Election issues: Candidates assess the Wilsonville government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic
In the third installment of our Q&A series, we asked City Council and mayoral candidates about their thoughts on the city's past and future response to the COVID-19 pandemic. If a candidate's answers don't appear, it's because they didn't provide them. We also added parentheses in certain cases for context.
But first, here's a little background: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wilsonville government closed city facilities and canceled summer events to prevent the spread of the virus. It also created a small business relief program that handed out $400,000 to 45 small businesses (20 employees or fewer), 56 micro businesses (fewer than five employees), 21 home-based businesses and three hotels that had not already received county grants.
The city didn't receive as many applications for relief as expected and so provided more money to accepted applicants. Additionally, the city paid for gift cards to local businesses and handed them out to struggling community members with the help of Wilsonville Community Sharing and the local police.
The city also passed a budget that included relatively minor rather than huge cuts, but City Manager Bryan Cosgrove noted that the council could tweak the budget as the year progresses, if needed. At least prior to the recent closures due to statewide fires, most Wilsonville facilities were open and the city abided by state Phase 1 reopening guidelines preventing large gatherings.
Councilor Ben West and former councilor Julie Fitzgerald are running for mayor while Council President Kristin Akervall, Councilor Joann Linville, John Budiao and Imran Haider are running for two open council seats.
What do you think about the Wilsonville City Council's response to the pandemic? Is there anything you would have done differently if you had your druthers?
Linville: Wilsonville City Council and leadership staff began responding to the pandemic from the time the outbreak began and in compliance with Gov. Kate Brown's orders. The city staff, in consultation with the council, used an entire leadership team approach to protecting the safety and welfare of our citizens and city staff while continuing to provide city services to our community. These actions often were unseen by our community as it dealt with fear and economic concerns as well.
Assistance and concern for our vulnerable citizens, particularly those who were food and housing vulnerable, started well before any actions directed at assistance to small businesses. These included rent sharing assistance, food card purchase and distribution, public safety measures, continuing community center food delivery to residents, paid sick leave and family medical leave for city employees, establishing telework capabilities, and personal protective measures for city employees.
Over half a million dollars was spent by the city to address these critical issues of safety and health of our community as a priority. This cannot be minimized as a primary role of the City Council and staff. Clearly the focus from a public perspective became concern over need for support to small businesses as the pandemic continued and governor-required business closures continued.
Could Wilsonville City Council have moved sooner to offer financial assistance to small businesses? Of course, but the discussions among council members and staff about best approaches were going on long before the strategies were made public.
Our council was fortunate to have learned from the best practices used for small business relief programs by our metro neighbor cities. The business relief grants to small businesses awarded $400,000 to 125 qualified businesses in Wilsonville by City Council action May 4. This was a help, but the economic impacts of the pandemic far exceeded the ability of the city to solve (them). Over $64,000 was spent for housing and food assistance including assistance with delivery of medications and school meals to citizens and their families.
As of the end of August, the city of Wilsonville has spent $1,011,359.00 on COVID-19 response measures. Efforts to provide comprehensive assistance in a time of global pandemic will never be done soon enough or as much as needed. I believe our city and City Council has acted in the best interests of our entire community.
Budiao: Overall, I think the city has acted responsibly, but the pandemic impact is a much bigger issue than any city council could tackle. The city has yielded to the state and health rules and regulations set forth for the health of everybody: encouraging good clean hygiene, washing hands, (wearing) face masks, and staying at home. We've all been reminded to care for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, and to listen and watch for the symptoms.
I do appreciate the city instituting the small business grant program and particularly thought the idea of gift cards to local restaurants given to those in need was excellent. I also appreciate that most city services have been kept open or accessible. Even though the community center has been closed, they have done an excellent job of having meals delivered to those in need.
Akervall: The pandemic brought many needs all at once to our city — some very visible and some less obvious to the general public. We first announced a state of emergency on March 13 to allow for the mobilization of resources to protect our community and coordinate with other public agencies. The city began adopting the social distancing recommendations of the CDC, the Oregon Health Authority, and Clackamas County Public Health.
During that same week, we also transitioned public meeting operations to online platforms so that city business could continue, becoming one of the first cities in the state to do so. By March 16 our city manager had activated our Emergency Operations Center and emergency response was underway to keep city employees and community members safe, and keep operations and necessary response flowing.
We have been able to authentically push forward the message "Wilsonville is open for business." While some closures of public spaces were necessary to comply with state guidelines, the city also made additions to community services to deliver meals to our most vulnerable populations and use SMART buses to pick up groceries for those who couldn't easily access stores.
I am incredibly grateful for the creativity, sacrifice and togetherness our city staff showed in the critical weeks following the onset of this pandemic. While there is much we did not know at the time (and we are still learning), I believe the council supported our staff to do the work we expect them to do — and that is to provide the community with the highest level of service that protects the health and vitality of every community member. Without prioritizing the health of our staff and community, we cannot do any of the additional work that is needed at this time.
