The Visalia City Council–after encouraging Visalians to begin the process of “reopening” the local economy–voted to hold a special meeting this week to discuss how the city can help citizens affected by income loss due to COVID-19.
Call for Caution
“I would encourage small businesses to open up, but use common sense,” said Councilman Phil Cox, echoing the sentiment of a majority of the council during a virtual council meeting held Tuesday, May 4.
While Cox said it was “time to start reopening,” he also repeatedly emphasized the need to proceed with caution.
“I’d expect people to use common sense,” he said of a disappointing recent outing. “I saw that I was one of about 25% who were wearing masks.”
To reduce incidents of coronavirus infection, the Tulare County Health and Human Service Agency recommends wearing a mask, maintaining 6 feet of distance from other individuals, including avoiding physical contact and crowds, and frequent hand washing of at least 20 seconds using soap and water.
“I encourage everyone to be safe when they’re out,” said Councilman Brian Poochigian. “Keep your distance. Wash your hands.”
And he applauded the efforts of Visalians to fight COVID-19’s spread.
“I do want to say thank you to everyone who has stayed in place the last eight weeks,” he said. “Let’s do what we have to do to get back to normal.”
City Shuttered No Businesses
While Cox made his call for local small businesses to reopen their doors, he reiterated that the city never ordered any business to close.
“We have not shut down a single business,” he said. “That’s the governors order. We have not issued fines and will not issue fines.”
On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an statewide order for residents to remain at home except to continue essential businesses and services. Those restrictions will be relaxed starting Friday, May 8. Businesses such as bookstores, clothing shops, florists and other merchants will be allowed to offer curb-side service as long as social distancing measures are maintained. Manufacturers will also be allowed to return to work under Newsom’s order.
Specifics of the soft reopening will be available from the governor’s office on Thursday, May 7. Those who violate the governor’s orders continue to face fines of up to $1,000. Visalia has issued no such fines, said City Manager Randy Groom.
“We have issued a number of warnings,” he said. “Those warnings say the business is out of compliance with the governor’s order.”
Groom also emphasized the city had no role in the decision to close businesses and will not have control over when they will be allowed to reopen.
“The city council didn’t close Visalia,” he said. “There are certain things we can do and will be discussing. The city has never taken any action to close businesses.”
Following the State’s Lead
Councilman Greg Collins was the lone holdout on the council in the push to begin a return to business as usual, preferring to let state officials take the lead.
“I would be very supportive of opening our parks,” he said. “I would certainly be supportive of people getting out and about, because I think people are chomping at the bit to get back to normal. But, I’m going to follow the advice of the people at the state. They’re the experts.”
He pointed to the county’s high infection rate to support his reasoning.
“It also worries me to note that Tulare County is second only to LA County in terms of per capita (infections),” Collins said.
Up the Ladder
Councilman Steve Nelsen–who is scheduled to take part in a town hall meeting of local leaders to be aired on KMPH at 6pm on Thursday, May 7–believes the city’s businesses should open now “in a methodical way.” He urged those pushing for a move toward reopening to contact state leaders with their concerns.
“You can’t really demand, but you can ask strongly for a way to open businesses and move forward,” Nelsen said.
While Tulare County is a hot spot for COVID-19 infections, Nelsen blamed the county’s high infection rate on outbreaks at three convalescent homes. He also believes the stay-at-home order is having a deleterious effect on some residents.
“I hope that the county moves quickly,” he said. “I don’t think the people, some of the people, in our community are willing to wait much longer.”
Tulare County Supervisor Amy Shuklian, who was watching the meeting online, was quick to deny the county through its Health and Human Services Agency is responsible for enforcing the governor’s orders.
City Revenues Down
Meanwhile, the city’s coffers are taking a hit because of COVID-19, but the situation is not dire, said Finance Director Renee Nagel.
“Our sales tax, I don’t project it to be as bad as a lot of cities are saying up and down the state,” she said. Projections put the average loss of revenue to California cities at 57%.
“We are losing out on the businesses, the retails. We don’t think it’s going to be 57%. We think it will be less than that,” Nagel said. “We’re not sitting here saying everything’s rosy, but we’re not saying everything’s doom and gloom for Visalia for the quarter ending.”
She also reports Visalians are paying their utility bills at a higher-than-normal rate during the shutdown, and about 90% of property taxes have been paid. Despite Visalia faring better than many other municipalities, it is still bleeding money. Prior to the shutdown, the city projected a surplus of between $4 and $5 million. The city has rapidly run through it, though it is still not in danger of entering a budget deficit.
“We are projecting that will go down to about $186,000,” Nagel said. “That surplus is being eaten up by our expenditures.”
The city’s $15.2 million “rainy day” fund should remain untouched.
“We’re projecting not to touch that for this fiscal year,” Nagel said. “We’re hoping to have some more data by June.”
With much of the city’s business on hold, Collins suggested $500,000 earmarked for a project at Plaza Park could be redirected into aid for struggling Visalians.
“Obviously, there is a significant segment of our community that is having some fiscal issues,” he said. “Because I think Visalia has managed its money well over the years, I think we have the opportunity to do something for our citizens.”
Collins suggested funneling the money into local food banks and charities that deal with hunger. He also called for a hiatus on charging for business licenses, as well as temporarily cancelling sewer and water bills.
“For some folks who might be suffering, $55 might be a nice bonus,” he said of suspending fees for city-provided services. “For those of us who don’t need it, hopefully it will be spent in the community.”
His suggestions were not well received.
“I don’t agree with waiving the trash bill,” Poochigian said. “I think the number one thing we can do is getting people back to work.”
Nelsen echoed that sentiment, but neither man described how the city could aid employment. He suggested somehow using federal COVID-19 funding for that purpose.
“We could target it to people who need help, not people who want a free ride,” he said.
Poochigian then suggested the council vote to instruct the Visalia Police Department not to enforce the governor’s shutdown orders as a means of encouraging. The idea was quickly quashed by City Attorney Ken Richardson, who called the orders “lawful.”
“I would avoid any formal motion contradicting the state,” he said.
Nelsen also pointed out the city’s Code Enforcement Department, not the VPD, has responsibility for enforcing the stay-home order.
Special COVID-19 Meeting
Poochigian suggested the city work with local restaurants on a city-funded program to provide meals to those in need. Collins, however, said funding programs already in place might be more effective.
“Those agencies are in tune with what people in the community need,” he said. “We need to put the money with the people who know how to distribute it and not reinvent the wheel.”
Mayor Bob Link expressed his support for the idea, instructing staff to transfer the remainder of his discretionary fund into food distribution.
With no consensus on how to help Visalians, the council eventually instructed staff to formulate suggestions. The council will review those recommendations at a special meeting. Thursday, May 7, was announced as the special meeting date a day after the regular council meeting was held.