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Omaha city officials: "Dire situation without federal aid"

CARES Act will help only with COVID-19 expenses
Posted at 10:09 PM, Apr 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 23:19:34-04

OMAHA, Neb. — The federal government has begun rolling out federal aid through the CARES Act. Cities and counties across the country are able to use this funding only for COVID-19 related expenses. But this specific guideline doesn't address the financial need in the Omaha area.

"There is money in the CARES Act for COVID-related expenses, but not for loss of revenue at this point," Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said.

Cities and counties larger than 500,000 in population are eligible to receive this aid. Douglas County is over 500,000, the city of Omaha is not. That means that the entire county has to share the approximately $160 million.

"The county appears to be getting about $160 million or so. But there's no mechanism of getting anything into the city," Omaha financial director Steve Curtiss said.

Since the money can only be used for COVID-19 related expenses, like personal protective equipment, the loss of revenue the community experienced by multiple event cancellations can not be helped with this money.

"Our biggest problem will not be costs related to COVID, it will be the lost revenue related to the economic shutdown," Curtiss said.

This leaves the general city budget in tough shape. The budget is about $420 million, and most of that is used on police, fire and trash services.

"About three fourths of our general fund budget goes to basically public safety and trash. So you can speculate about what that may look like if we have a severe revenue shortfall," Curtiss said.

Omaha officials don't yet know how much of a hit the general budget will see, but it will be a hit nonetheless. Now the city has to find a way to make up that lost revenue.

"We do have a hiring freeze going, we've canceled anything that's not an emergency sort of spending," Curtiss said. "We're looking at all contracts, we have to see what kind of flexibility we might have. But I think it's pretty clear to everybody that the revenue shortfall without any federal fix, and there are some discussions about federal fixes out there, if none of those make it through we could be in a dire situation."

There are discussions in Washington DC about a CARES Act that would help with revenue loss specifically for cities and counties. We'll have more information on that as it becomes available.