Coronavirus creates countless headaches but does not harm city (or its taxpayers) financiallyJan 18, 2021 03:45PM ● By Carl Fauver
Despite the pandemic, members of the city police department transition team met weekly, not missing a step as they prepare to take law enforcement “in house” on July 1. (Taylorsville City)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
With its tragic death and hospitalization numbers worldwide, it seems only natural to assume COVID-19 would have an equally devastating impact financially on municipalities across the country. Certainly, the pandemic has crushed a number of small businesses, while landing millions of Americans on unemployment. But truth be told, from a strictly economic perspective, the coronavirus has created a financial windfall for Taylorsville and many other cities.
“This pandemic year of 2020 was truly the best of times and the worst of times,” Mayor Kristie Overson said during the final city council meeting of the year. “Our city sales tax numbers look very good, up 10% from last year.”
Later in the same council meeting, an economic report credited the city’s “diversified tax base” as a key reason why city coffers did not take the hit most were expecting. One person pointed out, “when there was a run on toilet paper—and all those shelves were empty—sales tax was paid on every roll.”
Bottom line: In a year many of us want to forget, quickly, there was one silver lining. City officials report there is no fear of a looming property tax hike due to revenue decreases caused by the pandemic. In fact, during the fourth quarter of 2020, it could be argued Taylorsville had “too much” money, courtesy of Uncle Sam.
As part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) economic stimulus bill, Salt Lake County received a pool of money to distribute to municipalities based on their populations. Through that formula, Taylorsville received $1,778,142 in July.
However, the funds arrived with two significant strings attached: the money could only be spent on things directly addressing COVID-19 and all of the money had to be spent by the end of the calendar year. Any unspent portion of the funding would have to be returned to the feds.
Those stipulations on the federal grant funding created challenges for city officials, as they determined how to properly spend nearly $1.8 million in five months. But it was nothing they could not handle.
The real challenge came three months later, when completely unexpectedly the county provided a second, identical chunk of federal CARES Act money to the city. Now Taylorsville officials had about 10 weeks to identify coronavirus needs and spend another $1.8 million before the end of 2020.
“It was not too difficult to identify virus-related spending needs for the first grant, and we had five months to do it,” said City Administrator John Taylor. “But when we were told in October, we were receiving another $1.8 million—with all the same spending restrictions and the same Dec. 31 deadline—it became a bigger challenge. At first, all I knew for certain was that we would find needs. I mean we weren’t going to waste tax money. But we also did not want to send any back.”
Eventually, the feds loosened their restrictions to make spending the second grant much easier. Initially, cities were told the funds could not be simply spent on police and emergency response salaries. But later the feds relaxed that policy.
“Then we were able to allocate that entire second grant to police salaries,” Taylor said. “Since we had already budgeted for those salaries, that freed up city funds for other needs.”
As for the first $1,778,142 grant, nearly half of it (“about $800,000”) was budgeted for extensive remodeling inside Taylorsville City Hall, primarily at both ends of the second floor. The work was done to create windowed barriers in reception areas, to reduce the spread of germs between employees and the public. The construction also included more spacing and separation in office areas and cubicles.
Also included in the remodel were funds to create touchless entries to the building, on the north and south sides. The new entry doors were not yet installed at press time but were expected to be completed before the end of December.
Another portion of that first federal grant, $150,000 was earmarked for distribution by the Chamberwest Chamber of Commerce, through its Taylorsville Shop Local campaign.
“We identified 20,536 Taylorsville homes in two ZIP code areas and mailed each of them two $15 shop local coupons,” said Chamberwest President and CEO Barbara Riddle. “We then invited all of our Taylorsville businesses that were negatively impacted by coronavirus to participate.”
The program did not require residents to “match” the coupons with money out of their own pockets. Likewise, merchants were not asked to “discount” their merchandise. Business owners received the entire $15 (in grant funding) for each coupon they received. However, there was a limited time on the shop local dollars. They would only be honored until the entire $150,000 portion of the grant had been spent.
As of Dec. 3, the Chamber of Commerce website reported 49% of the money had been spent by local residents. At that point, funds were expected to last another couple of weeks but should all be gone by now.
