It’s not the type of message you expect to see as you come into Rome on the Armuchee Connector.
“Please Stay Home” reads the giant portable traffic sign on the connector in front of the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College.
If you’re headed out of town on Riverside Parkway, there is another huge sign reminding motorists they are supposed to be out for “Essential Travel Only.”
The signs raise real questions about what is essential during a global pandemic. What does the state consider to be nonessential?
Among the prohibited operations, according to the governor’s order, are body art studios, estheticians, hair designers, massage therapists, bars, gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters and live performance venues.
Essential jobs include chemical, commercial facilities, communications, critical manufacturing, defense industrial base, emergency services, energy, financial services, food and agriculture, government facilities, healthcare and public health, information technology, materials and waste, transportation systems as well as water and wastewater systems. That “commercial facilities” category would seem to be pretty vague and up for interpretation.
The resulting economic situation that has resulted from the economic slowdown is likely to have impacts far beyond the day that Gov. Brian Kemp — or the Rome and Floyd County governments — determine that life can return to normal.
Rome City Manager Sammy Rich said he hopes that it will be sooner rather than later when the green light is given to restart the economy.
“I think we’ve got a lot of pent up demand for folks to get back into the swing of things,” Rich said.
Government, like business, requires revenue to function. But neither the Rome nor Floyd County governments would be considered small under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s definition. Both have well over 500 employees.
Neither are eligible for support from the Paycheck Protection Program provision in the federal CARES Act. Yet both are losing significant amounts of revenue and are likely to be affected for months to come.
Local option sales taxes are a major line item in both budgets. That’s the permanent 1-cent tax voters approved decades ago to lower the dependence on property taxes.
Rich said LOST revenues account for approximately 20% of the city budget. It’s about 15% for the county, Floyd County Finance Director Susie Gass said.
Rome and Floyd County will get their checks from the state Department of Revenue for March collection sometime during the last week of April. That’s when local leaders will get their first real look at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Temporary special purpose local option sales taxes are funding other projects that voters of Rome and Floyd County have determined they want going forward. What’s going to happen to those SPLOST projects?
Some may have to be delayed. How do government officials decide which projects to hold off on?
An examination of countywide SPLOST collections offers some benchmark numbers that can be used for comparison to analyze the impact of COVID-19 on spending locally. The February collection in Rome and Floyd County netted $1.23 million, an increase of 4.37% from February of last year. That came on top of a 3.71% increase in collections during January, when the community took in $1.21 million.
The March benchmark figure for last year was $1.24 million. The community should get the March 2020 check in a week to 10 days, but it may still be too early to tell.
“I don’t know that we had a full impact of the virus for March,” Gass said. “You had so many people buying things in the beginning — grocery items and things like that.”
She believes the May distribution, for April collections, will be even more fully reflective of the state of the local economy during the healthcare emergency. The April figure last year was $1.32 million.
The loss of hotel/motel taxes is going to be a bigger hit for the city than the county.
Rome Finance Director Toni Rhinehart said last year the city received $1,507,050 in hotel/motel taxes. That was an increase of 5.6% from 2018. Most of the large hotels are located within the city limits.
Ann Hortman at the Office of Tourism said a random check of hoteliers in Rome on Wednesday indicated that most of the properties are running at about a 30% occupancy rate. Hotel/motel tax revenue is earmarked to support the Office of Tourism and marketing of the Forum River Center.
“You can imagine the impact that is going to have on our budget,” said Tourism Director Lisa Smith. “That’s our sole funding.”
The tourism office, which touches all kinds of activity and business, is continuing to function though the COVID-19 crisis. But conventions and large sporting events — their bread and butter — have been put on pause.
Many gatherings have been scrapped altogether. Smith said Rome has lost seven Jehovah’s Witness conventions to the crisis. The statewide parking conference that was to be held in Rome has been canceled. Several large tennis tournaments that have put a lot of heads in beds are also gone.
Hortman also pointed out that all graduation events have been canceled for this year. And two local film projects have been lost to the virus.
Smith said several events have rescheduled for the fall — but the loss of revenue in peak travel months like April and May is going to be very difficult to make up.
Last year, the tax generated $162,088 in March and $172,201 in April. The May figure was $100,033, which Rhinehart suggested might be the result of an accounting or collections issue.
“That’s normally one of our biggest months,” she said, adding that she is a little afraid to see how far those numbers might fall this year.
Will the governor and local leadership flip a switch at some point and those kinds of activities return to normal? Will people want to go into situations where they are packed in among dozens, if not hundreds, of other people in close quarters?
Only time will tell.