Budish: Economic Pain Of Coronavirus Is Already Hitting Cuyahoga County

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Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish says about the drop in sales and other tax revenues' effects on the budget: "You can't just pretend an $80 million budget cut isn't happening." [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
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Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish is calling the county’s current economic situation an unprecedented financial crisis caused by the response to the coronavirus epidemic. All non-union county employees will have to take a 10-day unpaid furlough and Budish is directing all county departments to prepare for a 15 percent budget cut. ideastream's "All Things Considered" host Tony Ganzer spoke with Budish about making these tough decisions and what comes next for Cuyahoga County.

Walk us through the decision you had to make about furloughs, potential layoffs, and the timeline for all of this.

We fund our county government largely on sales tax and all you have to do is look outside and you’ll see businesses after business with the lights out and the doors closed. They’re not selling anything. Our sales taxes are going to take a huge, huge drop. We also get hotel tax, admissions tax, you know, across the board, our taxes are going to take a huge hit.

We've projected that we could lose anywhere from $60 or $70 million to much higher, depending on how long this goes on and how much impact it will have.

We're talking about potentially thousands of employees needing to take some sort of furlough, right?

If we don't take any action, we're talking about having to slash and burn all kinds of programs. You can't just pretend an $80 million budget cut isn't happening, so we have to balance the budget and the earlier we start hopefully the less pain there will be. But it's very painful. It's horrible.

Right now, we've decided to require all county employees, this would apply to non-bargaining employees initially but we're also talking to the bargaining unit, we're requiring all employees to take a 10-day furlough, unpaid. And we've asked our departments to bring in 15 percent budget cuts on top of that. We've instituted a hiring freeze on top of that. We're looking at cancelling or deferring non-critical projects that have been planned. We have to do everything we can to prepare for what's likely to be a financial tsunami.

I think a natural question a lot of people will have is, if we're talking about across-the-board budget cuts and we're talking about this mandatory 10-day furlough, what's going to happen to the health department? What's going to happen to the jail? Are these critical agencies going to still be operating at full efficiency?

We do not want to cut any of our absolutely essential programs. But the jail is a good example: It is essential. But do we need 700 corrections officers right now? All working all day, every day? 

So a 10-day furlough we think can be managed right now in the corrections department. It's probably the hardest place to do it because we have to watch the prisoners and make sure they're safe.

We’re talking about 10-days, but I assume you're hoping that this will give you breathing room to where you can bring back those employees as soon as possible.

A 10-day furlough is 10 days, they'll still be employees during that time period, they'll just be on unpaid status for that 10-day period. But we may have to look at putting some people on unpaid leave and, if we do that, we would hope to bring them back full-pay, full-time as soon as we can.

As long as people are furloughed, they still get benefits but they can't apply for unemployment, is that right?

They will not be able to get unemployment during that 10-day period.

Another thing you're talking about is the sales tax falling off a cliff. We also have the jobless numbers from today. Nationally, another 6 million people unemployed. I know you've been talking a lot in your press conferences in the morning about small business support and trying to keep the county together during these tough times. Can you talk just about how things are going and whether you have any sense of hope or optimism here because things are looking pretty grim?

I happen to have a lot of hope and optimism. I think the steps the governor's taken to limit the spread of this disease have been positive. I believe that the steps we have taken at the county government have been very positive.

I can go through a list of things that we have done here including reducing the jail population and helping to get homeless people into hotel rooms. The small business program that you referenced is a huge benefit, I believe. We have to keep our small businesses alive.

We're working with the hospitals. We're buying personal protective equipment so that people are safe, first responders are safe, people who deal with health and human services issues. We are doing an enormous amount to make sure people are protected in this community. And we will continue to do that for as long as necessary.

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