“City officials were very proactive by funding the shop local program,” Riddle said. “It benefited local residents and businesses at the same time. The city has been working very aggressively to support the business community. We had 66 businesses accepting the shop local dollars. Restaurants seemed to benefit the most.”
Riddle said some Taylorsville businesses have actually thrived during COVID-19 slowdowns—such as those in landscaping and home improvement—as many residents have spent money around their homes while spending so much time there.
“Businesses are all over the place through this pandemic,” she concluded. “There are businesses having their best years ever, others that are struggling and some that may not make it. Our tourism and hospitality businesses have all been severely impacted.”
“We have received nothing but positive feedback on the shop local program, from both residents and businesses,” Overson said. “We wanted the program to help both of those groups and we’re glad that it has.”
Meanwhile, one Taylorsville City employee who’s been kept particularly busy during this unusual year is Emergency Response Coordinator Donnie Gasu. He’s spent the last nine months connecting people and groups in need of personal protective equipment (PPE) with their required supplies. Since mid-March, his one-man department has distributed about 8,000 facemasks, more than 50 gallons of hand sanitizer and various other items such as gloves, gowns and thermometers.
“I’ve been working through the city’s Cultural Diversity Committee to help identify groups that need masks,” Gasu said. “We’ve given about 6,000 masks to various ethnic groups. The remaining 2,000 masks have gone to the police department, senior housing facilities, water district employees and visitors to our city offices.”
Another group that has remained busy during the pandemic is the Taylorsville Police transition team. Shortly into the pandemic last spring, city leaders announced their plan to end the contract with the Unified Police Department for law enforcement services and to reestablish the city’s own department. The group has met weekly since then, and remains on schedule to launch the Taylorsville Police Department on July 1.
One hiccup in the process came just before Thanksgiving, when UPD Taylorsville Precinct Chief Tracy Wyant had a change of heart. After initially accepting the position to shift over to become the city’s new police chief, he changed his plans. But Taylor said even that unexpected change of heart will not delay the department’s launch.
“Chief Wyant was always our first choice, but we did have a list of qualified candidates in case he passed on the job,” Taylor explained. “Tracy told us his decision the day before Thanksgiving. But we made some calls over the long weekend and began conducting interviews that following Monday. We’ll have a qualified chief in plenty of time.”
In fact, as of January the new Taylorsville Police chief may be on board. But as of press time, he or she was not.
“We are working from a short list of qualified candidates and may extend an offer sometime during the holidays,” Overson said. “But it’s more likely we will officially hire our new police chief sometime in January.”
At least two members of the Taylorsville City Council have also been impacted directly by coronavirus, although not in relation to their city posts.
Council Chairwoman Meredith Harker spent part of her time early in the pandemic all alone in her Calvin Smith Elementary School (2150 West 6200 South) third grade classroom. When the Granite School District directed students to stop coming to class last spring, Harker operated a book exchange with her kids, through the classroom window. The kids remained outside, while she was inside taking in and handing out books.
Harker was also one of the organizers of a teachers’ parade, when dozens of the school’s educators drove through their students’ neighborhoods to honk and wave.
Meanwhuile, the city’s newest councilwoman also adjusted to COVID-19 on the fly. In late September, veteran city Planning Commission member Anna Barbieri was unanimously elected by the four other city council members to file a vacated seat. But before that, she had shifted gears in her own successful business to address pandemic needs.
Anna Barbieri and her sister Tamera Perkins own and operate White Elegance, a clothing line that primarily manufactures dresses to be worn by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during Temple weddings and other ceremonies. But when coronavirus halted those weddings, the company changed gears.
“After the virus hit, our retail sales were off 60% to 70%,” Barbieri said. “But when we began manufacturing PPE, it picked about 25% of our business back up.”
During the first six months of the pandemic, Barbieri estimates White Elegance produced some 62,000 medical gowns, masks and caps.
All in all, the unique and stressful year of 2020 presented a multitude of challenges in a variety of ways to Taylorsville elected officials and administrators. But the bottom line is, nothing was knocked particularly off schedule, and the city did not suffer the severe sales tax revenue shortfall they had initially expected.