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What Will Your Place of Work Look Like in 60 Days?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Peter Melan
May 5, 2020

Local governments are beginning to feel the pressure from COVID-19, and budgets are suffering. Parking garages are empty, central business districts show no signs of life and ordinary citizens are unable to meet necessary living expenses. Real estate taxes and utility bills remain unpaid. Unemployment claims climb weekly with government lockdowns eased to offset catastrophic economic losses. There is no question that whatever the municipality is, it will look significantly different when society begins to live the new norm and deeply analyze the real financial impact regarding services.

As newspaper articles continue to report how the government avoided funding local municipalities, the burden organizations face is daunting and frightening. The summer months are a time where festivals and carnivals assist with boosting local economies, parking revenues and business taxes as a result of people having disposable income. They tend to spend more money when the weather is favorable, and with a vibrant scene, everyone is enjoying their time and eating foods not commonly available during the off-season. With historical unemployment figures and social distancing in the minds of all citizens, the full economic impact is unknown.

The streets are empty, and many municipalities are facing excruciating decisions on how to minimize the damage inflicted due to the lockdown. Many municipalities furloughed non-essential staff, and the unintended consequences begin to shed light. In public works departments, the grass is uncut with streets not cleaned regularly. In codes, quality of life citations are non-existent, and building permits and inspections are delayed. Infrastructure improvements continue to linger and deteriorate without staff to perform the work needed.

One particular aspect of local government that remains unaffected is public safety. Administrators resist the temptation of reducing police or fire department staffing as a matter of continuing to protect residents. The idea of not having police officers respond to calls has potential adverse effects and creates additional anxiety to citizens directly affected by the lockdown. Fire departments are also critical to the safety of taxpayers, as they are a critical element to offering EMS agencies assistance on calls. They can also initiate care until an ambulance arrives.

When towns open up again, the question is, what will it look like after lockdowns are gone, and mandatory shelter-in-place orders do not exist? The short answer is, no one knows. Cities and townships are undoubtedly facing budget shortfalls, and government relief is absent. The decisions will become increasingly tricky as staff who were temporarily displaced come back to work. In reality, who determines the order of importance? It is unfathomable to think that administrators and managers wonder how their respective organizations will be able to function post-pandemic, and everyone is analyzing which departments can continue to maintain a skeleton crew or what other permanent cuts are acceptable.

Having a smaller workforce maintain the same responsibilities and workload will be an impossible feat to accomplish. When an organization employs staff to perform specific job duties, and the public relies on those skills and expertise to assist them in daily functions, the amount of frustration will begin to increase, and the solution cannot be to force everyone online.

There is a certain percentage of taxpayers who may not have a computer or internet access to perform their monthly activities and visit the municipal building to pay taxes or their utility bills. Understandably, many governmental entities have removed late fees and penalties for unpaid bills. It does not remove the bill from the system, and in reality, what was a $50 water bill now becomes $100. If the resident was unable to pay the bill before the pandemic, how will they be able to afford the higher amount? It brings a more pressing question into light about a citizen’s right to municipal services; how will that person move forward if they remain unemployed and continue mounting expenses, yet worry about providing necessities to maintain life for their family? Dilemmas such as deciding to feed the family or paying for internet bill are in the thoughts of ordinary citizens.

There are no answers to what the future holds for any organization. The ability to predict the future is absent from being mindful of the reality that most people will be unable to pay their bills if the economy does not improve. Municipalities will face a harsh reality of deciding which services/departments to maintain adequate staffing and consider the downward effects of reduced levels. The ability to think differently and re-evaluate resources is a critical element in bringing organizations back to some form of operating efficiently. The success of anyone’s workplace relies on administrators being creative in solving problems differently and with a drastically different workforce. Department heads cannot continue operating without making drastic changes that are necessary to maintain essential services, and careful consideration must be given to those who are otherwise unable to utilize technology or even use a checkbook. The world is changing daily, and leaders must focus on solving problems that were unknown four months ago and are the reality of today.

Author: Peter Melan is a local government consultant, a councilperson in the City of Easton, PA, public speaker and author for several online publications. He is in his final year of graduate studies in Public Administration at Ohio University. Peter is known for his creativity in solving problems using non-traditional methods, and for his experience in project management and data analytics. For more info visit : https://www.petermelan.com

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