The impact of COVID-19 was felt at North Battleford’s city council meeting Tuesday.
Among other things, it was the first regular meeting of council using the ZOOM teleconferencing platform, which allowed council and administration officials to appear remotely.
The switch to virtual city council meetings was the most visible evidence yet of the impact the pandemic has had on City Hall.
But other impacts have been felt elsewhere, with major changes seen in day to day operations as well as big hits to finances due to a multitude of facility closures.
Impact on operations:
City Manager Randy Patrick noted the impact COVID-19 has had on operations.
“As council is aware there’s been a dramatic impact on our society and our city. Many of our communities are finding themselves with high unemployment levels, businesses have shut down, and there is a reduction in the number of jobs available. We’re no different.”
Patrick noted the city has closed down recreation facilities, and have already made 30 temporary layoffs of employees due to lack of work.
Patrick also explained that cities, unlike federal or provincial governments, are not allowed to borrow for operations. With operations, he said, it had to be dealt with during that fiscal year.
Patrick’s report outlined some of the steps the city has taken. This has included staff working from home, increased spacing in facilities, and staff split into different work teams.
There was extensive planning by the city for a pandemic, starting at the end of January, with the city purchasing enough supplies for a three-month pandemic. The early start allowed the city to have enough of those items before they were in high demand.
The city opened its Emergency Operations Centre on March 16. The EOC dealt with pandemic issues, but Patrick also noted it serves a function as a “second City Hall” in case an outbreak of the virus happens at City Hall and causes issues there with staffing.
Certain employees from Human Resources, Finance, Engineering and the Deputy City Manager are now working out of the EOC, separated from the rest of the staff over at City Hall. As for Financial Services staff, they are divided between City Hall, the EOC, and working from home.
In what was described as an unusual setup, firefighters are working on a 48-hour shift rotation instead of the usual 12-hours. Firefighters remain in the Fire Hall for 48 hours, and then not work again for another six days. The idea is that if firefighters catch a virus during work, they could then immediately go into self-isolation and there would be minimal disruption to staff.
Paid on-call firefighters are being asked not to visit the Fire Hall in order to maintain a separate grouping of available firefighters.
The RCMP detachment has implemented its pandemic plan. As well, the city’s CSO operations are reduced and officers are being placed into two separate shifts to reduce the likelihood of transmission between themselves.
Road crews are now working out of two different locations. The idea is that in the event of one group in one building coming down with COVID-19, others in the other building could continue on with needed work such as snow removal or pothole repair.
Administratively, the City has stopped ticketing people on residential streets who violate the fixed “no parking” street signs, which are posted to allow for street cleaning.
Patrick noted this is being done in general, but it hasn’t been totally stopped because the city is coming to cleaning season and must still clean the streets of sand and salt to keep those elements out of the sewer system.
Parking downtown will continue to be enforced.
Financial impacts felt:
City Director of Finance Steve Brown outlined the impact on the city’s finances.
His recommendation was for the city to increase its current line of credit with Innovation Credit Union from $4 million to $7 million at administration's earliest convenience.
Brown emphasized the city was still in good financial position, but this move was being done as a precaution to help with the city’s cash flow.
“This is a cash flow issue, not a revenue issue,” Brown said.
The city is expecting hits to revenues. Brown’s report estimated the impact to utility revenues for the year at $435,227.07.
It was noted that simply for two large water-using businesses which were currently shut down, the estimated loss for the March to May period was $11,412 — a significant amount.
For recreation, lost revenue is estimated between $200,000 to $215,000 per month.
The good news, Brown said, is the city would be saving money if the facilities were shut down to the end of August.
The bad news, he noted, was that the city was looking at a significant loss of revenues for the same period due to lost events.
“Revenues are going down, but the expenses are not going (down) fast enough,” Brown said. “We are likely seeing an impact on our subsidy we have to spend on by the end of the year.”
Several recommendations to help those struggling to pay their bills during the pandemic were included in a single lengthy resolution. That passed council Tuesday night and included the following items:
That the Director of Finance be authorized to waive penalties for overdue accounts to May 31, 2020;
That the Director of Finance be authorized to reduce TIPPS payments (tax instalment payment plan) and WIPPS (water instalment payment plan) payments to 50 per cent until May 31 2020 for those on these programs who have had their incomes substantially impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and that a report to council on changes to TIPPS and WIPPS be provided in early June;
That water disconnections for utility nonpayment cease until May 31, 2020;
That the due date to pay property taxes without penalty be extended until Aug. 31;
Finally, that the city increase its current line of credit held with Innovation Credit Union from $4 million to $7 million as soon as can be arranged by administration.