to state payments, until September 6. 

“The compromise . . . seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation,” according to reporting by the Associated Press. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden support the compromise on unemployment payments.

“[T]he bill will likely be passed next weekend, likely with no additional changes, and go back to the House for concurrence,” McEwen wrote to Wilmington officials.

McEwen emphasized certain provisions in the Senate draft. The funds would be divided into two yearly installments, one in 2021 and the next in 2022. It would allow for “revenue replacement;” contributions to pension funds or tax cuts would be prohibited; and federal aid could only be used for local economic recovery purposes. 

Such purposes would include assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, as well as “hard-hit industries like tourism, travel, hospitality, and infrastructure development,” according McEwen.

But the city likely will receive its entire allotment within 60 days of a request, according to McEwen, which the House of Representatives stipulated a week before.

“I am hearing that there is a likelihood that the House approach on this one will ultimately win out,” he said. “I have also been getting questions on how quickly the funds will need to be spent. What I am hearing is that there will be a deadline of [the] end of 2024 to spend down the funds received, but to be clear that is not set in stone.”

Patterson said the city will be ready if and when the time comes.

“It’s not our first rodeo,” he said of Wilmington’s long track record of dealing with FEMA aid after coastal storms. “And our finance department is meticulous.”

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