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Non-profits, small towns seek more COVID-19 aid

CONCORD — Administrators with nonprofit groups and small towns warned U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on Tuesday that congressional failure to increase COVID-19 aid to state and local governments will mean public employee layoffs, cuts to essential services and soaring property taxes next year.

Maureen Beauregard, president of Easterseals New Hampshire, said the fallout from the pandemic for communities and human service programs like hers could become worse without additional relief.

“That is my huge concern, that we are going to make it through this, and then we are going to go through a whole round of cuts because states need assistance in filling their coffers so that services could continue,” Beauregard said during the first of two conference calls hosted by Shaheen, D-N.H.

Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes is worried about the prospect of restaurant, hotel and attraction owners requesting large abatements on their property taxes in the wake of the economic downturn.

Estimated property tax payments last spring were off only 2% from 2019, which was better than expected, he said.

While summer traffic is very brisk, Holmes said most are “day trippers” who aren’t staying overnight. Abatements for the hospitality industry could become necessary, he said.

A stumbling block

The debate over whether to give states and communities more COVID-19 help remains a major stumbling block in the stalled negotiations on Capitol Hill over another relief bill.

A House-passed $3 trillion measure included $1 trillion in such aid. Almost all of it could be used to replace shortfalls in revenue caused by the pandemic.

The $1.25 billion New Hampshire received in March from the CARES Act could only be used to reimburse communities for expenses directly related to COVID-19.

The $1 trillion plan that U.S. Senate Republicans laid out two weeks ago contains no state and local assistance. President Donald Trump has not said this support must be part of any compromise.

“We know without this assistance, they are looking at having to lay people off and reduce services,” Shaheen said. “When we held out on the CARES Act, we got agreement (on assistance to states). I am hoping we can do that again.”

Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday nearly 500 nonprofits will share in $40 million of federal assistance.

Deborah Schachter, senior program officer with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, supervised the process and, along with two other agencies, reviewed applications from 600 groups for a total of $60 million that Sununu said two months ago would be set aside for this purpose.

“It’s not sufficient to meet the need,” she said, urging Shaheen to make sure any future grant money doesn’t have a “hard” deadline, as the CARES Act did.

All CARES Act money must be spent by the end of this year.

Straining budgets

Some town administrators also said their local welfare budgets have been taxed as homeless shelters are filling up with poor who have nowhere else to turn.

Colebrook Town Administrator Sharon Penney said her small town had people come from New York, Rhode Island and other states to live full-time in their second homes there, and then apply for local assistance.

The welfare law requires cities and towns to act on all requests, including those from non-permanent residents, she said.

“I am afraid I’m going to run out of money pretty soon. We’re getting an influx of folks,” Penney said.

Plymouth Town Manager Kathy Lowe said she had to put some people in local hotels because shelters were full.

The CARES Act also provided no direct grants to any community with fewer than 500,000 residents.

In response, Sununu created a $40 million federal fund for city, town and county officials to apply to the state for reimbursement of their COVID costs.

“Small communities got short shrift in the last CARES Act package, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Shaheen said.

Several said Congress should allow grants to be sent directly to towns.

“The state has done a great job, but if it comes right to us, we can be more nimble with it,” Holmes said.