The new COVID-19 normal
While it remains to be seen how the impacts of COVID-19 will affect local governments across the country, there are many complicated issues local governments may face as they transition into the post COVID-19 era.
Cobb County, Ga., for example, is nationally recognized for its financial stability, transparency and business friendly environment. In recent years, it has capitalized on redevelopment initiatives to become a major player in the metropolitan Atlanta Region, as well as the State of Georgia.
As the county looks to recover from the impacts of the novel coronavirus, there are a number of challenges that are likely facing all counties throughout the United States involving policy issues, governmental/staff operational issues and unique community issues.
- Early and absentee voting will be impacted. Larger, urban counties will experience increased pressure to provide longer time periods for voting, and additional election staff to provide such. Given many counties reliance on part time, semi-retired poll workers for election activities, essential compensation incentives should be anticipated.
- These larger counties should also evaluate special ballot questions/referendums. Successful referendums often result from robust and numerous open houses throughout the subject county. Limitations for public gatherings could limit outreach and potential passage for counties seeking voter approval for referendums or special initiatives.
- Parity between county employees reporting to the elected Commissioners versus those employees under an Elected Officials such as a Judge, Sheriff or Tax Collector should be anticipated. Counties may traditionally provide similar pay incentives to “like” positions, i.e., whether in the Police Department (BOC) or the elected Sheriff’s Office (Constitutional Officer). Patrol Officers are likely to have increased public interaction responsibilities, compared to other Officers focused more on administrative activities that can be performed
- Public hearings and meetings have been conducted remotely, although additional financial resources have been necessary for technical equipment. Future planning may need to include such technical equipment in public libraries/rec centers to ensure access to those in need.
- Public engagement strategies and activities for stakeholder outreach are beginning to appear in routine Requests for Proposals (RFP) with specific attention to Shelter in Place and Social Distancing provisions. Costs for new technology to support and document required outreach should be anticipated in the future.
- Determination of “Essential Workers” and compensation for such will be an ongoing challenge. Federal definitions often do not align with local definition/vision of essential; causing conflict between certain departments. The method of compensation (vacation accrual versus cash payment) may also be a source of friction.
- Tourism that plays a major part of a county’s economy via traditional anchors of theme parks, event venues and National Parks are likely experiencing a downturn in collection of sales taxes and hotel/motel taxes/fees that are generated by tourism. Counties that utilize projection of these types of taxes to prepare or finance long term capital plans are at risk to downsize or delay such plans.
Most professional managers you speak to will agree that a return to normal will happen, albeit slowly. Interestingly, most will also tell you that they would anticipate that either the federal government or their respective state governments will also require that all cities and counties prepare and submit a pandemic operations plan, in accordance with standards (yet to be developed) as a pre-requisite to future relief funds that may be necessitated by a second wave of COVID or another pandemic event. It’s hard to anticipate everything that may or may not occur, but those governments who have anticipated the aforementioned impacts will be a few steps ahead of everyone else.
Rob Hosack is a member of the Economic Development and Government Strategies teams at Taylor English Decisions LLC. He focused on county and city management, with an emphasis on planning, zoning and development. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.