By Shannon Watson. Originally published by the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.
Many elected leaders and staff in our local governments are looking for ways to assist businesses in our communities — and their hundreds of thousands of employees — recover from the impact of COVID-19. This is a worthy goal, and we thank them ahead of time for their assistance. Here are a few specific ways local government leaders and staff can help:
Many local governments’ initial responses were great. They cut red tape, waived waiting periods, reduced fees. Before you go “back to normal,” let’s take a look at those policies.
Is that red tape, a long waiting period, or a fee actually necessary? Just like work-from-home orders have forced many businesses and non-profits to adopt new policies and different ways of doing things, maybe this is an opportunity for local governments to re-evaluate the necessity of burdensome processes for businesses. Watching several city council meetings in March and April, I heard many local officials voice support for providing “relief” from the burden of specific fees and taxes. I know many businesses appreciated that framing and would encourage you to recognize that if a fee or tax was a burden then, it’s still a burden now.
When considering new policies or programs, listen to businesses at the beginning. Don’t skip over the engagement process to fast-track a policy proposal.
Do what is asked of you, and then stop doing. Sometimes “helping” is more harmful than intended.
As elected bodies debate new rules, businesses must pay attention to and weigh in on proposed changes, diverting attention from running their businesses and taking care of their employees. If there is a policy being considered that is going to make a business in your jurisdiction less competitive with one in a neighboring community, now is not the time.
Shop local. Get takeout. Feature businesses on your social media.
If you can use your celebrity to spotlight constituents’ businesses, that can help in the recovery AND in building relationships that will outlast this pandemic.
Look hard at your budgets for the coming year, 2021. With extreme revenue pressure on local governments — because of extreme revenue pressure on local business and families — now is the time to practice extreme fiscal restraint.
Stay in your lane and focus on the services that only local government can provide, such as public safety, public spaces, snowplowing and street maintenance.
Now is also the time to stop duplicating. If you have a department that also exists at a higher level of government but doesn’t provide a materially different service, you’re essentially double-billing the taxpayer. No matter how well-intentioned that department is, the next few years are going to be about the need-to-have, not the nice-to-have.
Look for services you offer that are also being provided by local nonprofits. While the nonprofits have to fund-raise, recruit customers, and operate at as narrow a margin as possible, units of government with their taxing authority have a built-in “fundraising base” and thus an unfair advantage. Supporting these non-profit organizations sometimes means getting out of the way and letting them do the work and get the glory. In this way, you can maximize the taxpayer investment and help a local organization be successful.
Now is the time to be an aggressively responsible steward of taxpayer dollars.
Most businesses are already in a precarious financial position due to COVID-19. Even paying 2020 assessed property taxes will be a challenge, so if you are considering any increase to your levy, please think again. Increasing taxes or fees to make up for other revenue shortfalls is a short-sighted approach with unintended consequences and will hurt our communities in the long run. Think about how you can best preserve your business community, the financial engine of our economy, because those businesses provide thousands of jobs, millions of tax dollars, and immeasurable support for other community initiatives. If a business can’t afford to stay in operation or stay in your area, their absence will only make the recovery take longer for all of us.
Many, many people who participate in local government are amazing servant leaders, and I want to commend and encourage that approach. Working together, we’ll make it out of this pandemic if we focus on government operations that are efficient and cost-effective, and help our business community recover as soon as possible.
Shannon Watson is Director of Public Affairs for the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.