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Steubenville leaders brace for bad budget news

STEUBENVILLE — As the community adjusts to life in lockdown, city leaders admit the sight of empty parking lots and businesses with “closed” signs on their doors is making them nervous: The longer the new norm is in place, the bigger the hit on Steubenville’s income tax receipts.

“So many businesses are shut down, so many people aren’t working,” Finance Director Dave Lewis said. “We’re anticipating a big impact — we just don’t know how long people will be off.”

During the past week Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered restaurants, bars, schools and salons to close and asked Ohioans to shelter in place in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19, which by Tuesday had sickened more than 53,000 Americans and killed 703. In Ohio, eight people have died and 564 cases have been confirmed, none in Jefferson County.

“Our revenue stream, it’s been cut back because of the lack of money coming in from business,” City Manager Jim Mavromatis said. “(How much) we won’t know for two or three months.”

In December, Council passed a $44.7 million spending plan for 2020. At the time Lewis had told council the city was “stable” and was expected to remain that way “for the next five years.” Some wiggle room was built into the budget, Mavromatis said, “But in no way could we predict something like this, with the number of local businesses closed.

“The question is, whether they’re all going to reopen, are they going to be able to reopen based on the time they’ve been closed?” he said. “We don’t know what their business plans are — some can carry three- to six-months, others are month-to-month. It’s all a factor.”

Lewis is concerned.

“How it’s going to impact the city is still unknown,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces with this, so we’re still trying to evaluate how it will impact the city. It’s all still very preliminary, I think we’ll know more as the next few months unfold.”

But he admits “a lot of the city’s money for governmental services does come from (income taxes.)” And he points out that, up to now, the city’s revenues had been increasing.

“We tried to prepare for unknown things that come up, but this is huge,” Lewis added. “We’ve never had a pandemic (before). The city had a very well-moving economy until recently, when all our restaurants and a lot of our businesses shut down. I don’t know how you could predict something like this.

“But we’ll adapt, we’ll have to make some changes to our budget and just go from there.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Willie Paul, chair of council’s finance committee, said the city’s in much better financial shape now than it was after the world financial meltdown in 2008.

“Back then, we only had $2,000 in our coffers,” Paul said. “But we’re pretty good right now, we have money but we’re probably going to take a hit. People aren’t working, they’ve got water bills … some people wont be able to afford them. But my biggest wish is no one in this county gets the coronavirus, I’m more concerned for the safety of people. We’ll get through this, we always do. I’m just praying everybody stays safe, that everybody is heeding the governor’s direction on staying indoors and not doing anything unnecessary.”

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