From the Beacon, June 2020

There are no upsides to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Massachusetts alone, thousands of people have perished, tens of thousands of patients have become seriously ill, a million workers have lost their jobs and livelihoods, businesses have shuttered, students have languished, and every person has suffered stress and disruption.

Yet, in the midst of all of this devastation and uncertainty, heretofore hidden realities have become crystal clear to anyone who has paid attention: government is a force for good, government is necessary to create a safe and just society, and government is the only force that can bind us together to fight against common threats and to work for common prosperity.

Over the past five decades, it has become convenient – even popular – in American political discourse to disparage the virtues and necessity of government. Opportunists have employed divisive rhetoric to advance their personal ambitions, constructing a shadowy portrait of government as anti-people, when the reality is the opposite, especially at the local level, where the people are the government. Aided and abetted by a media that out of “fairness” seems compelled to give equal time to conspiracy theories and fact-ignoring statements, a false narrative has taken hold that ordinary citizens are victims, not beneficiaries, of the one institution that exists to protect and serve society.

Enter a true crisis – a deadly virus that has brought every country and economy to its knees. With this unprecedented threat, average citizens immediately knew where to turn, and where not to turn. They knew not to turn to corporate America, or political parties, or bombastic opportunists. Average folks turned to their local and state governments, to the accountable leaders and the institutions that were created to provide for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which in the context of COVID-19 means safety, security and hope for the future.

From Day One of the public health emergency, cities and towns have been on the tip of the sword in the battle against the novel coronavirus. Local officials mobilized their boards of health, their first responders, their health professionals and human service providers, their school services, their emergency management staff, and all departments. Communities have been on the front line, doing what they do best: protecting and serving the public.

Our state government has also displayed excellent leadership. The Baker-Polito administration moved swiftly to declare a public health emergency, convene stakeholders, and implement an urgent and sweeping agenda to flatten the surge of contagion and illness, ramp up resources and capacity to treat the afflicted, and communicate directly with the people of Massachusetts. The Legislature has responded as well, enacting key measures to provide communities with tools, resources, flexibility and authority to battle the pandemic, and it has re-tooled its own procedures to conduct vital business in our new virtual reality.

A call for federal action
And now our local and state governments face an unprecedented economic collapse, losing billions in vital tax revenues. Cities and towns are waiting to get guidance from the state. The state is waiting to get guidance from the federal government. And the federal government is … waiting.

To be clear, the MMA believes that communities must receive funding and relief to replace the local revenues lost due to the COVID-19 shutdown, and believes that any cut in local aid by the state would be truly devastating to public health and our economic recovery. Further, we believe that state government must also be protected from the COVID-19 recession, which is why we have been calling on the federal government to marshal all available resources to provide fiscal relief to cities, towns and our state. We are in this together.

With the state facing a projected revenue loss of $6 billion or more, and cities and towns facing the loss of hundreds of millions in local meals and lodging taxes right now, and even more painful losses in property tax and other revenues going forward, it is impossible to see how either level of government could maintain existing services – even essential ones – without immediate and substantial federal relief to replace these funds.

How can communities fight COVID-19 with smaller budgets? With fewer police officers, firefighters and emergency responders? With fewer inspectors and health agents? With fewer nurses, health professionals, and staff to serve vulnerable populations?

How can communities deliver vital services with smaller budgets? How can we have fewer teachers when class sizes have to get smaller to protect against the virus? How can we maintain our core transportation, water and sewer functions with fewer public works employees? How can we maintain our public spaces, which are more vital than ever to our residents?

How can we regrow our economy without adequate public safety, public health, public education, public works, and safety-net services, all delivered locally?

The answer to all of these questions is clear: we can’t.

The MMA applauds the state’s entire Washington delegation. U.S. Senators Warren and Markey, and Representatives Neal, McGovern, Trahan, Kennedy, Clark, Moulton, Pressley, Lynch, and Keating have all been powerful advocates and supporters of major and immediate relief for cities and towns, and our state. Local officials deeply appreciate their efforts.

Despite their hard work and advocacy, however, efforts to pass a relief package to support local and state governments has been stalled, with conflicting signals coming from some administration officials and the Senate majority leader. Initially, they indicated support for direct financial aid, but later issued statements asserting that localities are wasteful and fiscally irresponsible, and suggested that they do not want to provide funds for “blue” regions.

Of course, we know that the opposite is true. Our cities and towns operate with balanced budgets, are directly accountable to the voters and residents of their communities, and are strictly nonpartisan. There’s no red and blue at the municipal level.

On the one hand, it is understandable that some federal politicians are concerned about alienating ideologues within their states or constituencies, given the modern narrative that government is bad. But on the other hand, we are facing a national crisis. It is time for everyone to put political considerations aside and act. That’s what leadership means in the time of COVID-19.

The MMA, working together with our colleague municipal associations across the country, is supporting a public education effort under the umbrella of the National League of Cities. The NLC’s Cities and Towns Are Essential program is generating widespread media coverage on the essential role that local government plays in our lives and highlighting the damage that would be done if cities and towns are left to fend for themselves during what could grow to be an economic depression.

With all of the Massachusetts delegation on record in support of direct federal aid to communities, the NLC effort is targeted to states where municipal leaders are uncertain of their federal lawmakers’ commitment. Local officials, businesses and citizens are using the information to let their lawmakers know that cities and towns are essential, and immediate federal relief is essential, too. You can learn more about the program at covid19.nlc.org/cities-are-essential.

The pandemic has cast a spotlight on the indispensable role that local government has in our lives and livelihoods. At a time when cities and towns are more important than ever to our survival and to our future prosperity, that spotlight must also serve as a beacon for our federal partners. Their response will determine nothing less than the future of our nation.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO