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MENDOCINO Co., 6/21/20 — The coronavirus pandemic has tested the stamina of all — and one of the most difficult challenges is countering the deep dive of local economies. Fort Bragg is not alone in grappling with the fallout of shuttered businesses with resulting enormous job losses and unraveling of budgets.
As sales tax revenues drop, the City of Fort Bragg is faced with taking severe measures while awaiting what amounts to a bewildering federal response. As congressional House Democrats argue for a fourth stimulus package to provide aid for state and local governments, Trump administration officials push back, arguing for a wait-and-see stance.
In a May 7 interview, I asked Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller how Fort Bragg is coping with the economics of the pandemic.
MRK: How is the pandemic affecting the city budget and sales tax revenues?
TM: We are looking at a probable sixty percent decrease in sales tax for just this last quarter, April to June of 2020. Then we are looking at sales tax being down 44 percent on average for the next fiscal year, which is July 1, 2020 through June 30 of 2021. Those are really early projections.
I say that is because one of the problems we are encountering is the deadline for filing taxes, sales taxes, the city’s transient occupancy tax (TOT) and property taxes are being penalized or delayed. The city allowed local hotels to delay their TOT payments until July without penalties. The state did the same thing for sales tax payments and property taxes. And the state collects the city’s sales tax. So, the delay without penalty means that we are not currently receiving TOT or sales tax, and that makes it hard to predict how much these revenues will be down. We don’t have good numbers and probably not have good numbers until early fall. Even when the state receives the money, it takes about two months to turn it around to get us the data. These are just estimates of what is happening to our business community and how businesses are actually doing, which business are closed. Restaurants are down roughly between eighty and ninety percent for those that are even open.
MRK: Has the city laid off any workers?
TM: We had to lay off four positions, and we reduced hours for twelve additional staff. In addition to that we froze three open positions that we won’t fill. We eliminated two building Maintenance Worker I positions, one Public Works Maintenance II Worker position, and an Administrative Supervisor for the Police Department, which is a non-sworn position. It won’t impact the police officers directly; it was a support position.
In addition, we had a Police Sergeant position opening. This was a replacement for recently retired Sergeant Andrew Kendal, who retired in April. We froze the new Community Services Officer position and a Community Safety Officer position.
It is important that we are not directly in the line of fire of COVID -19 as a public health agency since we are not fighting COVID-19 on that level. It is really the shelter-in place-orders that are impacting us the most and the financial repercussions from that.
MRK: South Korea and New Zealand were successful in curbing the spread of COVID-19 with massive testing and contact tracing. Contact tracing is part of supporting individuals with a suspected or confirmed coronavirus infection, and subsequently public health departments work with the individual to help them recall all whom they have had close contact with. What do you know about contact tracing here in Mendocino County?
TM: I can’t speak for Mendocino County, but from my understanding is that they have been able to, for example the cases in Covelo, they were able go back and do contact tracing. All the spread of that situation they were able to trace back to the source, and there was no community spread. I do know, and this is not just Mendocino County, it is statewide, there is not sufficient testing capacity. Two weeks ago, it was that we did not have swabs, and today the labs are overwhelmed. We increased the number of tests being taken, and now they cannot be processed through the labs quick enough
MRK: Is the county responsible for contact tracing once someone is infected with COVID-19?
TM: Correct, mostly because we do not have a public health department, and it is not one of our mandates and we don’t get funding for that by the state. Like most small cities, we rely on our county public health officials to take care of those issues and that is the way the system is set up. That is not unique to Fort Bragg.
MRK: Mendocino County shut down its labs ten years ago?
TM: True. Many counties were consolidated around the state and it’s one of the unfortunate things we are living with now as we don’t have that capacity where we need to get the tests done. I know our hospital is working on getting the ability to test. That has not happened as far as I know. It is a difficult situation we are in.
MRK: People cannot pay rent, and there is food insecurity. Funds trickle down from federal to state to localities. Do you think the various tax breaks that the Trump administration is proposing will help?
TM: Not that I do not want to help out folks who are hurting—but at this point if you do not have money coming in, if you are out of work, or you do not have revenue coming in and can’t pay your bills, a tax break is not going to be a savings to you.
MRK: What do you think the city needs from the federal government?
TM: I don’t see any policy breakdowns here. I think we are doing a decent job fundamentally at our level. There has been no support that has gotten to small governments from the federal government. They did a stimulus package, and the state got $15 billion. Of that I believe five and half or six million went to local governments that had 500,000 people or more. The rest went to the state. We got none of that. There is talk about the next stimulus bill including dollars for local governments. We will see if that even happens.
Simple things like tax breaks that other entities are getting, we [City of Fort Bragg] don’t qualify for. For example, we don’t qualify for PPP [Paycheck Protection Program,(PPP)] as a local government, yet we are a decent employer in the area. There was a tax break that went along with the Families First Corona Response Act where they gave additional 80 hours of emergency sick leave and that expands the FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act, (FMLA) ] for COVID-related illness and taking care of family members. There was a payroll tax break that we could have benefited from to provide those benefits. We did not get that tax break. It feels like there is very little support for local governments, and I think you are probably aware of Mitch McConnell’s answer to that: “Let Them declare bankruptcy.” That doesn’t do anything for our community economies either. Having your local government declare bankruptcy and not pay its bills and having to lay people off doesn’t address the problem.
MRK: What functions besides policing does the City serve?
