Charlottesville is considering allowing its boards and commissions to conduct business electronically.
At the end of a five-hour virtual work session on Tuesday, the council discussed recent open meeting law changes approved by the General Assembly.
City Attorney John Blair said that the assembly accepted a proposal from Gov. Ralph Northam that would allow government bodies to meet electronically to discuss business during the coronavirus pandemic.
The council approved a resolution last month allowing panels to meet electronically only if it specifically related to the pandemic.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that the city hopes to hold a work session in the next two weeks to consider an ordinance allowing the regular meetings.
Some councilors, however, pushed for an initial discussion during Monday’s City Council meeting.
“I think the sooner we start that conversation, the sooner we’ll be able to start getting that input and feedback from boards and commissions,” Councilor Michael Payne said.
City Manager Tarron Richardson said he’d work with Walker and city staff to determine what could be compiled for Monday’s meeting and the council will discuss it then.
The discussion came at the end of a work session focused on an update from department heads on changes to the city’s operations.
A common theme among the department heads was a need to focus on mental health among employees.
“No matter what department you’re in, this is a really challenging time for everybody,” Walker said.
Police Chief RaShall Brackney said six officers have been tested for COVID-19, but did not say if they were positive or negative.
Brackney said all of the department’s personnel are deemed essential and cannot work from home.
“That doesn’t exist for us so we’ve had to be very creative,” she said.
The police department is using online reporting and screening calls for a physical response to reduce interactions. Vehicle sharing has been limited, only three people can be in the locker room at a time and officers must sign up online to use the gym.
The department also is providing mental health resources in individual and group sessions.
Fire Chief Andrew Baxter said his department is conducting wellness checks when employees show up to work. He said that, right now, the department has enough personal protective equipment.
Baxter said officials need to be prepared for a resurgence of the virus.
“We need to plan for going back to more restrictions,” he said. “In our world we’d rather be accused of spending too much time planning because that’s when you can solve problems with a low risk.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker told Baxter and Brackney that the council wants to find a way to compensate the department for their work during the pandemic.
“We do understand that the work that you all are doing is different,” she said.
Social Services Director Diane Kuknyo reiterated previously reported increases in welfare applications among growing unemployment.
More than 11,000 people have filed new unemployment claims since March 15, according to the Virginia Employment Commission. The number makes up more than 7% of the area’s estimated labor force in February.
In Charlottesville, 3,516 people have filed new claims since March 15. In Albemarle County, it’s 4,568 people.
For comparison, 3,348 people were unemployed in Charlottesville and Albemarle, Nelson, Greene, Madison, Louisa, Fluvanna and Buckingham counties combined in February.
Applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs rose 115% and 150%, respectively, in March compared to the same period last year.
Kuknyo also said a staff member is working with people in Crescent Halls to promote a potential mass testing of the public housing facility.
Officials are hoping to offer 100 to 150 tests by May 1 and collect information on how many people have been exposed to the virus.
Human Services Director Kaki Dimock said that 41 of the department’s 43 employees are teleworking.
Dimock highlighted efforts to help people who are homeless during the pandemic.
Last month, city officials worked with The Haven and People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry, commonly known as PACEM, to create a permanent overnight shelter for men and women.
The Haven housed women and men were placed at Key Recreation Center.
To reduce large congregations of people in one place, Dimock said 17 men and seven women identified as high-risk are being housed at La Quinta Inn & Suites. No women are staying at The Haven and 16 men are remaining at Key Recreation Center.
Dimock said that 45 people are still at The Salvation Army’s shelter and 10 are at the Shelter For Help In Emergency, a domestic violence shelter. Those facilities have space for social distancing measures.
Economic Development Director Chris Engel highlighted the city’s efforts to support local businesses suffering from the pandemic.
“This started as a public health crisis, but it will end as an economic crisis,” he said.
Last month, the city’s Economic Development Authority approved a revamp of several programs to inject $350,000 into the local economy.
Engel said the city has provided nearly all of the roughly $85,000 set aside for the Building Resilience Among Charlottesville Entrepreneurs program. Grants, which averaged about $1,200, were used to cover fixed costs and fund changing business models.
Engel said the city is getting ready to award about 30 grants through the revamped Go Hire program averaging about $3,300.
The program originally was focused on job training or wage subsidies, but now focuses on helping businesses retain or rehire employees.
The city also created about 20 signs for restaurants shifting to takeout only services, Engel said. Officials also usually host a job fair in May at John Paul Jones Arena, but Engel said that would be canceled. Engel said the department wants to host a virtual job fair.
Workers at the city’s parking garages also have not been furloughed or laid off. Engel said no one has had their hours reduced to less than 30 a week.
Garland Williams, director of Charlottesville Area Transit, said that ridership overall has dropped by 57% compared to last year and buses are operating on fewer routes and hours.
Buses are limited to 10 people at a time and eliminating fares allows riders to only enter from the back of the bus.
Some CAT employees have seen reduced hours, but Williams said that everyone is still getting paid a full salary and no one will be laid off.
“It’s good to hear that at least one department for now would be ok,” Walker said.
Interim Parks and Recreation Director Todd Brown said that about 65% of employees are working on site.
Brown said that dog parks remain open with a limit of 10 people, while camps have been canceled and parking lots have been closed.
Councilor Sena Magill said the city might consider closing the dog park after the first case of a dog contracting the virus was reported on Tuesday.
Brown said the department is considering ways to reopen Meadowcreek Golf Course with appropriate restrictions.
Utilities Director Lauren Hildebrand and interim Public Works Director Marty Silman said many employees have to come into work each day for essential services.
Hildebrand said that water and sewer rates will not be changed during the pandemic. She noted that residential usage is up while commercial and university volume has decreased.
In utilities, Hildebrand said employees are receiving wellness checks each day and the number of people on trucks has been reduced to two.
Neighborhood Development Services Director Alex Ikefuna said that land-use operations are still ongoing, although many employees are working from home.
Officials are still reviewing all developments that were submitted before March 12.
Ikefuna said that the city’s Comprehensive Plan update is still continuing virtually and comments from a work session on the Cherry Avenue Small Area Plan have been submitted to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
No more than four NDS staff are allowed in the office at a time and, beginning Friday, the department will allow document dropoffs between 10 a.m. and noon each Friday.
Ikefuna said that the city needs to consider accepting new rezoning and special-use permit submissions so that staff can complete the review process. He also said officials should consider how the Planning Commission can meet remotely to discuss those applications.
“We have to find a way to move forward,” he said.