During last Wednesday’s special meeting of the Buena Vista board of trustees the board extended a local disaster emergency and members of town staff discussed what their departments were doing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trustees voted Wednesday March 18 to extend a local disaster emergency declaration until April 15.
The afternoon meeting was called following town administrator Phillip Puckett’s executive action the day before making the declaration. Per town code, Puckett’s executive action was limited to 48 hours. Trustees will vote again in April on whether to extend the declaration.
Mayor Duff Lacy expressed confidence that the declaration would be extended when that time comes, noting that the state order closing restaurants and bars currently extends through April 30.
Puckett said that the emergency declaration will allow the town to seek reimbursement later for expenses the town incurs handling the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It spells out our ability to carry out meeting remotely, such as what we’re doing now. It also puts us on the county and state’s radar in terms of having declared a local emergency and our ability to track our time and expenses that are being dedicated to this emergency so that potentially in the future we can get reimbursement,” Puckett said. “Getting into the beginning of this week, we saw Chaffee County, Salida declared a local emergency and now our county emergency manager, Rich Atkins, he is focused on helping us coordinate starting to track our time and resources so that we can get reimbursement later. So I felt it was in the best interest of town to make that declaration.”
Also during the meeting, the board finalized its policy regarding conducting meetings remotely, as they did Wednesday through a teleconferencing app called Zoom and by phone, and as they did during their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday evening.
Town staff took the time at the end of the meeting to explain what their departments were doing in response to the outbreak that has effectively halted public life across the world.
At the time of the Wednesday meeting, no cases of the viral respiratory illness had been confirmed in Chaffee County. But by the end of the week, that had changed.
The local disaster emergency declaration doesn’t materially change the town’s COVID-19 response plan, which it enacted at the tier II level on March 16 going through at least the end of the month.
That decision closed town hall to public walk-ins and cancelled all public meetings and events unless they can be done remotely, as well as all recreation department programming.
“We as staff have been focused on first that we’re taking care of our core services, such as fire, PD, our water operators, things like that. So that was one of the leading decisions to closing down our public facilities to the public for now is to protect the health of those that are going to be kind of on the front line of making sure we’re providing those services,” Puckett said.
“There’s quite a bit coming out and changing fast, so we have daily calls with the county, the county public health department. That’s been the primary source of the information we’ve been getting.”
Puckett continued, “Our county has put forward some pretty big decisions in the past couple of days. One you might have seen kind of reiterated the closure of the restaurants and bars and gyms and things like that, but it also went into short-term lodging and really trying to send the message that, while it’s very difficult to say as of now, we’re really trying to prevent visitors from outside the county coming in, and we’re trying to limit the number of incidents that we’re going to see here coming up … we were seeing a lot of visitors coming from surrounding counties that essentially made this decision a day or two ago, Summit County being one of those. They shut down their hotels, short-term lodging and all of their public facilities because they were starting to see it spread there. So we were seeing people come over into our area as a result, which makes sense. It’s vacation time and people are trying to find a place to go.”
While Chaffee County is just now seeing its first cases of COVID-19, it’s surrounding counties have some of the highest rates of the disease in Colorado, according Public Health department data.
The county’s orders impacting the lodging industry have prompted a number of calls from short-term rental owners into town hall, Puckett said.
“Rightfully so. It’s a big impact to say ‘we’re closed,’ which essentially is what this message is … So, it’s a very difficult decision that the county has made, and our role is to just make sure that people hear that message and understand it. And to also provide a feedback loop back to our county folks because it’s a big economic impact for us, no doubt about it. It’s going to impact us all.”
Sales tax returns, which can serve as a measure of activity in a business community, are also the town government’s main source of income. They are remitted back from the state on a 2-month delay, meaning that the earliest hard data on COVID-19’s financial impact in town won’t be seen until at least May.
“We are running through budget scenarios now, we’re identifying things that we’re going to have to postpone or eliminate altogether,” Puckett said. “Michelle (Stoke, the town treasurer) is working on some projections … we’re running anywhere from a 5 percent to a 20 percent cut in some of these scenarios, which is significant. Again, I don’t want to make that sound anywhere close in importance to our life safety, but it’s going to be important that we make sure we’re financially viable and start planning now as opposed to waiting.”
Stoke said that, between reserves of revenue the town is required to keep by TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, as well as a reserve policy the board enacted several years ago, “we are doing very well.”
Regarding staffing at town hall, Puckett said the town is postponing hiring of a handful of positions, including a new patrol officer for the police department and a part-time Parks employee, and “we’re trying to set this up so we’re protecting our employees, utilizing our sick time benefits, but also using administrative leave as necessary,” he said.
Puckett said that “there’s also going to be a desire for us to support our local businesses, possibly a little bit financially as well,” and that the town, as well as the city of Salida, are looking into a partnership with the Chaffee County Community Foundation to create a grant process for those financially impacted by the pandemic.
“Paying for groceries and utility bills, housing and it might be something where we have an opportunity to participate as a local government financially and then ask our community to match that process and maybe create a little bit larger bucket of money to help our community,” he said.
Puckett said that the town was also developing “a consolidated list of support resources for the BV community that will go on our town website. It will range from some of the state/federal programs for small business help down to the churches who have organized volunteers to help elderly with grocery shopping.”
Puckett told The Times following the Wednesday meeting that the county Department of Human Services may also be partnering in the financial assistance fund.
Puckett also said that the town fire department was working with Chaffee County Emergency Medical Services to produce protocols on how to respond to medical calls.
“They’re going to be interacting with people in the public quite a bit, and we will quickly run out of resources if we have to quarantine our first responders,” Puckett said. “So they put together a good plan, I believe, to decipher who responds to what.”
Fire chief Dixon Villers said, “It’s a changing, dynamic situation that we’re dealing with right now, and I’m working real close with Phillip and the county and EMS to do the best we can to keep our personnel protected and still be able to serve our communities.”
In a nutshell, the fire department will focus on “fires and real medical emergencies such as traffic accidents, gunshot wounds, those types of things, where life is on the line,” Puckett said. “If it’s someone that is struggling, they’re sick, something like that, EMS is going to take the lead on that.”