LIMA — Keeping essential public services flowing to taxpayers who fund those resources has proven challenging as municipal leaders wade through uncharted territory during the novel coronavirus.
Pandemic or not, residents still expect their streets to be cleared of snow, clean water to flow from their taps and their public records requests to be handled promptly.
Mike Caprella, utilities superintendent for the City of Lima, said staffing issues have been one of the biggest challenges present by the pandemic.
“We were forced to look at how we schedule employees,” he said. “We could not afford to have all our employees from a particular group in one place at the same time. Take the water treatment plant as an example. It’s one of the most crucial operations in the city. If all the employees came down with COVID-19, we’d have no one to operate the plant. So it was important that we alternate employees. My biggest challenge was making sure we had the staff to keep things running,” Caprella said.
County services never stop
In her elected role as keeper of public records in Putnam County, Clerk of Courts Kim Redman has been forced to balance access to government documents with the safety of both her staff and the public as a whole.
The onset of the pandemic led to a limit on foot traffic in the county courthouse and in how some key services were handled, she said.
“People summoned into court for arraignments, civil or small claims cases have been advised that a continuance would be granted upon request,” Redman said. “Pre-trial conferences and hearings were converted from in-person sessions to telephonic or video conferences when requested. Zoom and other video hearings are employed when possible.”
Redman said staff has been alternated to lessen their exposure to possible infection. Social distancing measures for employees, attorneys, jurors and other involved in courtroom proceedings were put in place.
“Title requests may now be made by dropping all necessary paperwork in the county drop-box or via the U.S. Postal Service. Dealers can drop off title work at our security station and then receive a phone call when its completed,” Redmon said. “Public records requests continued to be processed via phone, fax or email without delay.”
The clerk said the emphasis will remain on electronic transactions where possible even after the pandemic has passed.
Villages not exempt from woes
Unlike the staffing levels of the City of Lima or Putnam County government, Columbus Grove Village Administrator Jeff Vance has just a handful of employees at his disposal. He said they’ve all stepped up to the plate during the pandemic as some of their co-workers were forced to quarantine after exposure to the virus.
“Being a small village, we’re all kind of cross-trained to do a lot of different jobs,” Vance said. Employees in the village maintenance and billing departments were quarantined at various times during the past year, and their co-workers “just picked up the slack,” he said.
The village office is currently closed to walk-in traffic; appointments with village officials are by appointment only, Vance said.
The administrator said one of the most difficult decisions that had to be made centered around the closure of village parks and park programs last summer.
“It’s kind of a big deal when kids are not able to play ball,” Vance said.
Pandemic has affected revenues
Caprella said because the City of Lima’s utility department is funded almost exclusively through user fees, the pandemic has had a negative effect on revenues.
“When factories closed or cut back and restaurants shut down, they didn’t use as much water as normal. Water consumption was down, although it hasn’t been too bad. But when usage is down, our fixed costs stay the same.”
Revenue has been also negatively impacted when some households could no longer afford to pay their utility bills as the pandemic gripped the area.
“We had a moratorium on utility shut-offs even before the state mandates took effect,” Caprella said. “We getting back to normal now. We will still give people a couple of months to pay their bill, but we will terminate their service eventually. But we’re not turning off near the number of households as we used to. We try to work with our customers.”