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Council wants ‘bridge aid’ for residents, businesses ahead of federal COVID-19 help

Friday, March 27, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council directed staff to move quickly in the coming weeks to allocate direct payments and other forms of aid to residents and small businesses that have taken a severe financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A wide-reaching item passed on the consent agenda Thursday directs city staffers to “develop programs to support Austinites that have been economically impacted by the public health crisis, including, but not limited to, the small and local businesses and workers in the creative, hospitality, service, music, and film industries and other associated industries impacted by the COVID-19 related cancellation of major events, including, but not limited to the 2020 SXSW Festival.”

The agenda item was conceived with a narrower focus since it was initiated in the days after the March 6 cancellation of South by Southwest, which is a major economic driver for local hotels, bars, music venues and other small businesses. As the city gradually instituted measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, it became apparent that the relief measure would need to have a wider scope.

Thursday’s Council meeting featured a briefing from many city department heads related to the relief efforts that are expected to serve as a short-term bridge for residents and businesses until the pieces of the federal government’s expected $2 trillion relief effort begin to be deployed.

Veronica Briseño, director of the Economic Development Department, said the city is working with organizations such as Austin Community Foundation on partnerships to deliver aid to residents. She said existing programs such as the Creative Space Assistance Program will likely be restructured to provide direct financial aid to arts spaces and music venues that lost critical revenue because of the SXSW cancellation.

Briseño said a future report back to Council will outline possible funding sources and methods to allocate city aid, with the overall response being guided by four goals: convene leadership panels with economic experts and members of city administration to guide recovery efforts; connect businesses and residents to economic resources; promote and reassess current city programs; and collect new data to drive all decision-making.

Economist Jon Hockenyos has signed on to help the city with its economic analysis efforts related to the relief programs. That work will include modeling to help the city forecast the impact to sales tax and other revenue sources, which will have a major impact on the next budget cycle that will compound the expected spending in the short term.

“There are going to be budget implications for the city of Austin and the local government level. It’s absolutely crucial to build these bridges and transitions, but sales tax is going to take a hit, hotel lodging tax is going to take a substantial hit,” he said. “With some luck we’ll do this the best way we can, minimize the damage and be as successful as we can be going forward.”

With recent forecasts by University of Texas analysts predicting the city could see 6,000 deaths from coronavirus in the coming months unless long-term social distancing measures remain in place, Council members expressed concern over vulnerable populations such as the homeless and undocumented workers who would likely have difficulties accessing federal aid.

“For those of us who represent communities that are overwhelmingly restaurant workers and domestic workers and construction workers, cooks and hospitality workers in communities of color and working-class folks, we know those communities are closest to the front lines at risk of getting the virus and then likely to have the most trouble paying bills,” Council Member Greg Casar said.

“I think we all have to stand up and refuse to choose between people getting disproportionately sick and dying and people not having the money they need to survive. We know tens of thousands of people in our city have already lost income, many of them have lost jobs and we know many of them aren’t going to get unemployment insurance even under the best versions of the federal bill.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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