Clear plastic shields at every customer service station were on way the city adapted to the pandemic crisis.
In 2019, the Keizer City Council reviewed its emergency preparation plans; “pandemic” wasn’t a word that came up during the discussions.
Given that councilors and city staff were caught as off guard as the general population, the council convened a work session Monday, July 13, to talk about the lessons learned so far.
“Rather than wait for the fall, I wanted to take advantage and look at where we are midstream. I want to look at where we’ve capitalized on strengths and had weaknesses exposed,” said Mayor Cathy Clark.
Each department director offered input on how the pandemic affected their work and the work of city staff.
City Manager Chris Eppley said he was hesitant to close the Keizer Civic Center too early, and might have closed it a day or two sooner, but he didn’t want to add to the growing sense of panic at the time.
“Any time a local government closes its doors, it’s a big deal and we wanted to be cautious about creating a sense of panic,” Eppley said.
Another discovery the city made along the way is that it “can’t rely on the resources of the private sector to be where they need to be, especially in terms of [internet] connectivity.”
When city leaders made a switch to meeting via teleconferencing, there were many stumbles along the way in terms the of quality of connections and the ability of all councilor to participate via video.
City Finance Director Tim Wood said those issues were somewhat smoothed out when outside contractors were brought in to assist, but those services came with an additional, unplanned cost.
Overall, Eppley said he was impressed with how quickly and creatively city staff were able to pivot after all operations had to be reorganized under guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
One of the first things that had to happen for the city council to meet via teleconferencing was changing council rules to allow it. That fell under the purview of City Attorney Shannon Johnson who is continuing to look at how older rules might impact future emergencies.
In addition to that, Johnson is trying to keep an eye on how residents are using city facilities to make certain proper procedures are followed as the state crawls toward reopening.
Councilor Marlene Parsons said she was concerned when she was invited to visit a tournament at Keizer Little League Park during the weekend.
“There were some instances where adults were refusing to wear masks. I’m not sure how you can maintain it in a facility of that size, but I would never have attended it,” Parsons said.
Johnson replied that they are monitoring the situation given the city maintains some liability for what happens at the park.
The city has already received a reimbursement of $18,000 from emergency federal money for expenses related to the pandemic including plastic shields for customer service stations, hand sanitizer stations, masks and other personal safety precautions.
Given the build up city employees remove from the plastic shields, “the city was probably 10 years behind needing those,” Wood said.
He expects to apply for another round of pandemic-related reimbursements in the near future.
The pandemic changed other aspects of the city’s financial transactions as well. As a result of a mass movement to online bill payment, the city will have to adjust its allocations for service fees related to those transactions.
However, one effect of the change was to dramatically reduce the amount of cash the city deals with.
“We received about $35,000 in cash per month as recently as December 2019 and it dropped to $3,000 during the pandemic. We don’t expect that to come back,” Wood said.
Shane Witham, interim community development director, took over in the middle of the pandemic, but said the switch to online permitting services actually made some interactions easier.
“It was a challenge for some people doing home projects, but our contractors are pretty used to doing things online so that wasn’t a huge shift for them,” Witham said. “The community was very understanding of doing business online and through email. I felt that was good for our reputation at the city. Even though it was different, we were serving people.”
Director of Human Resources Machell DePina said the pandemic has been a lesson in the importance of thoughtful communication.
“Every single person’s position on the subject is a little bit different. We have those who believe it is no big deal and those scared to come to work and there is an opportunity for tensions to flare up,” she said.
DePina said she checked in with most employees two or three times a week to make certain they had what was needed for them to feel safe and acted on concerns within hours whenever possible. She was also leading contact tracing efforts when potential COVID-19 exposures happened.
“That required multiple people in a room to think through all the possibilities,” she said.
DePina also learned not to be overconfident when placing an order for a product online and expecting it to show up, even when a shipping notice arrives in email. She is still fighting a Texas company for a refund over its failure to deliver contactless soap/sanitizer dispensers.
Bill Lawyer, director of Keizer Public Works, said his frontline staff were some of the hardest hit in terms of work disruption. To keep a pandemic from wiping out the entire public works department, the team split into two cohorts working four 12-hour days with four days off in between.
“Communication between staff was much more difficult. It relied on leaving notes rather than telling stories,” he said.
While they managed to avoid infection so far, Lawyer said it was a relief to the entire staff to revert to a semblance of normal shifts.
“To do it on a longer term basis we would have to have more people,” Lawyer said. “At most, we might be able to make it work six months.”
The only major disruption to work plans was canceling an annual flushing of the water systems. Lawyer said it might lead to more complaints about dirty water, but he’s in wait-and-see mode for the time being.
Keizer Police Chief John Teague said the largest pandemic-related hurdle in the department was getting some of the members of the department to take it seriously.
“These are officers who have worked with HIV and tuberculosis dangers for years,” said Teague, implying the potential for another new virus to simply be taken as a run-of-the-mill concern.
Still, the department stepped back on some training efforts and reduced most vehicles to one officer at a time.
“When there were more, they masked up,” Teague said. “The other mandate we had was they had to wear masks in public places and when they were invited into people’s homes.”
City Recorder Tracy Davis, who also serves as the manager of the community center, said events have been canceled since mid-March and reopening the center to public uses will likely mean additional fees for users.
“The guidance we have is very detailed and every event would require three additional staff to be on site,” Davis said.
In addition to the traditional needs that come with using rooms in the civic center, one staff member would have to monitor the room being used and another would have to be stationed at the restrooms.