As COVID-19 cases increase, council looks to provide some relief

Correction: Because of an editor’s error, the article incorrectly listed the wrong media organization that first broke the story about nursing facility Accordius Health. The Daily News-Record was first to report it, followed by WHSV.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates in the Central Shenandoah Health District, the Harrisonburg City Council is considering emergency measures to offer relief to citizens and businesses by waiving certain late fees. 

The move came as the number of cases steadily increases in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area. The district is investigating an outbreak of the virus at the nursing facility Accordius Health at Harrisonburg, as the Daily News-Record was first to report followed by WHSV. So far, four patients have tested positive, while 60 are showing COVID-19 like symptoms, and 97 are being tested at the facility.

Mayor Deanna Reed opened Tuesday’s council meeting by thanking viewers for tuning in remotely – the public was not allowed to physically attend the meeting, but could watch via livestream and call in during public comment periods.

Emergency ordinances

City residents and businesses seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic can now request that late fees be waived on water, sewer, and trash disposal bills from March 30 to 30 days after the local state of emergency is terminated. Normally, a 10 percent penalty is added to unpaid balances.

The council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance allowing the waiver, which pertains to businesses and their employees that have been shut down or significantly restricted by the governor’s order on March 23. Affected businesses include restaurants, concert venues and fitness centers. 

Written requests for the waiver can be made to the director of public utilities, Mike Collins. Other public utility customers who have lost a significant portion of their income due to the pandemic can also request a waiver.

The council tabled another emergency ordinance which would waive penalties and interest associated with late payments of meals and hotel taxes. The proposed ordinance would have waived those fees between April 20 and June 20, but City Attorney Chris Brown said staff “hesitantly” recommended against enacting it.

“We all know people who own or work at restaurants around town … so we do understand how desperate the times are,” Brown said. But, knowing that tax revenue is going to be “severely reduced in the coming months,” he said staff did not want to incentivize businesses to delay paying those taxes. 

Brown added that those are “trust taxes,” which the establishments collect from the customer on behalf of the city, and shouldn’t be used for operations in any case.

“I’m really torn,” said council member Chris Jones, who participated in the meeting via phone. “I’m always going to shy on the side of helping economic development and helping businesses.”

Vice-Mayor Sal Romero asked city staff to see which other Virginia municipalities have approved such a waiver and how it’s working for them.

Work yet to do on next year’s budget

City Manager Eric Campbell presented a budget proposal for fiscal year 2020-2021, and the council will hold a work session to discuss it further at 5 p.m. next Tuesday. 

The council is required by the city charter to pass a budget by May 31. And city leaders hope to have a clearer picture of the impact of COVID-19 on revenue sources by then.

“The pandemic and the economic effects are drastic … we’re immediately going to have to amend it to reflect what the actual revenues are,” Campbell said.

Campbell said they should start to see the effects on meals and hotel taxes in a week, and have a better understanding in a month’s time.

As he noted in a city council-school board liaison meeting last week, Campbell did not include the 13-cent real estate tax rate increase necessary to afford the debt payments that would be incurred by continuing construction on the new high school. Campbell has asked the school board to consider a one-year delay on construction, which is currently in the site-work phase. The school board will reconvene in a closed session on Thursday to discuss this and other options.

The proposed budget does, for now, still include expenditures like increased funding for the city schools, a cost-of-living increase in salary for city employees and an increase in the city’s contribution to the Middle River Regional Jail, primarily for expanding medical services.

Campbell also said the proposed budget includes $430,000 in community contributions to 25 outside agencies, several of which have not previously received city funding. Thirty-nine agencies applied for more than $1 million in total funding after the council made it a priority in last year’s retreat to restructure the application process. 

However, Campbell said that budget line — like any expenditure that’s not considered a core service — is subject to change due to lost revenue.

A public hearing on the budget will be included in the city council’s next meeting on April 28.

Also at the meeting:

  • Tom Hartman, director of public works, presented the results of the Downtown Parking Study to the council. The findings collected by consultant Desman Design Management suggested that the city will need to create 710 new parking spaces over the next 10 years to keep up with downtown development.
  • The council unanimously approved a rezoning request from Park Apartments and Faith Community Free Methodist Church for an 11-acre property on Rocco Avenue off of South Main Street. Park Apartments intends to build 60 one- and two-bedroom apartments to provide “opportunities for housing that is not student housing.”
  • The council approved a special use permit to allow the operation of a youth gymnastics facility in an industrial zoning district on Carpenter Lane on the southern edge of city limits. Mayor Deanna Reed, Vice-mayor Sal Romero, and Council member George Hirshmann voted in favor of the permit. Council member Chris Jones voted against. And Council member Richard Baugh abstained.
  • The council reappointed Bradley Chewning to the Economic Development Authority.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Logan

    The Daily News-Record first reported the outbreak at Accordius. People called WHSV out on their Facebook page for saying they knew but made the “editorial decision” to not name it, which was irresponsible, in my opinion.

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