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Communities face higher costs, lower revenue during pandemic

April 17, 2020 GMT
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Medical workers wave in appreciation as fire, police and emergency workers honor them at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., Friday, April 17, 2020. First responders gathered outside the hospital to thank medical workers for their efforts to save lives during the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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Medical workers wave in appreciation as fire, police and emergency workers honor them at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., Friday, April 17, 2020. First responders gathered outside the hospital to thank medical workers for their efforts to save lives during the virus outbreak. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Struggling New Hampshire towns, cities and counties are both spending more money and expecting less revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Friday.

The Governor’s Office For Emergency Relief and Recovery’s legislative advisory board heard from the New Hampshire Municipal Association, a town administrator, the mayors of Nashua and Manchester, and representatives from county jails and nursing homes as it prepares to spend $1.25 billion in federal relief aid.

Responding to a survey this week, 125 towns and cities described virus-related expenses totaling $7.6 million in the last five weeks, and said they expect that number to rise to $27.2 million by the end of the year, said Margaret Byrnes, the association’s director.

Those costs include everything from overtime pay for police and firefighters to increases in welfare costs as residents lose their jobs.

“The closing of small businesses and the local economies of municipalities are tied directly to local government. It is a fragile ecosystem, and they go hand-in hand,” she said.

Equally worrisome is the likely loss of revenue as the rooms and meals tax drops off and property taxes go unpaid, officials said.

Almost all the survey participants said they have enough cash reserves to operate for six months if 10% of July’s property tax bills go unpaid, but only 30% have enough if delinquency rises to 30%.

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig said she estimates the state’s largest city could face a $25 million revenue shortfall by the end of the year.

In Nashua, Mayor Jim Donchess said that the city typically collects $200 million per year in property taxes, but that it already has received an informal request from its largest commercial taxpayer, a shopping mall, for a 20% abatement.

At the county level, the pandemic has exacerbated an existing nursing home staffing crisis, said David Ross, administrator of the Hillsborough County Nursing Home.

When one staffer at his facility tested positive for the virus, 10 others quit within two days because they didn’t feel safe, he said. The protective gear required if a patient tests positive would add up to 60,000 gowns in a month for Hillsborough County, but when the facility requested 10,000 from the state, it got only 100.

“Every facility is in that same boat. No one is out of PPE ... but no one is really comfortable with their current level of inventory, and if anyone experiences an outbreak like some of the facilities have, it’s a frightening place to be,” he said.

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Some nursing homes have stopped accepting new residents, he said. But jails don’t have that kind of discretion, said Carroll County jail Superintendent Jason Henry.

While jails have been under pressure by the Americans for Civil Liberties Union and others to release non-violent offenders, it’s more complicated than that, he said. He described releasing a woman, only to have her return a week later after a drug overdose.

“There’s not a lot of support out in the community for that,” he said. “It’s not as easy as just saying open the doors, let people back out.”

Other developments in New Hampshire:

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THE NUMBERS

As of Friday, nearly 1,300 people in New Hampshire had tested positive for the virus, and 37 have died.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

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Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said Friday he agrees with the Trump administration’s guidelines for states to reopen their economies.

“The template the president presented yesterday is a good template, it’s a good backbone,” he said. “It’s very much along the same path that New Hampshire’s been going down already.”

On Thursday, the president detailed a three-step set of guidelines for easing restrictions over a span of several weeks in places that have robust testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases. Sununu said New Hampshire is not even close to Phase 1.

“You really need about 14 days of better testing results,” he said.

The state has ramped up testing to an adequate capacity, he said, though “we always want more.”

“We will be increasing it,” he said.