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How Municipal Governments Are Adapting Operations Under a Pandemic

By Mady Johnston, BCTV

Mar 31, 2020

With the sudden onset and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 disease, municipal governments are adapting their operations to continue to serve the public. However, this comes with a new set of unforeseen challenges and concerns for municipalities.

Municipalities typically have plans in place in the event of a disaster emergency, such as a blizzard or hurricane. However, according to Jeanne Johnston, Manager of Cumru Township, “This is a different kind of disaster emergency… it is slow-moving and long-term, and there is no defined ending date yet.”

With an extended emergency, Johnston points out that one of the Township’s biggest challenges is avoiding complacency. “It’s easy to be on alert for a couple of days; it’s hard to be on alert for a couple of months and not let your guard down.” To combat this, Cumru Township has daily management staff meetings and regular department meetings to discuss updates from the County and State governments.

Other considerations in a long-term disaster emergency include prioritizing certain municipal functions, such as police and fire departments and sewer maintenance, tracking costs, and even changing services, such as curbside refuse and recycling schedules.

Along with shifts in operations, municipalities have to be concerned about the public’s health and safety and take necessary precautions to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of the virus. Precautions include constantly decontaminating facilities, restricting public access to the office building(s) and cancelling large group events.

Some municipalities have gone a step further to ensure public safety by closing off playground equipment and recreational facilities. “We recently had to assist the local water authority to close off playground equipment around Carsonia Lake,” Don Pottinger, Manager of Lower Alsace Township, said. “People can go down and enjoy the area, just not touch the equipment [in case of contamination].”

To ensure efficiency in municipal operations, Cumru Township has reallocated department staff to prioritized tasks and functions, while Lower Alsace Township has been working to develop its I.T. network in order to work from home as needed. But there are more long-term challenges that these townships are bracing for.

A major concern for municipalities is the future of capital projects, such as road work and infrastructure. For Cumru Township, the concern is mostly financial. Most of the funds for capital projects come from earned income tax, liquid fuels tax and real estate revenue. With rising unemployment, business closures, lower gas consumption and halts on construction, Cumru is expecting a decrease in projected income and is uncertain if their capital project plans can hold.

“It does give me concern for future revenue [for 2020 and 2021],” Johnston said. “One of the first things we are going to have to [determine]… is how we might need to reallocate money to fund these capital projects.”

Being a smaller municipality with fewer staff, Lower Alsace contracts out most of its capital projects. Here, the concern is for the vendors who can’t access materials needed for these projects. This could mean long delays in project completion or even rescheduling projects.

According to Pottinger, “Some projects we were able to get an early start on before shutdown” such as work on Skyline Drive and some curbside construction “but for some of these other projects… we’re not sure whether or not [vendors] will be able to do them for us.”

The public can do a few things to help municipalities mitigate sudden issues in operations and maintain normalcy. For Public Works Departments to maintain a functioning sewer system during this crisis, residents can avoid throwing “flushable” wipes down the toilet. Despite being labelled as flushable, they do not degrade in the sewer system and can create blockages in the pipes and cause back-ups spanning entire neighborhoods. There may be changes in trash and recycling pickup due to staff changes for haulers caused by the COVID-19 emergency.  Residents are encouraged to monitor municipal websites and Facebook pages for the latest information.

In the aftermath of this emergency, the public should also be patient and understanding. With halts and shutdowns throughout the state, there will likely be a backlog of items to be completed, such as construction and permit applications. Municipalities, like Cumru and Lower Alsace, may need to play catch-up.

For now, the public is encouraged to stay safe and keep informed on updates regarding COVID-19. Local governments will continue to operate as efficiently as possible under current circumstances. “We will debrief after this is all done, and maybe families have to do the same thing,” Pottinger said. “There’s always going to be changes, but we’ll see how they hold up.”

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