By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Council unanimously adopted several ordinances and resolutions in order to respond to the growing impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus during an emergency meeting held over the phone on Tuesday evening.
In order to ensure continuity of city government, council unanimously passed an ordinance that implements procedures around electronic public meetings. All government bodies will now meet exclusively in a teleconference format unless specified otherwise. The ordinance applies not only to city council, but to all boards and commissions.
Last week, Mayor Justin Wilson and members of council proposed several measures to help struggling businesses.
“Not to kind of overdramatize, but it’s true: We have some businesses that are deciding whether to stay open. And when they close, they will probably not reopen when all this is done,” Wilson said. “So, I think anything we can do to facilitate them getting some revenue now so they can keep people employed as well as keep the business open is absolutely vital.”
On March 19, the city suspended enforcement of certain regulations and special use permit conditions that limit hours of operation, deliveries, off-premises alcohol sales and outdoor sales, according to a news release. City Manager Mark Jinks said the city would consider lifting other regulations for businesses on a case-by-case basis.
A week later on Tuesday, Council unanimously adopted an emergency ordinance placing a temporary moratorium on penalties and interest for restaurants and other businesses related to the restaurant meals tax, transient occupancy tax and Business, Professional and Occupational License tax. The measure provides businesses with short-term access to about $4 million, according a city news release.
Wilson likened the strategy to a loan. Businesses will not have to pay penalties or interest on these taxes until July, at which point they will have until the end of fiscal year 2021 to pay off the money.
“This is essentially a loan that we are making to these businesses during a really difficult time to assist them with cash flow, but … it does come with some risk to the city,” Wilson said.
Council also passed three emergency resolutions on Tuesday, two that extended the filing deadlines for the business personal property tax and elderly and disabled tax relief applications. The third resolution authorized the city manager to apply for grants during the emergency instead of bringing them to council.
Jinks noted on Tuesday that the city’s FY2020 budget has already been impacted severely, with revenues dropping sharply due to consumer businesses closing.
“What we’re seeing is probably the largest drop in city revenues in modern times, if not going back a whole lot further,” Jinks said.
The city started FY2020 with an expected $5 to $10 million surplus but will end the fiscal year with an estimated $35 million shortfall and very little time to respond to it.
“Our ability to deal with the $35 million shortfall is limited, which mean we have to go to other sources, such as capital projects that have not started, where we can seek to reschedule and recoup those dollars to help keep the current year budget in balance,” Jinks said.
If the crisis lasts through the rest of the year, Jinks estimated the city could lose upwards of $100 million.
The city manager’s proposed FY2021 budget and FY2021-2030 capital improvement budget will have to go back to the drawing board, too, Jinks said. Jinks has instructed staff to make $100 million in cuts to the FY2021 budget.
At another emergency council meeting on March 18, Alexandria Health Department Director Dr. Stephen Haering outlined what the city’s health workers are doing to contain the virus.
AHD has cut back its clinical staff and moved most nurses and other medical staff into its epidemiology branch in order to investigate any cases the department hears about and trace point of contact. As of print, 13 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in Alexandria, according to AHD.
“What this does is it helps us to isolate an illness so that when we find somebody who has had a contact with a positive case, we have them quarantined,” Haering said.
AHD currently has about 50 health workers dedicated to the city’s coronavirus response, Haering said. To provide some measure of relief to AHD employees who are working 12- to 16-hour days, the city is reassigning staff from departments that are no longer operating at full capacity to departments that are in need, including AHD and senior services.
As of March 22, all City of Alexandria facilities are now either closed to the public or open by appointment only until further notice, according to a news release. Closed facilities include recreation, nature and art centers, museums, indoor historic sites and library branches. On March 21, the city announced the closure of outdoor playgrounds, fenced play areas and fenced dog parks. Unfenced parks and trails are still open, according to the release. All other facilities, including city hall, are available by appointment only.
The city government’s core services remain open; however, city employees are working remotely when possible, according to the city website.
City staff have also been ensuring that businesses are complying with Gov. Ralph Northam’s order limiting public gatherings to less than 10 people, which went into effect on Tuesday evening.
“A lot of emergency planning is contingency planning. You hope you never need it – a lot of times you don’t – but we need to stay ahead,” Jinks said. “Sometimes it feel like we’re on a surfboard and there’s a tsunami at our back, the rate this is going.”
The public can still access more than 175 city services online through the new Alex311 service at alexandriava.gov/Alex311. For more information, residents can call 311 or 703-746-4311.