El Paso extends COVID-19 emergency declaration through May 17

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Border city looking at $33 million financial hit from coronavirus closures, drop in sales taxes, toll collections and others

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The El Paso City Council voted unanimously on Monday to extend by 30 days its emergency declaration dealing with the health, safety and financial fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The ordinance, which was set to expire on April 17, would now stay in place through May 17 and it allows municipal authorities to continue implementing measures to deal with the crisis, including the stay-at-home-work-safe order.

“The extension of the disaster declaration through the emergency ordinance authorizes the directive to remain in place,” city government spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said. However, that particular order can be modified independently by Mayor Dee Margo if circumstances change, according to the City Attorney.

El Paso as of Monday had 300 confirmed COVID-19 cases and two deaths.

City officials are already shifting resources to make up for an expected $33.3 million hit from a steep drop in sales tax, bridge tolls, franchise fees and hotel occupancy taxes, among other sources of income.

Some changes included a hiring freeze, suspending the city’s signature Downtown trolley and reducing Sun Metro public transportation routes. Proposed changes include a 12-week 1% to 5% pay cut for employees beginning on May 24 and shifting millions from a budget stabilization fund to keep some services running.

The city is also looking into “slowing down” capital projects and not acquiring new debt, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said. “The city is going to maintain its priority on public safety and streets. As you can see, all other services are going to experience an impact,” he said.

El Paso bridge toll collections have sharply decreased due to international travel and stay-at-home restrictions on both sides of the border. (photo by Julian Resendiz / BorderReport)

The City has already collected most property taxes due for this year. However, bridge revenues were down 39.2% in March and expected to worsen as dozens of maquiladoras shut down temporarily in Juarez, Mexico and cargo truck traffic drops.

A better picture of loses and more accurate projections can be made next month, when more data is available, said Deputy City Manager and CFO Roberto Cortinas. As of now, with the cuts and the use of contingency funds, the city would be looking at a $26.1 million deficit, he said.

In the meantime, the city’s fire chief said El Paso continues to increase its testing capacity and investigate violations to the stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Chief Mario D’Agostino said the city has investigated 3,800 complaints of violations, issued 640 warnings and 12 citations, and conducted 364 follow-up compliance visits.

The city has a total 2,205 available hospital beds, including 75 intensive care beds, and 307 ventilators. He said the city is working on an agreement with the University of Texas at El Paso to set up a COVID-19 backup testing facility there.

D’Agostino said a firefighter previously diagnosed with the virus is now fully recovered and back at work.

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