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Op-ed: Washington cities need the other Washington to step up and partner to save lives and the economy

Washington’s 281 cities and towns currently face unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19. But some federal leaders have put our plight on the back burner. That needs to change—and quickly—if we are to support our economic recovery. Federal policymakers must invest in cities to maintain essential services and help spur an economic rebound. 

Sixty-five percent of Washingtonians live in our cities and towns, and 57% of the state’s cities and towns have populations under 5,000. Our residents from communities of all sizes reasonably expect public services to continue. What services? To start, law enforcement and medical response when a 911 call comes in; clean water when the tap is turned on; support for those experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable populations; timely permitting and economic development project review and approvals; solid waste and recycling collection; maintenance of streets, roads, and transit services so those who must travel can do so safely. And the list goes on.

Business gets done and people work in cities. With support, cities will be the state’s engine for economic recovery. Eighty-five percent of retail sales happen in our cities and 69% of all job-generating businesses are within our borders. To be well positioned for post-COVID economic growth, cities need federal assistance to continue providing high-quality services to residents. Supporting our cities is supporting our economy.

Why are we asking for federal action?

We, along with other municipalities throughout the country, are calling on the other Washington to approve a new stimulus package that includes a $500 billion, multiyear, direct payment program for all cities and counties. We all want our economy to recover as quickly and safely as possible. This federal investment in our cities, large and small, will give a much-needed boost to help that happen.

Mayors and city councils of every city and town are grappling with this pandemic. They are asking public safety personnel to do their jobs in the most difficult of circumstances (which they are bravely doing). They are supplying safety equipment for first responders, serving vulnerable populations, and many are providing resources to small businesses so that we don’t see the lifeblood of our communities dry up.

Some of these costs are now eligible for reimbursement from the federal government under the CARES Act, but only because of action by Governor Inslee. (The CARES Act provided direct funding to the state and to Seattle, but none to our 280 other cities.) Our Governor recognized this battle is partly fought at the local level and knows city and county budgets are getting hammered. He acted to make $300 million of federal CARES Act funds available to cities and counties for these unanticipated and unprecedented COVID-19 expenses. We, and the residents we serve, thank him.

While this is a big step for immediate needs, the CARES Act funds cannot be used to shore up city budgets for revenue losses due to the economic slowdown and shuttered businesses (37% of city budgets come from sales and business-related taxes). We are restricted in how we can spend CARES Act money, and questions remain about what expenses qualify for reimbursement. We urgently need new, direct, unrestricted funds with no exclusions based on population.

To weather this storm, cities in this Washington—and throughout the nation—need a strong federal partnership. We need to know our federal partners have our backs as we support the critical needs of our residents. We don’t need to add to the already dismal unemployment numbers by laying off essential public safety, social service, public works, and other critical personnel. But Washington’s city leaders are facing these very difficult choices right now.

Some suggest this is a “bailout” for cities that are “mismanaged” or seeking help for costs not related to COVID-19. That is not the case in this Washington. Just ask your mayor what service cuts and layoffs your city or town is facing as revenue from sales and other taxes plummet. It is ugly out there. It will be even uglier for everyone without federal action.

We call on the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the Administration to act quickly and decisively—it will save lives and support our local economies.

Peter King is the CEO of the Association of Washington Cities (AWC)

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