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Columbia rolls out a $6 million plan to combat coronavirus economic fallout

By Bristow Marchant 3/20/20 (Article CLICK HERE)

The Columbia area has already seen a sweeping response to the health threat posed by the coronavirus. Now the city has started work on responding to the economic fallout of that response

Columbia City Council held a special called meeting on Friday — via video conference — to discuss an economic sustainability plan.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city is considering $6 million in additional spending in response to the pandemic.

That includes $500,000 set aside for a loan program for small businesses struggling through the pandemic. The program would be open to locally-owned businesses within the city limits that have 100 employees or less. Another $500,000 would be set aside for local non-profits that can help respond to the crisis.

The city would also set aside $1 million for a loan-loss revenue fund. Local banks will be asked to match that funding to support local businesses, with the city’s million acting as a “backstop” for any losses on those loans.

Another $3 million will go to the city’s public responders. That includes a $2 million boost to the Columbia Police Department for recruiting and retention. Another $1 million would support Columbia Fire, 911 and emergency management.

Benjamin called the plan a combined response to the crisis. It includes $250,000 for Senior Resources to feed around 1,000 needy seniors in the Columbia area, using food from local restaurants and caterers.

“In a hurricane, every community would load up a truck to help out,” Benjamin said. “But we’re in a 50-state natural disaster. Everybody is affected…. We need to create an inward facing economy as much as we can.”

Council gave its preliminary approval to the plan on Friday, with another meeting to flesh out the details expected early next week.

The economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak has been at least as profound as the health implications. Bars and restaurants across the state have been forced to close or switch to a take-out or delivery-only method of operation. In Columbia, a state of emergency requires businesses to reduce capacity by 50%, and a citywide curfew is stopping people from going out late at night.

The affects of all these changes was immediate. The popular Home Team BBQ restaurant announced it was indefinitely closing all five of its locations, including one that opened in Columbia’s Five Points last year, and laying off all 400 of its employees. In Charleston, 1,600 workers were laid off across the hospitality industry this week.

Others hope to see a more direct response to people’s economic needs during a virtual economic shutdown.

Orgul Ozturk, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, reached out to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin with a raft of proposed responses to the crisis brainstormed by the university’s economics professors.

“I talked to Mayor Benjamin and it sounded like some were already in works, like not enforcing utility bills in the water department,” Ozturk said.

The city has stopped turning off residents’ water and sewer service, citing the need to regularly wash hands to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

The proposals from Ozturk and her colleagues include some ambitious ideas. Economists want the government to mail a check to everyone who has filed a tax return in the last two years for the duration of the crisis — an idea that the federal government is considering. President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed sending many Americans $2,000 each. Congress has also passed legislation specifically targeting businesses with less than 500 employees.

The economists’ proposals also call for tax breaks for landlords who defer rent payments for low-income residents; enhanced, easily available benefits for the unemployed or under-employed; and a jobs plan for those in need of work, preferably projects that require temporary labor with little person-to-person interaction.

Ozturk acknowledges federal or state action would be required for many of the proposals to take effect.

“It’s not going to come tomorrow, but if people are already losing jobs, they don’t have time to wait,” she said.

The city’s budget could also take a hit, as business license revenue and hospitality tax could drop off because of the crisis. Benjamin said the city would waive hospitality tax and community development fee collection through June 2020, to alleviate the impact on local businesses. Business license payments will be postponed until May 15.

Columbia also created an online survey asking small business owners what else it can do to respond to the crisis. The city’s website also hosts a list of businesses that are continuing to operate.

The city will also increase the number of laptops needed for city employees to work from home.

The money will be transferred from the water and sewer fund to the city’s general fund.

By Bristow Marchant 3/20/20 (Article CLICK HERE)


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