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County Commissioners Court looks toward economic recovery solutions

Wednesday, April 8, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

The financial figures representing the economic repercussions of self-isolation and shuttered businesses are beginning to surface in Travis County.

Diana Ramirez, the director of Travis County’s Economic Development & Strategic Investments, told the Commissioners Court on April 7 that although local numbers are still not available, state and federal numbers offer a good indication of what to expect. She also said the county is preparing to help mitigate the fallout.

In 2019, 16.3 percent of all Austin metro area jobs belonged to one of the top 10 most vulnerable categories identified by a Brookings Institution report presented by Ramirez. This list includes professions in food service, retail merchandise, laundry services, gambling and entertainment, and motor vehicle sales.

“We’re going to have some issues with unemployment for these vulnerable job categories,” said Ramirez.

She elaborated that in addition to certain job categories being vulnerable to the unemployment resulting from measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19, so are certain populations. Part-time workers, households headed by single women, African Americans, Latinos and foreign-born workers are all more likely to experience unemployment under current circumstances.

Not only will unemployment hit Travis County residents in those categories hardest, but according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, it may take longer for the state to return to pre-Covid-19 economic levels.

Ramirez presented findings from the bank showing that Texas, which is forecast to experience a “severe” economic contraction in the second quarter of 2020, will take longer to recover than other states. The state’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, a sector that has taken a particular beating in recent weeks, is the driver behind this slow recovery, which Ramirez pointed out as a potential bright spot for Travis County. “We just don’t rely on the energy sector as much as others,” she told commissioners.

While Travis County remains relatively sheltered from the tumultuous energy sector, reports predict that local small businesses will suffer acutely. “The business community is expecting there are going to be repercussions six months down the road,” said Ramirez, who explained that “expectations form a lot of what the economy does.”

To assist businesses impacted by the economic downturn, the county’s Economic Development Department is working on a recovery response program to support small businesses and fill in financial gaps.

The department is beginning by creating a public-facing dashboard that identifies federal and local aid programs that are available. Once the list is compiled, the county will present it in a cohesive library and provide assistance to businesses in identifying eligibility and guidance in the application process. The county will use the records in the dashboard to determine if there are areas where small businesses are not covered and work to craft new programs to fill those gaps.

Ramirez said the goal of these efforts is to provide liquidity for these local businesses.

County commissioners voted unanimously to further bolster support for future funding initiatives by directing staff to pursue a small business loan program under Chapter 381, the county’s economic incentive program. Additionally, the court voted unanimously to send a letter requesting federal funding under the federal CARES Act. No specific amount was specified.

At the vote, Commissioner Margaret Gómez was off the dais and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was absent.

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