TM: We provide safe and clean drinking water for the city. Then there is wastewater treatment so when it is put into the ocean it is clean and safe. Although our fire department is volunteer, there are four paid positions and we pay half the costs of operating. Obviously there is running City Hall and Town Hall, and we provide for the parks, trail maintenance, street and road maintenance within our city’s limits. We own and have a sales tax for the C.V. Starr Center, so about 60-65 percent of the revenue that the C.V. Starr Center takes in is generated through the city sales tax and a small portion of city property tax. We have the Community Development Department, Planning and Code Enforcement, we have economic development, and our public works engineering tied to building and street capital projects. We own the Guest House Museum, another property that the city owns with volunteers who run it and do an amazing job.
We are also a large employer in town. We had 55 employees prior to the layoff. Like any employer, when we cut back and when we lay off employees and reduce hours, it impacts our employees’ abilities to pay rent and bills. We are not unique. I want to make it clear. It is not just the city, it is the whole local economy, and the same thing is happening with our local businesses. I feel just as bad for them.
MRK: In Fort Bragg we have empty storefronts, empty lots, and affordable housing is still a looming issue. What can landlords do to help? Throughout this COVID-19 emergency, national media news stories report how landlords are stepping up. One landlord was using his own stimulus check to help a renter. We are all in this together. What can people do?
TM: I think you said it. We did a campaign a month ago, and of course it was before the stimulus checks really hit. If you don’t need your stimulus check find somebody who does or donate it. The Mendocino Children’s Fund has set up a specific program to help families impacted locally by COVID-19. Or give it to the Food Bank. If you can assist a family member, do that. There are so many ways. I don’t have rental property locally, but I do have rental property elsewhere, and I have pretty significant mortgages on those, but I can do just so much to help my tenants. But everybody is different. If landlords own their property outright, it is easier for them to give a bit more. Can you give? If you can give, do. If you can’t, then you do what you can to take care of yourself. We are all in this together. It is not only just government, it is not just businesses, it is at all levels being impacted. It is not just California or the United States—this is worldwide.
MRK: What do you say to people who are insisting on opening really fast, or who say they don’t need to wear a mask or can’t open up yet. We have workers and businesses scared for their own lives and for their livelihoods. Some employers and employees now do not even have heath care benefits or can no longer afford health care benefits.
TM: Wear a mask. If you are not, you are violating the law. It is pretty simple there; it is the law at the county level and it is the law at the state level. It is really about being a good human being. If you are putting other people’s lives in danger that really is not OK.
There are lots of simple things you can do to operate safely and to help your employees. I know PPE is hard to come by, you can make sure you put up Plexiglas barriers at your business, we can all wear masks, and if all the employees wore masks, we are a whole lot safer. I understand the desperation of having to choose between going to work and feeling unsafe, or maybe someone who is being more at risk and having to go to work, that’s got to be terrible to have to make that choice. The fact is what we do impacts other people, and we should be accountable for that. You are not just risking your own life; you are risking someone else’s.
MRK: I see you are in the same shoes where you and other city workers are at risk.
TM: To be fair, we have done quite a few things to protect city employees. It is part of the reason why the Fort Bragg City Hall is closed now so we have some control over who comes in. Our front-line workers like our police, we have protective equipment for them and we made sure they were taken care of. We had to shut down the parks and originally the trails to discourage people coming here to visit but shutting down the restrooms was to protect our staff. We tried to balance protecting city workers and also reducing city services at a time when we know that people want those things. It is a balance. Everyone is trying to do that balancing with trying to protect and still maintain.
MRK: With the governor’s and with the county’s revised orders, does the city have stricter orders?
TM: We follow the governor’s orders and the county’s orders, which have been stricter than the state orders. We will continue to follow that which is stricter, whether it is the county or the governor’s orders. And we will continue to rely on Mendocino County Public Health Official’s orders. The reason for that is what we talked about earlier, we don’t have a public health official. Nobody on my staff is a doctor of medicine. So those are decisions that we are not in a position to make. This is about people’s health so we have to rely on the professionals.
MRK: What do you think about the howling at 8pm around town? Howling each night has taken off around the country to thank first responders, medical staff taking care of COVID-19 patients and frontline workers in stores and anyone out there serving us.
TM: I think it is good. Anything to keep up people’s spirits and that makes you happy. Anything that makes you able to release the grief and stress. I have heard it at night too in my neighborhood.
MRK: Anything else you would like to share?
TM: One of the balancing acts I think now that is important, there are two extremes with the folks who are angry because we are not open and we are infringing on their rights and then there the folks on the other side that are so stressed that we will open and that we will open too soon. We are really trying to find that balance. I think it is really important that we as individuals take responsibility for ourselves. If we are not supposed to be out and about, we should not be out and about. If we can help others, we need to do that. Same thing with businesses. As a city organization we need to watch out for our employees, our customers, and people around us. We need to balance all those needs and to be good to each other, to be nice and kind.
The City of Fort Bragg has created Fort Bragg To Go to help connect our residents with local businesses offering socially distant ways to enjoy their products and services. Visit Fort Bragg’s Facebook and Instagram sites also showcase local businesses. We send out forms to businesses if anyone is interested in being highlighted. Sara McCormick in my office has created a small business address list. We are checking in with businesses at least once a week to see what we can do.
If people have questions, we are not the county, it is not my Order, but if you have questions, I spent a lot of time reading the Order. The best I can tell you is what is allowed and what is not allowed. We are encouraging businesses to do shipping and delivery and curbside pickup. Getting that information to businesses has been one of our focuses. Again, it is not my Order, we only interpret it. We have been really trying to make sure the businesses that can operate are operating.
For more information, Mendocino County COVID-19 Business Resources website lists both local and State resources, including where to get help for both business and workers impacted by COVID-19. To contact the City of Fort Bragg email [email protected] or call 707-964-2823.