Requests for federal emergency funding are piling up, with the latest requests coming from cash-strapped cities seeking help to shore up budgets strained by sinking revenue, pension-plan losses and difficulty getting financing amid the credit crisis.
On Friday, the mayors of Philadelphia, Phoenix and Atlanta asked the Treasury Department to set aside $50 billion of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to spur infrastructure investment to create jobs and lift local economies. The mayors also asked for loans to cover short-term borrowing needs and to meet payroll.
In a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the mayors warned that their dire fiscal situations would result in layoffs and tax increases that would place another drag on the economy as the country tries to climb out of a recession. The chances of getting Tarp funding appear remote, however.
On Wednesday, Mr. Paulson reiterated that the focus of the program is "to stabilize financial institutions and strengthen the financial system," rather than to provide assistance to state and local governments.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who is leading the campaign for federal help, said the mayors are targeting Tarp because it has already been approved by Congress. "If our federal partners have a better source of funding, that's fine with me," he said.
One option would be a stimulus package that would include infrastructure spending that could benefit cities. Tom Cochran, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which hasn't sought Tarp help, said many mayors are hoping that Congress will take some action soon on a stimulus package that would include aid to cities.
In the past week, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors both called for government funding for local infrastructure projects that can be ramped up quickly to create jobs and economic activity. On Thursday, the mayor's group said it had identified 4,591 infrastructure projects, from repairing sewer lines to renovating libraries, that would cost $24.4 billion and create more than 250,000 jobs.
Philadelphia, which has a $4 billion budget for 2009, faces a $108 million shortfall, nearly half from slower business activity and a drop in sales taxes, and the rest from lower real-estate-transfer and wage taxes. "Our revenues have fallen off the table," said Stephen Agostini, the city's budget director. Philadelphia's roughly $4 billion pension plan, which covers 33,000 retirees, had losses of more than $600 million through September.
In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin told city employees that a projected shortfall of as much as $60 million this year would result in a hiring freeze and a 10% reduction in wages and work hours of municipal employees beginning in December and lasting through June. That is in addition to layoffs of 350 employees earlier this year. "This is an emergency," said Ms. Franklin.
Like many other big-city mayors, Ms. Franklin said federal funding could help kick-start much-needed infrastructure projects, including a $30 million program to repair bridges and roads throughout the city. She said it could be launched within 90 days of funding approval, putting about 5,500 people to work.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon says the city is facing about a $250 million shortfall in its annual general-fund budget of $1.5 billion. About 60% of the city's budget comes from sales-tax revenue. "Business is down, fewer people are buying, people are losing their jobs," he says.
Mayor Gordon says Phoenix has about $250 million of federally approved capital projects, such as runway work at the airport and local mass-transit projects, "which we could start today" if the money were available.
Even cities whose finances haven't buckled because of the crisis say they are beginning to brace for lean times.
Charlotte, N.C., has implemented a hiring freeze, a travel ban and other cost-cutting measures. The city recently has been spending more from its own coffers, instead of taking on even short-term debt. It has spent $32 million of its own funds for construction costs related to an arts facility and a Nascar Hall of Fame, instead of tapping the commercial-paper market.
"We've been using more of our liquidity than we normally would," said Scott Greer, Charlotte's treasurer.