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Will DC be Able to Meet Coronavirus Costs?

Back in mid-January, the perceptive Washington Blade business columnist Mark Lee wrote a commentary headlined “D.C. enacts bills with no hope of funding.” At first blush readers might wonder why this commentator is focusing on the criticisms expressed in that piece. The answer, simply, is that in some ways his observations were prescient in light of what we now are suddenly faced with. We refer to  the prospect of possible fiscal undermining of the District’s finances due to an anticipated looming reality of substantial revenue losses (already sales tax revenue is falling) along with emergency expenditures as a result of trying to cope with the Coronavirus onslaught.

Where will the funds be when the emergency spending needs to kick into high gear? Lee notes that  last year the Council  “approved bills totaling more than a billion dollars in required funding for which revenues were insufficient to finance. For relative contrast, total annual revenues from all local sources come in at only slightly more than $8.5 billion.”

“Further compounding the false expectations of voters are announcements of revenue surpluses originating with higher-than-anticipated tax collections. The D.C. CFO recently indicated that $280 million in surplus monies had been collected, leading some political activists to mistakenly believe there is suddenly, and magically, that much more money to spend.” But, given what we see already with mass closings, for example, we do not expect any kind of surplus this year.

As long-time readers of our commentaries know, we have on several occasions noted the seeming fact that there are Council members who have never encountered a dollar they didn’t desire to rush in and spend. Hopefully, with what we believe will be a fiscal reality never before faced by our local politicians — as well as by  community advocates and representatives of DC’s network of worthy and responsible non-profits — there will be a collective realization that much will have to be sidelined so as to ensure the well-being of our most vulnerable neighbors.

That will mean large sums to cover enhanced costs that will be the result of needing to ramp up health care staffing and expanding facilities –- already there is virtually no excess hospital (as in empty beds) or neighborhood clinic facilities. And those neighborhood clinics, especially, do not have their own resources to cover the costs of appropriate protective gear or even to cover the costs of special equipment that would be prudent to have on hand, such as breathing machines.

We have no great confidence that the federal agencies responsible for what is believed will be an accelerated engagement with the localities for distributing needed supplies and funds that, in light of the President’s action on this very afternoon when we are typing these words, presumably will swiftly arrive. So, the question that looms large at this moment is if  the DC government will be in any way able to put up the dollars needed  and then hope for federal reimbursements looms. If the Mayor’s lack of luck still to  have DC made whole for inaugural expenses is any clue, we are not holding our breath.

Unfortunately, receiving answers to our questions from either the Mayor’s press office which has assumed the role of Coronavirus info point rather than allowing the people at the health department who are truly the experts (sounds like another unsatisfactory public information undertaking we already know has not worked effectively) has not been up to the task of putting out hard data.

For example, we have not had updated numbers since that of 10, issued two days ago. More troubling, we have seen no information on the status of testing kits. The only information about testing is a release outlining procedure for seeking testing, including that one must deal directly with their doctor. But what if, as is very common, one has no actual doctor but relies on going to a hospital emergency room?

When we contacted the Mayor’s press office seeking information on whether neighborhood clinics were set up with testing kits and whether their staffs were trained to conduct the test and also the basic question of the number of testing kits even delivered by the CDC, our calls and emails were never returned. Why is it that other state and city health departments are reporting this and not DC?

Also, what little information has been released about individuals testing positive has, for the most part, not revealed the part of the District that might, as a result, become a hot spot. Shouldn’t residents be aware if they are to practice social distancing in an orderly and not panicked manner? The InTowner is trying to help our readers, as well as the overall effort being undertaken by our local agencies, by posting reports on the new Coronavirus Updates & Information feature at the top of our website’s home page.  But for our undertaking, like what are no doubt similar resources being offered by other community news outlets serving neighborhoods across the District , we need the people who can provide the information to be responsive when called upon.