COOLIDGE — The coronavirus outbreak may have forced municipalities to make adjustments in their operations, but the theme reiterated by city and town managers throughout Pinal County is that for local governments it’s still business as usual.
City and town managers from across Pinal County participated in a forum as part of Pinal Partnership’s virtual breakfast held Friday morning via Zoom. More than 300 people registered for the virtual call, where local government leaders addressed how their operations and their communities have been reshaped by COVID-19.
Across the board, communities like Apache Junction, Casa Grande, Coolidge and Maricopa have closed commonly used facilities, such as libraries and recreation centers, to the public.
In Coolidge, council and staff members inside the chambers are distanced six feet apart on the dais and the floor. Although the city is still holding public hearings on certain agenda items, call to the public has been canceled.
Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller noted that recreational activities provided by the city of Coolidge have been impacted.
The city has canceled all city-operated youth recreational sports and may be unable to open the city pool for the summer if the parks department is unable to train its lifeguards, which the department currently cannot do in light of social distancing.
In the case of communities like Florence, the measures also included restricting public access to all municipal buildings including town hall. According to Town Manager Brent Billingsley, the closures were made over concern of the ample opportunity the virus may have to spread due to the presence of multiple prisons within the community.
“We have six different prisons in town (and) the primary employer in the town is the prisons,” he said. “When you have group quarter populations, the spread of the virus and the threat of the virus is enhanced from the normal population. It’s very difficult to social distance in the prison.”
Another concern, Billingsley noted, was the potential for the virus to spread beyond the prisons given that prison employees and their families live in Florence.
“We are still open, and our employees are still here with respect to doing business, and keeping business maintained as usual, it’s just electronic,” he said. “It’s by phone, it’s by computer, it’s by Zoom meeting, etc.”
But other local governments were reluctant to close their doors to the public altogether, and instead are currently asking patrons to follow a number of social distancing guidelines.
“We typically have a pretty strong demographic of individuals that like to come into the office,” Larry Rains, Casa Grande city manager, said. “They like to pay with cash (and) they like to ultimately interface with our team. So it was a bit more difficult for us to make the decision to close all of our facilities.”
City Hall, the Finance Department and Development Services are still accessible to the public, he noted, but the city has also implemented a number of social distancing practices, including putting up dividers between members of the public and staff in those departments.
The city of Maricopa was also among the communities that elected to keep some offices open to the public. Administrative Services Director Jennifer Brown said that City Hall recently launched a curbside assistance program, where members of the public seeking to make payments or fill out applications can call in and have a staff member come to the parking lot to assist them.
“From the beginning of this, our goal was to keep services as open as possible to our residents,” Brown said. In addition, like other communities, Maricopa has launched virtual programming in amenities that are currently closed to the public like the library and recreation center.
Brown also indicated that most city employees are now working remotely, with many departments now operating with only one staff member on-site.
With social distancing orders adopted by Gov. Doug Ducey and President Donald Trump urging members of the public to refrain from gathering in large groups, local governments have also had to get creative about council meetings.
Communities like Eloy have opted to limit the number of people allowed inside the council chambers and have asked some council members to join the meeting telephonically. The meetings are streamed live on Facebook.
In addition, many of the city’s employees have been issued laptops to enable them to work from home, Eloy City Manager Harvey Krauss said. The city has even adopted staggered shifts to reduce the number of employees working within certain departments at any one time.
When it comes to gathering public input from public meetings, some municipalities have met those challenges head on while others have simply done away with options like call to the public altogether.
Florence, which held its last two Town Council meetings via Zoom, has allowed for call to the public by opening up the meeting platform one hour early to collect public comments.
Similarly, Apache Junction has moved all public meetings to a teleconferencing format. However, City Manager Bryant Powell noted that Apache Junction may face challenges as it prepares to hold budget meetings.
“We are going to start having budget hearings and it’s going to get more interesting as we need to seek that input,” Powell said. He noted that the need to hold those hearings may lead the city to hold future meetings on Zoom.
But critical city functions are continuing to run smoothly, many city managers reported.
“Inspections are continuing to go on,” Krauss said, citing the unencumbered development of the city’s new police station as one example.
In addition, some municipalities have found a way to ensure job security for employees of specific departments that have been impacted by social distancing procedures. For Florence, that meant reassigning some city staff to offer more community-oriented services.
According to Billingsley, many staff members from the library and the Parks and Recreation Department were reassigned to grocery-shop for older members of the community as a way to better serve citizens that fall into the more vulnerable population.
Superior is also working with the Copper Corridor Economic Development Coalition to put together a concierge service for local businesses that are still operating but have severe restrictions under social distancing guidelines.
Yet other parts of local economies are still thriving during this time, Superior Town Manager Todd Pryor said.
With much of Superior’s future economic development reliant on companies like Resolution Copper, Pryor indicated that the town has not seen interest among companies looking into relocating to Superior dwindle.
“There’s a lot of development in our community that are long-term projects run by multinationals,” Pryor said. “The background activity and the focus on recovery that we were working on before there was another crisis is going to continue and we’re going to come out of it strong and ready to keep going.”