Modesto may miss the cut for coronavirus aid in stimulus bill

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Modesto may end up on the short end of the stick when Washington hands out billions of dollars in coronavirus relief during the coming weeks.

Why? The city may be too small.

The problem is embedded in the $2 trillion stimulus bill. It’s too late to fix now — Congress approved the bill, then left Washington for several weeks — but repairing the measure must be a top priority when lawmakers return to work.

The stimulus package sets aside $150 billion to help states and local agencies recover from the virus.

First, the money is divided among states by population; California will get $15 billion — far more than any other, because more people live here, and no state gets less than $1.25 billion.

Some of that money then is supposed to bypass statehouses and go directly to local governments. Crucially, though, only cities and counties with more than 500,000 residents appear to qualify for direct aid.

Fortunately, Stanislaus County, with 558,972 people, meets that threshhold and will welcome whatever relief comes this way. The county has shouldered the lion’s share of our response to the coronavirus and its attendant disease, COVID-19.

The county seat, however — Modesto, the state’s 19th-largest city — has 215,200 people, according to 2019 estimates from the California Department of Finance. That’s not even half of Congress’ arbitrary lower limit.

Stockton, with 316,400 people, isn’t much closer. Long Beach might be particularly peeved, missing the cutoff by less than 25,000 residents.

Sacramento barely qualifies, with 508,200 residents, and Fresno (population 536,700) has a little more breathing room. Only four other California cities (Los Angeles, 4 million; San Diego, 1.4 million; San Jose, 1 million; San Francisco, 883,900) also meet the high standard.

So Modesto taxpayers might have to shoulder the city’s pending fiscal crisis with no federal help.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves said Modesto and other California cities are seeking clarification on language directing aid to unspecified “unit(s) of government.” Until that happens, they assume these smaller cities are out of luck.

“There are only 36 cities (in the United States) that have populations above 500,000, and we all know there are many other cities that have been disrupted by the COVID-19 virus,” Reeves said in an email.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has written House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asking Congress to set the population threshold at 50,000. That seems reasonable, and would make Turlock (population 74,500, No. 119 in California) eligible, too.

Giving aid directly to mid-sized cities and counties wouldn’t increase the price tag for the bill. Local aid would be subtracted from a state’s share of the fund. California can spare it.

No city or state should expect the federal government to bail them out completely. The coronavirus will eventually wreck the budgets of every city, county and state, and every taxpayer will have to pay a share of the expenses.

But the 500,000-resident threshold is “highly arbitrary,” as the Conference of Mayors put it. Modesto is likely harmed by the standard, and Congress should address the problem when lawmakers get back to work.

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