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Madison mayor urges state, federal aid to assist communities during pandemic

Madison mayor urges state, federal aid to assist communities during pandemic

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has asked the state Public Service Commission to extend a moratorium on utility shut-offs through April 2021.

As state and federal deadlines for assistance during the coronavirus pandemic approach, Madison residents could be facing additional financial hardships. 

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and leaders from Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Kids Forward Wisconsin and United Way of Dane County urged state and federal leaders at a press conference Wednesday to provide relief to struggling families. 

“The stress on residents and families have been immense,” Rhodes-Conway said. “This summer, the burden on our residents will continue to mount.”   

A state moratorium on evictions expired at the end of May, and a federal moratorium on evictions for federally subsidized housing units will end next week. On July 25, a $600 per week stimulus benefit for workers who are unemployed or have lost hours due to the pandemic ends along with Wisconsin’s moratorium on utility disconnections for nonpayment.  

This means that households could be without electricity, air conditioning and internet service. Further, the lack of access to cool spaces is exacerbated by the pandemic causing the closure of traditional emergency cooling centers in the city. 

Rhodes-Conway has asked the state Public Service Commission to extend the moratorium through April 2021. 

“We are in the middle — not at the end — of a public health and economic crisis," Rhodes-Conway said in a July 14 letter to the PSC. “It is not the time to end the programs and policies established to help people weather this storm.”

In an emailed statement Wednesday, PSC chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq said the PSC will continue to monitor customers' ability to access services, especially as COVID-19 cases are continuing to increase. 

"The communities being hit the hardest by COVID-19 are often the same ones that have been disproportionately impacted economically," Cameron Valcq said. "Disconnected utility service impedes a person's ability to stay home, social distance, and wash hands."

PSC Communications and Legislative Director Matthew Sweeney added that utilities must suspend disconnections during a heat warning or heat emergency, "so there are safeguards in place if the weather becomes dangerous."

Also, utilities are required to postpone disconnections for 21 days for someone who is sick with COVID-19. That posponement can be extended up to an additional 21 days if they are still under quarantine.

[Madison facing $30 million shortfall driven by COVID-19]

Increasing challenges 

Martha Cranley, the executive vice president of community impact at United Way, said the “need in Dane County is real.” 

Calls to United Way’s assistance line have tripled and shifted as the pandemic has continued, with people asking for help with food to funding for rent and utilities. Cranley expects the situation to worsen. 

“When the moratorium on evictions and utilities shut offs end shortly, more Dane County families will face homelessness, far outpacing our local ability to address this crisis,” Cranley said. 

Citing a $30 million budget gap in 2020 and an expected $20 million one the following year, Rhodes-Conway said the city needs direct support from the state and federal government in order to support residents. 

“This is of a scale that we’re not just talking about cutting back services to our most needy,’ Rhodes-Conway said. “We’re talking about cutting into basic services that local government provides.” 

[Wisconsin, Dane County move to establish relief for renters]

Rhodes-Conway advocated for Congress to pass the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed in May.  The expansive act includes, among other Democratic priorities, $100 billion for rental assistance and $75 billion for mortgage relief.

Congress has limited time to act with its month-long August recess approaching. 

Rhodes-Conway also said the federal government needs to expand unemployment benefits, expand aid for childcare, support small businesses and their employees, and provide aid to local governments. 

“We need the federal government to step in and provide direct financial support to local governments,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Without it, our community will continue to suffer and to suffer even more as we have to cut back basic local services.”

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