West: The city declared a state of emergency early, which allowed city management and staff to implement policies to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community.
I have been concerned from several perspectives, one as a frontline nurse who provided aid to our Oregon community working as a COVID-19 test nurse, and as a community advocate who wants to balance the needs of our residents with the needs of our business community. I was proud to vote with the council to provide businesses with relief funds. We generously provided more support than any other suburban community in the greater metro area!
Though I believe our council took the health threats seriously and reacted appropriately, I don't think enough emphasis was placed on ensuring the viability and success of our business community. I demanded action, and was the first on council to fight for business relief grants. Early on, there was opposition to business relief behind the scenes, because the fear was that it would take away funding from special projects.
It was my recommendation, in partnership with the Wilsonville Chamber, that we identify and help businesses that needed relief. Our police force was innovative and flexible in delivering prescriptions. SMART delivered meals. We got that right!
Fitzgerald: I support the fair, impactful pandemic response developed by a task force that was led by Councilor Linville and including the Chamber of Commerce CEO and the city's economic development manager.
Based on their recommendations, the council awarded $400,000 to 125 Wilsonville businesses and $50,000 to Wilsonville Community Sharing last spring. This responsive effort, which included a number of other helpful tactics, included a gift card program conceived by city staff that generated revenue for local businesses and resources for those in need.
I suggest reviewing all city business practices to eliminate the need for in-person interactions to the full extent possible.
What do you think the city will need to do or consider moving forward if this pandemic continues for many more months? Do you see further budget cuts as a possibility? If so, what areas of the city's budget would you like to see cut and why?
Fitzgerald: The city should continue to monitor its revenue and expenses on at least a quarterly basis, to ascertain what changes in spending are warranted based on underperforming revenue streams. Given the fact that the city has already cut its budget by more than $2 million, further cuts that make the most sense are those that are not restricted grants or contracts and do not negatively impact local businesses and residents. Because the city entered the pandemic from a position of economic strength, more drastic cuts are likely unnecessary at this time.
Akervall: During the budget planning process, due to the unprecedented events of the pandemic and anticipation that revenues and expenditures might change as we move through the year, staff carefully reduced the budget by more than $2 million. The budget, passed by the council in June of this year, included a budget message that clearly refers to the economic disruption that will likely continue into the future.
However, it also says that the city's strategy is to focus its attention on advancing the enduring value proposition of living in Wilsonville. The budget is an embodiment of community values focusing on safety, security and opportunity. So, yes, as stated at the passing of our annual budget, I believe that the budget will likely need to be adjusted as more information becomes clear.
But, I also would adhere to the public process of having these difficult discussions within the structure of my fellow budget committee members, as well as listening to staff's recommendations and input from our community members on areas they feel are critical to meet our common values.
West: If residents are having to live with austerity measures, then it is reasonable to demand that our city government is held to the same standard. As families are suffering, we cannot be tone deaf to their plight. Suspending some projects and focusing resources on essential priorities and community relief packages is critical.
I stand with the majority of Clackamas and Washington County commissioners in support of decoupling from Multnomah County, because of the vast differences of our demographics and business types. A one-size-fits-all approach by state agencies and leadership does not allow us to be evaluated on our own merits. Allowing us to be evaluated based on our own merits allows our local economy to recover quicker.
We also need to ensure our county is being awarded federally backed CARES Act funding, per federal guidelines, as is not the case now. By safely decoupling, this will mitigate the need to cut budgets as drastically. I would consider an initial measured cut of 10% citywide and other strategic cost-savings opportunities.
Linville: The city just entered a new fiscal year July 1. It is unclear at present what financial impacts to the fiscal year 2020-21 budget the city will realize as a result of the ongoing pandemic. It is anticipated there will be budget adjustments that will need to be made.
When the 2020-21 city budget was developed, city leadership was directed to find areas within individual budgets to reduce costs. In the Budget Committee meetings I participated in, City Council members asked the hard questions as each department budget was reviewed. The final approved budget document, which is available on the city of Wilsonville website, reflects every attempt to create a budget that is lean but capable of providing the city services to protect the health and welfare of our citizens.
Clearly, projects that were hoped for prior to the pandemic were deleted from budgets, but, where possible, critical infrastructure projects were included. The city of Wilsonville is very fortunate to have had excellent fiscal oversight with reserves that will allow our city to weather this difficult time. We can expect ongoing costs to city services as the pandemic continues, and we also expect decreased revenue from taxes, utilities and fees. It is not clear where or if cuts will need to be made this early into the fiscal year.
Budiao: The city will have to consider all options moving forward to remain viable: mitigating all normal operations with technology, social distancing and best practices. Until we return to fully functional operations, I can see budgets being put on hold, delayed or prioritized in a way that we can manage city affairs. I hope the shutdown is over soon, so we don't have to consider other long-lasting decisions.
Many Wilsonville businesses are still struggling, and some have closed. If anything, what should be done at the local level and beyond to help them? Do you have any ideas for how to help other affected communities in town?
