‘We probably have more than a recession,’ county administrator warns

Alameda County Health Care Services Agency Director Colleen Chawla

-Coronavirus news briefs from Alameda County:
>>Get ready for some ‘grim’ budget news
>>Alameda County needs 3,000 more beds
>>Hayward testing site could be model for others.

Regardless of the covid-19 crisis, cities across the East Bay would now be entering budget season. Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi is expected to provide the Board of Supervisors with an update on the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget this week. Muranishi suggested they expect the worst.

Alameda County beat“A long period of economic prosperity and a recession had been predicted,” Muranishi said last week. “We probably have more than a recession and it’s something we need to take care of in the long-term.”

However, in the short-term, the county has been fronting a large amount of cash, for example, to keep its community-based organizations up and running, along with emergency expenditures to help the unsheltered. Last week, the county’s treasurer-tax collector advanced $85 million to the county’s CBOs, Muranishi said.

But much of the county’s covid-19 expenditures will be reimbursed by FEMA, perhaps, by up to 75 percent. But repayment could take a long time, Muranishi said, along with an inordinate amount of accounting required by federal officials.

A ballpark number for the county’s expected budget shortfall is unknown. But even in recent times of prosperity, it still carried a large initial deficit, later balanced by county supervisors through cuts and other accounting maneuvers.

The effects of covid-19 on the local economy, however, is echoing for some the devastating Great Recession era of a decade ago that witnessed massive cuts to city staffs, reductions in city services, and vitriolic arguments over public employee pensions. At the height of the Great Recession, Alameda County stared down a record $177.6 million budget shortfall during Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

Back then, the county’s budget outlook did not improve much in the years after. Deficits of $152.4 million and $137.9 followed before beginning to plateau to manageable numbers in Fiscal Year 2013-14.

Individual cities in Alameda County are also bracing for how it will pay the bill racked up by covid-19. Oakland’s two-year budget outlook was already disconcerting with a high percentage of pension liabilities.

Last month, just after the shelter in place order was given, Hayward officials suggested the city’s losses from the pandemic could be an estimated $1 million a month. With sales tax receipts, the life blood of municipal treasuries, completely dry over the past month, expect similar budget woes in every East Bay city.

“We’re going to have to deal with some grim numbers,” Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday predicted last week. “It isn’t going to be over by July 1. We may still be sheltering in place. I hope that is not the case.”

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The confirmed number of covid-19 cases in Alameda County reached 886, as of Monday. There are now 23 deaths related to the virus in the county. But the expected crush of patients on local hospitals has not entirely occurred yet. Alameda County health officials expect a spike soon in the number of cases and those who will require hospitalization as result of covid-19.

Alameda County Health Care Services Agency Director Coleen Chawla said the county will need more than 3,000 additional hospital beds during the expected surge. “Without other mitigation factors we’ll need to see that full number to adequately support our residents,” she told the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

Whether or not the surge in new covid-19 cases materializes and requires additional spaces for medical care, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers is looking at two sites in Alameda County to potential field hospitals, county officials said last week.

One option is the Oakland Arena. The other is the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton where space for up to 3,000 beds could be constructed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prefers the fairground site, county officials said.

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The covid-19 pandemic has forced a number of child care providers to close, Alameda County Social Services Agency Director Lori Cox said. About 30 county child care providers remain, as of last week, but more are expected to reopen, she said.

One proposal is to reopen them in county-owned building that already have child care facilities. Protocols for disinfecting toys and promoting social distancing among children will be given, Cox said.

In response to the latter, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan said, “That’s going to be really hard.”