Neebe: Cities and Public Workers Must Stand Together in this Fiscal Crisis

The events of the past few months have been highly unsettling. After the COVID-19 crisis hit, amusement parks, public spaces, churches, and other large gathering places were shut down. Shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, bars, and hundreds of local businesses had to close or partially close.

The Memorial Day Weekend marked the start of Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to slowly bring the economy back online. Then the country suffered yet another shock – the killing of an African-American man named George Floyd on May 25th by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Local government revenue streams are highly dependent on sales taxes and transient occupancy taxes, both of which have been heavily impacted as a consequence of the economic distress caused by COVID-19.

Many cities are taking steps to use reserves or temporary fund transfers between accounts to address short-term cash needs. Also, some City Councils are investigating alternative ways to generate additional revenue. But there is no question that many of our communities face significant revenue shortfalls for at least the next fiscal year and perhaps beyond. There is also little question that public workers – including essential workers, first responders, public health nurses and utility workers – may be asked to make additional sacrifices in the future.

Our local governments have faced steep financial challenges in the past. For example, the 1994 County bankruptcy, and the more recent Great Recession which created major impacts to essential government services, particularly in 2008-09. Some cities rose to the challenge and took bold steps to protect workers, while others took a more divisive, anti-worker approach.

In 2011, anti-union extremists on the Costa Mesa City Council tried to use the devastating economic recession to attack workers. Without a single study or position paper, layoff notices to hundreds of workers were issued. OCEA again had to fight to protect workers, winning a string of victories in the courts and at the ballot box.

Thankfully, today’s political leadership in Costa Mesa is much different. Led by Mayor Katrina Foley, the City’s reStore Costa Mesa Initiative brings together labor representatives, leaders of Costa Mesa’s large and small business communities, financial experts and public health officials to develop best practices to bring the City’s economy back online. The strategies focus on accomplishing that objective with the safety, security and stability the workers and residents of Costa Mesa deserve.

This is not a time for the County, cities and other local public employers to rush to make rash decisions, particularly involving workers. Every day brings change, and we must allow a reasonable time to let some of those changes play out.

The House of Representatives has passed the $3 trillion Heroes Act, which includes more than one trillion dollars for State and local government relief, including backfilling projected revenues. Another vehicle for possible positive change is bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate – the State and Municipal Assistance for Recovery and Transition Act, or SMART Act. This bill would provide an additional $500 billion to states, counties, and cities. The SMART Act has support from important stakeholders like the National Governors Association and the National Association of Counties. There is growing consensus that an additional stimulus package that includes State and local government relief is needed soon. Based on recent comments by the Treasury Secretary and Senate Majority Leader, it is increasingly likely Washington will act to pass some version of that relief.

The overarching message here is that the best solutions can only emerge when we work together as a community. This is what it will take to heal the economic wounds inflicted by COVID-19 and the deeper wounds in our country’s soul.

Lezlee Neebe currently serves as OCEA President; Chair of the OCEA Health & Welfare Trust; Secretary of the OCEA Political Action Committee; and as a Vice President on the Orange County Labor Federation Executive Committee. President Neebe has been a member of the union since 1992. She also serves as Treasurer and Board member at OC Heroes Hall Foundation.

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