HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Two West Virginia mayors are urging Congress to pass the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, with both officials warning of constraints on municipal budgets related to the pandemic and related response efforts.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott participated in a press call Wednesday about the American Rescue Plan Act and how local governments have handled the virus as the United States approaches one year of the pandemic.
“We’re at a critical point right now against this pandemic, building back from the lingering effect that this health and economic crisis is going to have on our communities,” Williams said. “Our fear is that this is going to last much longer.”
The relief package includes $1,400 payments to Americans; the White House has agreed to phase out checks starting at $80,000 for individuals, $120,000 for heads of households, and $160,000 for joint tax filers. The proposal also dedicates funding for an additional $400 unemployment payment, $160 billion for coronavirus response and vaccination efforts, $10 billion for manufacturing pandemic supplies, and $130 billion for reopening schools.
Local, tribal and state governments would receive $350 billion for addressing the pandemic and its effects, including lost revenue; according to the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee, West Virginia would receive nearly $1.3 billion, and the state’s municipal governments would get more than $676 million.
The measure also includes raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, although the Senate Parliamentarian ruled last week keeping the provision would violate Senate rules.
The House passed the package last Saturday in a 219-212 vote; West Virginia’s representatives — David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — voted against the measure as Republicans voiced concerns about spending unrelated to the pandemic.
“If Congress had focused on providing targeted relief such as individual stimulus checks, funding for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution, funding for mental health and substance abuse services, and additional funding to help safely reopen America’s schools, it would have passed with broad Republican support,” McKinley said following the vote.
Williams noted Huntington’s budget was “healthy” ahead of the pandemic. As the pandemic response continued, city officials approved a freeze on capital spending to keep essential employees and maintain city services.
“That is the greatest fear that we have is to furlough or to lay off anyone for a few weeks,” he said. “That interrupts services that we’re providing.”
Williams is a member of the United States Conference of Mayors, an organization supporting the bill. Williams cited conversations with other city leaders who have dealt with terminating employees and reducing services because of the pandemic’s financial strain.
“These are things that individuals living in their homes in the neighborhoods can’t do without,” he said. “These are every bit as essential workers as the frontline individuals in hospitals, and that’s the very reason why local governments and state governments need to receive robust funding.”
Elliott urged Congress to approve the relief bill “as swiftly as possible.”
“This should not be a partisan debate,” he said. “This should not be something where we really don’t take every step to get this done as quickly as possible because our communities are hurting.”
Wheeling is — as Elliott described — the “prototypical Rust Belt community;” the Northern Panhandle city was affected by declining economic activity and population prior to the pandemic, as well as a loss of resources. Elliott noted the closure of the September 2019 Ohio Valley Medical Center.
“We’ve tried to do what we can within our budgetary constraints to help, but we need more assistance right now,” he said. “This is definitely not the time you want to do anything but go big.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., opposes the measure; she said coronavirus relief needs to be better targeted to individuals and parties most in need of financial assistance, especially after Congress approved a $900 billion package in late December.
“We don’t disagree on the need for continued relief and resources, but it needs to be done in a targeted way,” she said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Capito and nine Republican colleagues pitched a $618 billion plan during a meeting last month with President Joe Biden; the GOP proposal features $1,000 relief payments, a $300 enhanced unemployment payment and no funding for local and state governments.
The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on proceeding with the legislation. Lawmakers have cited March 13 as the deadline for passing a plan as extended unemployment benefits expire that day.