In summary

Without financial relief, cities will be forced to cut police officers, firefighters and other essential local government workers and the core services they deliver.

By Carolyn Coleman and Alma Hernández, Special to CalMatters

Carolyn Coleman is executive director of the League of California Cities, ccoleman@cacities.org. Alma Hernández is executive director of the Service Employees International Union in California, ahernandez@seiucal.org.

In times of crisis, our fundamental views shift, and for many Californians the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a new view of what’s “essential.” 

Frontline services that cities have provided as we shelter at home – and the frontline workers who have bravely provided them – are now visible and valued. City leaders and employees across the country have stepped to the front lines enacting emergency orders, setting up testing, protecting residents, supporting vulnerable populations and helping to keep Main Street businesses afloat. 

These actions have saved lives and served as a model for the country – and they have come at a significant cost, as cities have spent what it takes to keep us alive and keep us going.

But now the very front lines that kept us safe are in jeopardy. 

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Due to the unprecedented, multifaceted COVID-19 response, including the shutdown of our local economies, California cities are facing a nearly $7 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years. According to a League of California Cities analysis, this shortfall will grow by billions of dollars as modified stay-at-home orders extend into the summer months and beyond. At the same time, cities have incurred significant unplanned expenditures

Nine out of 10 California cities report they are considering cutting or furloughing city staff or reducing public services, and three out of four may take both actions. Eight out of 10 say their police and public works services will be adversely affected and more than half anticipate cuts to fire services. 

The crippling impact to city budgets will impact residents, businesses and city workers across the state. The same city workers who have been on the front lines throughout this crisis working tirelessly to protect and serve our state’s most vulnerable residents will be facing layoffs, and the hardest hit communities by the virus, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color, will be hardest hit by cuts to essential services. 

Job cuts will not only hurt essential city workers and their families but will affect the lives of all Californians. Without relief, cities will be forced to cut police officers, firefighters, planners, public works engineers, other essential local government workers and the core services they deliver. This means fewer first responders to answer emergency calls, reduced frequency of garbage pickups, delayed repairs to streets and sidewalks, and limited hours for parks and senior centers, just to name a few of the core services under threat. 

The stakes are too high: No community will be spared from these cuts unless all cities receive direct and flexible federal and state funding.  

Cities, labor groups and the business community are collectively calling on the state to support local recovery with $7 billion in direct and flexible funding to support critical local services and an allocation of the state’s portion of the CARES Act funding directly to cities to help pay for COVID-19-related expenditures. At the federal level, we join Gov. Gavin Newsom in calling on Congress to provide $1 trillion in direct and flexible aid to all states and local governments nationwide with $500 billion set aside for local governments.  

California policymakers face a formidable task building the state budget for the coming year. While we know there will be tough decisions about how to allocate funds to best position California’s recovery, one thing is clear: cities are essential, both to our safety and to our recovery. 

California’s 482 cities are the economic engines of our state, and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis starts at the local level with the strong support of our state and federal government partners.

The road to recovery will be long and hard but it will be even longer if we let our cities falter instead of harnessing their vital economic and social strengths. Providing funding to local governments is not optional – it is a necessity if we want vibrant cities and strong economies for all Californians. 

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Carolyn Coleman is executive director of the League of California Cities, ccoleman@cacities.org. Alma Hernández is executive director of the Service Employees International Union in California, ahernandez@seiucal.org.

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