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On a mid-April morning, Polk County’s presiding commissioner, Shannon Hancock, sat in his usual chair at the head of the table in the center of the commission’s office in the courthouse.
He talked on the phone with engineers working on a bridge project while fellow commissioners, Kyle Legan and Rex Austin, chimed in when needed.
At one point, Legan took the phone to help give directions to a rural bridge.
On this morning, with the sun shining through the window, the birds chirping happily outside and the commissioners talking about the matters at hand, it seemed like business as usual.
But, a closer look revealed a different story.
With restrictions on visitors to the Polk County Courthouse, the community squarely in the middle of a statewide stay-at-home order and county and city leaders trying to keep business going despite the COVID-19 pandemic, life was anything but normal.
“We’ve been less busy with meetings, but we’ve been way more busy with decisions,” Hancock said.
And though the courthouse is now open and life is slowly returning to normal, the decisions the commission needs to make aren’t getting easier.
The county is receiving $3,771,719, based on its 2019 total population of 32,149, as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and it’s the commission’s job to disburse the funds among Polk County’s qualifying agencies, Hancock said last week.
“It’s a big responsibility for three people,” he said.
While Hancock said he doesn’t yet have details on how they will hand out the funds, the commission is working to find the answers, consulting with the county’s attorney Travis Elliott.
According to the CARES Act guidance document, the funds can only cover “necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the coronavirus disease 2019,” expenses not accounted for in budgets approved as of March 27, and costs incurred from March 1 to Dec. 30.
Of the $2.83 billion the state is set to receive from the CARES Act, $521 million will go directly to Missouri’s counties, according to the Missouri News Network. The remaining $1.5 billion will cover other COVID-19 expenses on the state level.
Missouri State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick said giving the funds first to county governments will be “a faster and better way” to share needed money with local government agencies, MNN said.
‘The hardest part’
There’s no doubt the support is needed.
Legan said, for county government, “the hardest part of this thing will be sales tax.”
“People will still expect services, and we won’t have the money to do it,” he said. “That’s going to be a big problem later on this year. It’s going to hit.”
Austin said the pandemic has pushed more people to shop online, which he believes will lower sales tax revenue.
“People say, ‘I should have done this all along,’” he said. “Get it delivered right to their doorstep. They don’t realize what that does to the county, though. That will probably show up in a month or so.”
Bolivar alderman Alexis Neal shares the commissioners’ worry.
“One major challenge is having to make decisions based on incomplete information,” she said. “We don't know what this will do to Bolivar's sales tax and other revenues for the budget year.”
Neal said, in an ideal world, aldermen would base budget decisions, including cuts, “on careful planning and well-founded projections.”
“In the world of coronavirus, we have to start making those decisions now, based on the limited information available,” she said.
So far, low sales tax revenue hasn't hit the city.
In the Tuesday, May 12, board of aldermen meeting, Bolivar’s city administrator Tracy Slagle said the city has seen an increase in sales, particularly of groceries and building supplies. She noted quarterly tax payments boosted revenues, as well.
“This last month, I think we saw a 17% increase, but I don’t think that can be associated with COVID because it was the first quarter of the calendar year,” she said.
Slagle said “June and July revenues might be more of a tell than what we’re seeing right now.”
‘Brand new to everybody’
For government leaders, making decisions with limited information has been hard.
“We’ve never been through it before,” Austin said.
“It’s brand new to everybody,” Hancock added.
Bolivar’s emergency management director Brent Watkins said that’s why, even with pandemic plans in place, it’s essential for local governments to be “flexible to the changing dynamics of this event.”
Watkins said “no one really had plans or imagined the dynamics of a community” under long-term stress and restrictions.
A scenario with the “entire country” hit for months at a time “wasn’t in any exercises,” he said.
“We continue to ensure every decision we make has the citizens in mind, and we are understanding how the things we do impact not only the community, but each family,” Watkins said.
While local leaders constantly face the unexpected during the COVID-19 crisis, Bolivar alderman Justin Ballard said people “learned a lot from the ice storm 10 to 12 years ago.”
“Even though we have a lot of new city staff that weren't with us then, policies and procedures from that disaster are still used,” he said.
While policies are important, when it comes to the COVID-19 emergency, in particular, Legan said “you’ve got to listen to the health department.”
“That’s their business,” he said. “You have to take into consideration what they’re saying. That’s what we did.”
“That’s why we have them,” Hancock added.
He said Michelle Morris, Polk County Health Center’s administrator, “has a heck of a lot on her shoulders right now.”
“I appreciate how she’s worked with us,” he said. “What they’re telling her is what she’s telling us. You can second guess yourself all day long. It is what it is now. I don’t regret what we’ve done.”
Slagle said “local officials and the local health department have to think about the big picture and the impact to the whole.”
“These are not easy decisions, and they are not being made lightly,” she said.
Through a series of actions in mid-March, both the city and county declared states of emergency and limited gatherings. Leaders also closed both city hall and the courthouse to the public and limited law enforcement response.
The emergency declarations and limitations on gatherings remain in place today.
“Right now, the city needs to be able to react and adapt quickly,” Neal said. “One of the major benefits of the state of emergency declared by the mayor is that it empowers him to act without having to wait until the whole board is available to make a decision.”
She said Bolivar mayor Chris Warwick and Slagle have effectively kept board members in the loop and brought matters to them when time allows.
“But in those situations when swift action is called for, the mayor can make the choice that needs to be made without delay,” Neal said.
Hancock said the county’s order to limit gatherings to 50 people or less on Monday, March 16, was a hard decision to make.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I don’t want to limit anyone from doing anything.”
