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Mayors ask Congress for help with COVID-19

Friday, August 21, 2020

Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker has joined other Louisiana mayors in asking Congress to help municipalities over the financial hump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Congress helped businesses through the Payroll Protection Plan, and cities are businesses in their own right, Walker said.

“So I would say if we could just get the same Payroll Protection Plan other small businesses and large business got, that would be a great help to us in North Louisiana,” Walker said.

His comments came during a virtual press conference hosted by the Louisiana Municipal Association. Mayors discussed the economic effects of COVID-19 and what they say is the need for urgent action onthe federal level to ensure cities, towns and villages can continue to provide essential services.

The four participants in Wednesday’s event — Woodworth Mayor David Butler, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn and Walker — lead municipalities ranging in population from under 2,000 to about 68,000.

“We wanted to show (the effects of COVID-19) isn’t just Shreveport, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It is really a lot of these smaller cities,” LMA Executive Director John Gallagher said.

He said statewide, localities could suffer a combined $1 billion-plus loss in revenue because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Ruston’s budget is down about $3.5 million because of the pandemic.

“For small businesses to come back fully within the city of Ruston, they’ve got to have essential infrastructure and services in place,” Walker said. “We cut our budget this year by $3.5 million, most of that was for infrastructure projects that we could have done, so I would say to Congress: please help us.”

Walker said if cities had a PPP program, Ruston would not have had to lay off employees. In March, the city eliminated all of its part time employees and contract workers, furloughed 21 employees and cut pay for others in light of the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus.

“We wouldn’t have had to cut a single person from our payroll if Congress had done for cities what they did for businesses,” Walker said.

He said making the payroll cuts and furloughs was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made.

“It’s one thing when you cut them and you know their names and families, but then you see them in the grocery store a week later and see how deep a cut that was,” Walker said.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said his city has been on a “roller coaster ride” since COVID-19 hit.

“It seems like the punches just keep coming,” he said.

At one point in July, Lake Charles showed the most new cases of COVID-19 per capita in the state.

The city has drawn down its rainy day fund about 75%, Hunter said.

“The fiscal impacts of the pandemic have certainly been a punch in the gut,” he said. “We need a hand up, not a handout. I do not believe this is a Kenner problem, a Lake Charles problem, a Woodworth problem or a Ruston problem — this is an American problem, and this is a municipal problem for every municipality in this country. If Congress really wants to get serious about putting people back to work, they need to be thinking long-term, not just putting a band-aid on the situation.”