Q&A: Coronavirus Means City Workers “Are Busier Than Ever”

Interview, Malcolm Marshall

Editor’s Note: Richmond City Manager Laura Snideman spoke with Richmond Pulse about how the city is responding to some of the challenges caused by the coronavirus.

Richmond Pulse: First of all, how are you and your family doing?

Laura Snideman: We’re doing OK. Thank you for the question.

I think what’s interesting in this event is that a lot of folks have been worried about getting cabin fever and not having enough to do. But city workers, we are busier than ever actually trying to adjust to a lot of things, react to changing circumstances and continue to provide all the essential services.

RPHow is the city maintaining essential services to the public during this crisis?

LS: We have been able to maintain all essential services this entire time so far. And that includes, obviously police and fire response, but also keeping our parks and our streets clean and in good repair. We’re also working still on key projects such as the development of the annual budget. And that annual budget process has become more difficult right now. Our annual budget starts in July. We do expect some revenue losses due to COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place order.

RPCan you talk more about projected financial losses to the city and the challenges the city may face down the road?

We’re trying to estimate those losses. We also expect that the losses are primarily going to be in the sales tax area, at least initially. In addition to those revenue losses, I’m sure you’re probably aware the city of Richmond has actually had a structural deficit for a number of years. So having that structural deficit to address now layering with COVID, we have a compounded situation and next fiscal year is going to be a challenge.

We are starting the planning process to take as many proactive steps as possible to address those budget challenges. Again, we only have initial data; we’re in the preliminary planning stages. But just things that we are considering include trying to make sure that we support our local businesses as best as possible. And that right now includes trying to make sure they can get connected with state and federal resources.

We also are looking at starting a community fund that people could donate to that could provide some financial support for our community. We want to, throughout this entire process over the next few months, we want to really be working with our community partners, such as the business groups, our employee bargaining groups. There’s all kinds of great groups to try and help identify solutions to the budget challenges that we’re probably going to be facing. We’re also applying for grants, new and additional grants, that might be available, particularly for things like getting people back to work, helping people be able to find jobs and help businesses deal with to hire.

And we’ll also be looking for new revenue sources. That’s something that we need to do no matter what. Regardless of the COVID-19 situation.

It definitely is going to be a challenge, but we are starting the planning process because Richmond has met the challenge in the past and I’m sure we will meet it again.

RP: What is the likely affect to those essential services with a prolonged shelter in place order?

LS: I believe that we will continue to be able to maintain our essential services.

RP: Does the city of Richmond plan to set aside emergency funds for local residents? If so, how much and how might that be used?

LS: So we are exploring. That was one of the things that we’re doing to try and address that, just kind of the overall budget situation and the overall economic situation.

We’re exploring the possibility of setting up some type of community fund that people could donate to and be able to help those in need in the community. The parameters of that have not been established yet. So the size of that fund is unknown, but it requires donations to the fund.

We would hope we would be able to get some grant or foundation funding into that so that it wouldn’t just be individuals, but would be in addition to individual donations and the parameters of whether that would be to individuals or whether it be to businesses or local nonprofits serving those in need in the community, that hasn’t been established yet.

We are trying to come up with a funding source. That’s the main messages. We are trying to send something like that up. The other part of the answer is we do have some limited funds, I believe around $300,000 in what they call a revolving loan fund and it is for small local businesses. So it’s not directly for an individual. It’s for businesses. We need changes approved by the state to allow us to spend those existing funds in these circumstances. So we don’t have that yet, but we are trying to move forward with that.

RP Are there any provisions in place for the homeless population in the city?

LS: Yes. So there are there are there is a ton of efforts going on to help those most vulnerable in our community. All of the community based organizations, all of the local nonprofits are still operating, providing food and shelter and outreach and visiting people, trying to educate folks about how to stay safe and with distance and cleansing and all the rest of that stuff. We have requested additional sanitation stations for additional restrooms and additional places so people can keep their hands clean.

We are not clearing out homeless encampments right now. So people are not being asked to move from where they are currently staying. And then the county continues to work on other efforts.

RP Is there anything else you would like tell Richmond residents?

LS: Yeah, I think, in general, I just want to stay focused on the community input and partnerships on how we address the financial challenges. Not just immediately with the COVID, but also with our structural deficit that’s existed for several years and how we can be focused on long-term financial sustainability for the city.

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