The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in our commonwealth has elicited a long-awaited sigh of relief from most Virginians. But a vaccine — even one that’s 95% effective — can’t address the economic devastation this pandemic has caused for residents such as those who are in Richmond.
It is undeniable that the effects of 2020 are following us into 2021 and beyond. Business closures and scalebacks lead to unemployment, which leads to financial hardship, which leads to eviction, which leads to homelessness. Oftentimes, it falls on our local governments to interrupt this terrible spiral — a monumental responsibility for perennially underfunded, undersupported municipalities.
To empower both municipalities and the residents who rely on them, the governor and state lawmakers must extend the COVID-19 Relief Fund during the upcoming legislative session.
The fund, created this past spring, distributes money collected through the taxation of skill game machines to state agencies, municipalities and small businesses. Frankly, it has proven a vital source of support as municipalities like Richmond attempt to provide a financial buffer for residents in crisis.
Richmond will receive $800,000 from the state fund this fiscal year. In only six months of existence, the game terminals generated about $68 million. At this rate, the state and its localities will receive an estimated $140 million by the end of June.
In Richmond, we are using the funds to keep the wheels of government turning, paying the salaries of vital public service providers and accounting for the increased cost of service delivery during a global pandemic. Those needs won’t go away in a matter of months.
In fact, according to the State of the Commonwealth Report recently released by Old Dominion University economists, Virginia is not expected to return to prepandemic job levels or economic activity until at least 2022.
Keeping with this timeline, the relief services cities like Richmond provide and facilitate — including eviction diversion, job training and small business grants — will remain vital well into 2022.
Gov. Ralph Northam has made it clear that he intends to focus more of the relief funds to spur economic activity by supporting small businesses. The small business community is a major source of employment for Virginians and a key element of the state’s overall financial welfare. Notably, job loss also has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, dealing a double blow to Virginians who also have seen higher rates of the virus.
Bringing residents back into the labor force safely is key to recovery, and the relief fund will facilitate that. We can’t sacrifice that support for Virginians.
On top of the benefits for city services and local economies, it simply makes good financial sense for state officials and the governor to keep the relief fund active into 2022. Operation of the fund poses no burden to the state and promises all new revenue, not a reallocation of funds from other priority areas.
It’s a long road to recovery. Now is not the time to let up on the gas. Lawmakers must extend the COVID-19 Relief Fund to help municipalities like Richmond so we can help our residents.
Levar M. Stoney is mayor of the city of Richmond. Contact him at: Levar.Stoney@richmondgov.com