Mississippi River Mayors Plead For Revenue Replacement Aid

The revenues of Mississippi River towns and cities, many dependent on tourism or seasonal events, have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic and its resurgence in recent weeks. The revenue shortfall comes on the heels of a year of record floods in 2019, the effects of which are still lingering on riverfront infrastructure.

Many river towns have not yet been reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for that flood damage. Those FEMA payments will eventually come through, as will reimbursements for direct costs of fighting COVID-19: personal protective equipment for first responders, facilities for testing, and so on.

But it is the loss of city revenues to COVID-19 that hurts the most, Mississippi River mayors say, and only Congress can address that with a bill to replace at least some of those lost revenues.  That plea was the focus of a July 28 media call-in by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, an advocacy group for large and small cities and towns up and down the river. The news conference was prompted by U.S. Senate’s unveiling of a third stimulus plan that did not include revenue replacement for cities.

Mayor Bob Gallagher of Bettendorf, Iowa, estimated that there have been more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 along the Mississippi River corridor to date. His own town, part of the Quad Cities, has enough PPE and response resources for now, but he is worried about the future. He said the city’s revenues have declined somewhere between 10 and 30 percent. “This fight can’t go on forever without national assistance,” he said. The city has been able to cut expenses through early retirements and moving employees around without, so far, having to lay off or furlough any employees.

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Mayor Tim Cabot of Lacrosse, Wis., said his town now has the largest virus outbreak in western Wisconsin, with a surge of cases to between 900 and 1,000 per day. He said he was especially concerned about an increase of cases among young people under the age of 30 following a partial reopening of restaurants, bars and other businesses in early summer. He said there has also been an increase in case severity. Facing an 8 percent revenue decrease, the city has had to furlough and lay off some employees, with more looming in the future if help is not forthcoming. “We need the capacity to test everyone,” he said.

The impacts and financial strains of the COVID-19 crisis are not shared equally among all the river towns. Property taxes have not been affected, and cities that derive most of their revenues from them are not as badly affected, although one mayor raised the specter of falling property values if the crisis continues much longer.

Other river towns, though, heavily depend on tourism or gaming revenues. Mayor George Flaggs Jr. of Vicksburg, Miss., said his town is experiencing a surge of cases from around 400 per day in April to about 1,600 per day now. He decreed a mask mandate in public places on July 13, after initially opposing one.

Twenty-three cities in his state meet the definition of “crisis” set by the CARES Act (500 cases per day per 100,000 population), said Flaggs. “Vicksburg is a tourism town,” he said, with an annual budget of about $30 million. “We normally get about 5 million visitors a year; this year we’re down to 100,000. We need a stimulus and we need it yesterday.” He said 16 percent of the city’s revenues normally come from a single casino. The city will also lose about $3.2 million from lost hotel revenues.

Mayor Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, La., said her city has been preparing for what is predicted to be an active hurricane season while fighting COVID-19. She said Louisiana parishes north of her city have shown some of the fastest infection rates anywhere. Test wait times are up to 10 days.

Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of MRCTI, said he knew of three Missouri river towns that get 75 percent of their revenues from fees collected from outdoor festivals, several of which have already been canceled.