BERLIN — Mayor Paul Grenier joined other municipal officials in urging U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan to work for a COVID-19 relief bill that provides direct funding to communities and counties.
“It is time for folks at the federal government level to pass some kind of legislation to help
municipalities,” he told Hassan at a roundtable discussion on an additional relief package.
Hassan told the group that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to engage in bipartisan negotiations on a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill but said colleagues on both sides are working to break the logjam as soon as possible. She said her discussions with local officials allows her to bring current information to those discussions.
“Berlin’s resources are stretched thin and we receive, as you know, significant state aid to education and if we lose that money, the city of Berlin will be forced to lay off fire people, police officers, all of the very personnel that are desperately needed right now,” Grenier said.
Grenier said he supports federal money going directly to local municiplities and counties to allow local officials to make decisions on spending.
Wearing his county commissioner hat, Grenier said he worries that if the state faces a huge deficit, it will push more responsibility onto counties to fund long-term care facilities. He said an COVID-19 outbreak at the Coos County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown has struck about a third of the residents as well as a large number of employees and the nursing home administrator has been forced to do floor shifts.
“We need flexible funding,” agreed Cheshire County Administrator Chris Coates. He said the Cheshire County nursing home has had a $36 million renovation expansion going on during the pandemic. He said the project is about 10 weeks behind but the county was able to use federal GOFERR monies to offset some of the money it lost because it could not have workers with their residents. Coates said he thinks the county is financially OK for 2020 but that could change in December when county tax payments are due. He said the unknown is 2021. He thanked Hassan for meeting help with their concerns over personal protective equipment and other issues early on.
Lebanon City Manager Shaun Mulholland said he believes his city’s 2020 budget estimates are going to be short by close to half a million dollars because of a drop in revenue from airport, landfill, ambulance, and other small fees. He said the city won’t know until tax payments are due next month. He said his 2021 proposed budget includes three layoffs and that could increase. He said Lebanon is also seeing an increase in mental health calls.
“There’s an increase in mental health needs. Obviously, this is a time that, for even the average person, a certain degree of depression is involved with the circumstances we’ve been in …” said Mulholland.
Strafford Sheriff-elect Mark Brave said at the county level, in the towns where they provide dispatching, they are seeing an increase in calls for mental health crisis. As the holidays come, he said he expects an uptick in those calls.
“We’ve laid off 10 law enforcement staff and we’re still struggling with revenues coming in to support what we have left,” said Strafford County Sheriff David Dubois. He said PPE costs are big for the department.
Mulholland told Hassan as the COVID-19 rates increase, the hospitality businesses are worried the state will go into lock down again. He said restaurants would be hit hard. The city manager said retail businesses are concerned about people doing their shopping online. If businesses are closed for the Christmas season, he said it potentially be a death knoll for local businesses.
Grenier said in the Berlin-Gorham area, businesses have already been hurt by the cancellation of the region’s big summer and fall outdoor events that pull tourists to the region. He said one business has already closed
permanently and he said he knows of three that are barely hanging on.
Coates noted that Keene State College enrollment is down significantly which impacts the business community. He said the state needs ensure the college system in the state survives because it is a critical piece of the economy. Coates said the state also needs to be pushing a lot more money to the public school system.
Hassan said if people wear masks and practice social distancing, it is possible businesses can stay open and kids can stay in school.
Grenier noted that Berlin was putting in a mask mandate because there are two nursing homes, two prisons, two elderly housing complexes, and a high percentage of elderly people that are vulnerable to the virus.
He complained that Gov. Chris Sununu has not taken a leadership role and ordered an emergency state-wide mask ordinance to stem the surge in positive cases. Grenier noted the governor held daily and weekly press conferences when he had $1.2 billion in federal money to dispense.
“Now that the money’s gone, and we have an emergency on our hands, the governor is invisible. You know, he needs to get up in front of the room and swallow the same pills that the local people are swallowing. That’s to issue a mask mandate,” Grenier said.