He said the decision came after he got a phone call from Bob Dixon, Greene County’s presiding commissioner.
“He said, ‘Shannon, we’re going to 50 today,’” Hancock said. “Bob wasn’t in tears, but I’m telling you, he was close. It spooked me, you know.”
Later, when Greene County and Bolivar both further limited gatherings to 10 people or less, Hancock said the county didn’t go the same route.
Looking back, Hancock said it was the right decision to make at the time.
But, when making those tough decisions, it would be easy “to second guess yourself all day long,” he said.
Through it all, Slagle said the city’s primary goal has been to “keep the community safe.”
She said “citizens continue to need all city services — police response, fire response, building inspections, safe water and sewer.”
“In the case of COVID-19, citizens still need to be able to safely utilize city parks, so they must be safely maintained,” Slagle added.
When concerns about the virus hit the area, Slagle said the city quickly assembled incident management teams, assessed and modified policies and assigned city staff roles “to prevent duplication of duties or overlooking of other duties.”
That often begins with ensuring first responders, like firefighters and police officers, “are safe or understand best practices,” she said.
Slagle said physically spreading out staff, working in smaller units and incorporating telework when possible has been a significant change for the city.
The work itself is still the same, she said, but city staff are using remote access and communication when possible. She said using the internet, calling citizens, taking payments over the phone, utilizing city hall’s drive-thru and making conference calls have been important steps.
Ballard commended city employees, who he said have “been amazing, adapting to new schedules, working from home and limiting contact with the public during this time of distancing.”
“We have had a few emergencies pop up — house fires, water main breaks, treatment plant pumps malfunctioning — and our crews have maintained their responsibilities and done a fantastic job keeping the city as normal as possible,” he said.
Similar strategies have also worked for the county courthouse.
“There’s not anything we’re not doing, service-wise,” Hancock said.
Like city staff, many courthouse employees have worked from home when they could, he said.
“Just trying to have the least amount of face-to-face as we can,” Hancock said.
But, that has meant a lot of phone calls for some. For instance, Hancock said in one day alone, he had 62 incoming and outgoing phone calls.
Despite the changes, Legan said everything “seems to have worked pretty good.”
“Services weren’t cut back on anything,” he said.
Austin said for the three commissioners, work has never slowed down. While the courthouse was closed except to visitors who completed a health survey and had essential business, the group continued to meet.
“We’re up here doing something every day,” he said. “Putting culverts in, patching roads. Got plenty of potholes. Been a great year for that. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It just goes on as normal.”
Bolivar’s aldermen have also remained on the job, finding creative ways to keep meeting.
Ballard called aldermen meetings “a challenge,” saying it has been hard to keep distance while gathering to make decisions.
“Our Zoom meetings have been a learning experience for everyone, but in a good way,” he said. “Technology allows for us to have that digital face-to-face but still follow guidelines. We have been able to live stream those meetings to the city Facebook page, which has allowed a lot more public access to our meetings.”
He said many people he’s never seen in person at meetings have watched Facebook live sessions.
“People are busy, and life moves fast,” he said. “In a way, this distance has allowed for more people to be involved in our city government.”
What tomorrow holds
As for those living in the area, the COVID-19 crisis has been a challenge for city and county leaders.
“We’ve got a pretty good load on our shoulders right here,” Hancock said. “I kind of let it consume me for the first two or three weeks. I was just worried. It’s been one of the roughest deals I’ve ever dealt with.”
He said it’s hard to weigh out decisions.
“You’ve got people over here on this side upset that we’re doing too much, and you’ve got people over here upset that we’re not doing enough,” he said. “There’s just no way to make that perfect balance. We’re doing the best we can.”
Slagle said one of the greatest challenges for the city has been “making certain that small business can stay open.”
Ballard said his biggest fear “is what the next six months will bring and how we can make adjustments to our budget without sacrificing city services.”
“We won't know the full extent of what shutting down 80% of our businesses will have on our community for a long time,” he said. “It's not just the businesses closing, putting them at risk. It is also all the other city services that have slowed, like building permits, inspections, business licenses and others.”
Ballard said he worries some businesses may not recover.
He’s tried to support local businesses and neighbors by keeping “life as normal as possible” and shopping locally, promoting local businesses online and having conversations about resources, Ballard said.
“Sometimes it helps just to have a conversation with someone in the same struggles and finding the positive in this extended slow down,” he said.
Slagle said it’s also been hard to get assistance to people who’ve lost their jobs or faced pay cuts, and it’s been a challenge to “make certain citizens understand the importance of the stay safe guidelines.”
But, Slagle said, in those challenges come the citizens’ greatest strengths — “sense of community, people helping each other, sharing their resources, shopping for each other, calling to check in on each other.”
As the city, county and state follow reopening plans, Slagle said she’s hopeful Bolivar will bounce back quickly.
“Our community doesn’t rely as heavily on entertainment and tourism as some communities,” she said. “Hopefully, the impact this has had on Bolivar won’t be quite as severe. And hopefully, our community will continue to shop local and support our businesses that may have been impacted the most during this pandemic. As they say, we are stronger together.”
Nonetheless, Slagle said leaders need to be ready to act quickly if needed again.
“We just want to be cautious should another wave of the virus come back — in the fall, for example — that we are prepared to apply many of these precautions again,” Slagle said.
Despite the struggles, Austin said people are ready to “see a light at the end of the tunnel now.”
“I hope that the things we’ve done have made a difference,” Hancock said. “Not even just us, but the state.”