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Cleveland Heights council votes to buttress local businesses through COVID-19 crisis

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 4/7/2020 By Thomas Jewell, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- City Council on Monday took steps toward extending a safety net for residents and local businesses alike through the Coronavirus outbreak that remains rampant on the east side of Cleveland.

Numbers of actual COVID-19 cases were not yet being tabulated by city in Cuyahoga County, "so we do not have data for Cleveland Heights," City Manager Tanisha Briley stated in last week's memo to council.

"However, the zip code information recently released by the county Board of Health demonstrates that most of the cases in the county are in our area," she added. "The numbers continue to climb, although social distancing and other measures put in place early on have been successful."

The April 6 "virtual" council meeting, broadcast live on YouTube and community cable, featured split-screen camera remotes of individual council members and Law Director Bill Hanna at home.

They were joined by Briley and Vice City Manager Susanna Niermann O'Neil in the conference room at City Hall, which has been closed since March 16 and will remain so at least until May.

With many "non-essential" businesses and services shut down through Ohio's stay-at-home order, including bars and restaurants other than take-out, council approved temporary suspension of payments on all city-issued Commercial, Revolving and Storefront and any other Economic Development loans for three months and up to six months if needed.

That includes any interest and penalties that would otherwise be accrued.

"This council recognizes the financial burden that COVID-19 and the governor's mandates place on businesses in the city and wishes to alleviate some of that burden," the legislation passed Monday stated, amending loan agreements with deferments, extensions, suspensions and modified repayment terms.

The City Economic Development Department is also is researching a forgivable loan program and modifications to our existing toolkit programs in order to provide additional capital resources for businesses impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

City revenue declines expected

The city will have enough financial misfortune of its own to deal with in the coming months, Briley warned.

"We are anticipating dramatic decreases in revenue that will likely be felt by the third quarter of this year," Briley told council Monday, adding that the federal stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act is aimed at cities with more than 500,000 people.

However, Cleveland Heights could wind up receiving additional Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding from the feds, over and above its usual allocation of $1.5 million or more.

As for the additional 10.5-cent gasoline tax enacted last year by the state and expected to bring an additional $700,000 to the $1.2 million the city was already receiving under the previous formula, Briley described this year's early receipts as "grim."

With fewer people driving and needing gas, the state could be looking at as much as a 40 percent dip in the new gas tax projections.

As for the consent decree reached in recent years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade an aging sewer system that violates the Clean Water Act, Briley said that at this point "there is no caveat for financial relief" due to the coronavirus outbreak.

About $5 million of a federally-required $12 million had already been collected last year for the as-yet undetermined "Phase 2" of the upgrade.

In the meantime, a hiring freeze is in effect on various levels in the city, and a pay raise for non-bargaining unit employees has been delayed.

Councilwoman Melody Hart asked about the possibility of redirecting as much as $1.5 million that was "pre-funded" into an account for the city's anticipated health insurance payments for 2020, which Briley expected could spiral by 26 percent to as much as $7 million.

"Whether we pre-pay or not, the cost is going to be the same," Hart reasoned.

Although Briley noted that the city has operated with an increasing surplus over the past five years with a cash reserve late last year of around $6.5 million -- as well as a separate $1.2 million in the separate Budget Stabilization Fund -- the final budget closeout figures from 2019 had yet to be announced.

Adding to the 'playbook'

As for dealing with the immediate threat of the coronavirus spreading in the crucial weeks to come, Councilman Mike Ungar commended the city administration's Rapid Response and Readiness Team for its continuing efforts.

But he also wondered whether more could be done comprehensively at the community level for the city’s more vulnerable populations, including seniors and those living alone with medical conditions.

“There is no play in the proverbial playbook on what to be doing in the wake of a pandemic,” Ungar said, further offering to “don a mask and go door-to-door to reach out to seniors,” perhaps by phone as well.

Ungar said this could be done in consort with local churches, synagogues and mosques to identify members. Councilwoman Davida Russell added that another good starting point might be the city sanitation division’s list of residents requesting that their garbage be taken out to the tree lawn for them.

O'Neil noted that any senior can get help by reaching out to the Start Right Church or Cleveland Heights Office on Aging and the Senior Activity Center Supervisor Amy Jenkins and the social workers on staff there.

And many do, although some don't want their names known, O'Neil added.

“I’m in no position to gauge what the demand would be,” Ungar said, noting that he has been watching what other cities do in what he termed a “well-being house watch check."

Mayor Jason Stein also thanked personnel in the police, fire, emergency medical services and public works departments and urged residents to do their part as well.

“These are difficult days for all of us,” Stein told residents. “Please stay inside when you can and watch out for neighbors who may need assistance.”

Read more from the Sun Press.

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