West: I have worked extremely hard to advocate for business in our community. One of the reasons I received the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce's endorsement is because of my efforts to find resources, aid and (provide) visibility to local businesses.
I am not sure if Wilsonville will have additional resources for business aid. However, I have used my platform as councilor to create awareness through the Wilsonville Wednesdays on social media, which helped highlight local businesses. Our actions as a council do not always have to come from our role as city officials. There is so much we can do, as individuals, for our community members and businesses.
(We can help affected communities by) using our influence as members of the council to promote agencies, like Heart of the City and Wilsonville Community Sharing, which provide emergency relief for residents in crisis. There are myriad programs like meals programs for seniors and vulnerable populations.
With an abundance of resources available locally, it is a crime that anyone in our historic farming community should ever go hungry. I will continue to work as a bridge between those who need resources and our city businesses and nonprofits who may be able to lend a hand.
Budiao: We should consider everything we can do to help all businesses. It would help to relax signage rules for businesses like Slick's Big Time BBQ, and the Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge dealership. Whenever possible, we should assist those businesses on the very limits of finances. The city should work with the Chamber of Commerce and seek out pinpoint direction for assistance ideas for the multitude of businesses they represent.
For families, the city offers the hugely helpful "Heart of the City," and for medical issues we can contact local doctors for guidance. Considering that children are missing the social interaction and benefits of attending school, it would be helpful if sports and recreational activities open as soon as safely possible. Also, I think the spiritual health of our families would benefit by relaxing rules for church openings. On an everyday issue, the city should consider a youth recreation facility.
Fitzgerald: Significant federal, state and regional recovery funds are needed to bolster what our city can provide. I recommend a multipronged plan that leverages all available resources for the highest and best use.
As mayor, I will prioritize economic development planning and partner with Greater Portland Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, and other agencies to share the cost of bringing business development training, access to aid, and other resources to bear.
The second round of equitable COVID-19 response/recovery grants from the city is in order this year. Businesses that were not funded last year and qualifying nonprofits featuring cultural activities are worthy beneficiaries for 2021 grants. I would like to spearhead a community-based fundraising challenge to generate a sustained and significant investment in Wilsonville Community Sharing. Wilsonville Community Sharing is an exceptional resource with capacity to give a hand to many diverse citizens including seniors, young families and people from all walks of life who have lost their jobs, businesses and homes due to the pandemic.
Akervall: Local businesses bring so much to our city and I want to support them during this time of need.
In April, the City Council created a program that distributed $400,000 in grants to Wilsonville businesses, $20,000 in a gift card program to support both residents and local restaurants in need of financial relief, and an additional $50,000 to Wilsonville Community Sharing to assist residents needing help with food, medical, rent and utility bills. But, the pandemic's effects are beyond what an individual city can mitigate, so ongoing assistance will be required from all sides to help bolster businesses in this environment.
Our short-term response dictates a critical need for cooperation. The city should continue to work with regional partners to share information about additional forms of relief such as the Oregon Cares Fund, Washington County Cares Nonprofit Emergency Assistance Program, and others, as well as connect local businesses with programs that are offering free PPE resources. Additional support can be given in how the city allows modifications to business operations to encourage safe environments for both customers and employees, for example, expediting the process to allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating on public easements.
As we learn more about the virus and effective health practices to curb transmission, we must push this information forward to our community members. Ultimately, this will allow us to return to behaviors that encourage economic security and prosperity.
As stated by the secretary general of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), if the pandemic is not brought under control, there will be no robust economic recovery. Ongoing flexibility will be needed as well as a courageous and strategic vision for the long-term future.
I am excited about the work I have done as council liaison to the city's Urban Renewal Task Force to plan for future programs that will bring investment to our city and promote job growth. It is important to remember that prior to the pandemic, since 2010 (the period of the Great Recession) our city saw a 39% increase in jobs and 75% more dollars in annual payroll. COVID-19 has certainly hurt the economy everywhere, but I am confident that, with collaboration and thoughtful policy, our city can build again.
Linville: Beyond the business relief grant program, the city has waived restrictions (for the) use of outdoor seating so local restaurants may increase capacity by using sidewalk or parking areas. Sign restrictions were also waived so businesses could inform the public about their status and encourage business.
Economic recovery for our businesses and citizens is high on the list of priorities for our city. The best strategy for recovery will be moving our city to Phase 2 (of reopening). Coupling Clackamas County with Washington and Multnomah Counties (for reopening) has not been helpful to our community, but is beyond the control of our city leadership. The city's Economic Development Department is working with businesses and the Wilsonville Area Chamber of Commerce to support business recovery and aiding in business continuity. The city is mindful of reducing regulatory barriers for recovery and will continue to look for these opportunities in the future.
Additionally, grants and other funding opportunities that might become available for business and nonprofit organization recovery and operation will be made public to our community. The city is prepared to mobilize once again should the pandemic become exacerbated with the arrival of fall flu and cold season.
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