Could Seacoast municipalities postpone property tax collection for residents or create their own programs to get cash in the hands of small businesses? Local cities and towns say they’re exploring ideas like these to help mitigate the local impacts of COVID-19 shutdowns.
The ideas are far from finalized or guaranteed because of the rapidly changing coronavirus response landscape, according to local officials. However, Durham, Rochester and Exeter officials say they want to find their own ways to help locals, given the economic uncertainty and limited details available about an emergency loan program from the Small Business Administration. Gov. Chris Sununu announced Wednesday New Hampshire’s application for the program was approved.
“We’re trying to put together something that can help in some little way we can,” said Mike Scala, Rochester’s economic development director.
Rochester’s ideas were the most firm of the municipalities interviewed Wednesday.
Scala said his office is developing a program he says is designed to help local businesses “through some tougher times.”
Scala said the plan will require City Council approval but wasn’t at the point Wednesday where he could unveil specifics. He said all he could say is that “businesses need cash” and he hopes to announce a plan to help with that within the coming weeks.
“As far as getting businesses’ hopes up, I would prefer not to” disclose details, Scala said. “Certainly, I am working on something. It doesn’t hurt to get that out there.”
Scala said the program would be separate from the loan program the SBA is developing. According to the SBA, its program loans offer up to $2 million in assistance for small businesses and may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact.
U.S. Reps. Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster, D-N.H., signed a letter with 12 other members of the U.S. House to call on the SBA to make available zero-interest loans for small businesses and nonprofits. In a statement, Pappas wrote such loans would help businesses and nonprofits who have been “obliterated” by unprecedented hardship imposed by COVID-19 closures and social distancing.
Exeter Economic Development Director Darren Winham said his town is discussing similar programs to help the town still collect revenue while simultaneously helping local businesses and residents impacted by closures and layoffs.
“All I can say is there is certainly a nonstop discussion at senior staff levels about how can we help our businesses and how can we help the employees in our communities as fast as (possible),” Winham said.
According to Winham, the Strafford Regional Planning Commission is also working on various initiatives. James Burdin, the commission’s senior regional planner, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Durham is discussing property tax collection delays. Town Administrator Todd Selig stressed town staff have discussed it internally, but haven’t drafted any proposals or brought it to Durham’s Town Council. Much of the discussion, Selig said, primarily revolves around weighing whether it would even be possible under state law and what the intended and unintended consequences could be for the town.
“We are evaluating whether it is possible to delay the sending out of tax bills to give businesses as much time as possible to pay them,” Selig said. “We also had a discussion yesterday whether it would be possible to legally waive the interest penalties for people who did not pay their taxes on time. That’s something we’ll be looking into as well. At this point these are all early ongoing conversations with no answers.”
The municipal conversations come as landlords in several Seacoast communities say they’d be willing to provide some degree of rental assistance to their tenants.
Selig said it’ll be beneficial for municipalities to try to “think ahead and be proactive” to mitigate the financial pain expected throughout the region.
“I believe some degree of this will be the new normal until a vaccine is found for COVID-19 and the public health authorities have informed us they don’t believe a vaccine could be available for another 12 to 18 months,” he said. “This is a marathon. This is not a sprint. People need to start thinking about what this means long-term.”
Selig said the uncertainty and potential prospect of delaying tax collection are among the “many reasons why it’s important for any community to have a healthy fund balance.”
He acknowledges even strong capital reserves will only go so far before a municipality would start to see fiscal challenges. And that speaks nothing to the fact many communities are nearing the heart of their budget processes while trying to figure out how to meet public notice and meeting laws even though the region’s city halls and town halls are now closed to the public.
“The municipality still has to pay its bills, it has to pay money over to the county and it has to pay money over to the local school district by law,” Selig said. “While a brief (property tax bill) delay might be possible, each municipality would have to carefully evaluate their balance sheets. That might involve when we run low on funds as a result of tax billing, there’s the ability to take out a loan called a tax anticipation note. Municipalities can potentially take out TANs to bridge the gap, but there’s an additional cost there for the municipality that’s ultimately supported by the taxpayers. These are all things to work out in the future.”