CCAO created The Voice of County Leadership series to help members tell their stories and hear the issues that matter to them. We opted to discuss Stark County’s response to COVID-19 difficulties.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Since 2010, I have been elected to the board of Stark County Commissioners. I bring 35 years of elected experience where I have cultivated a diverse background in government and public affairs. My journey began in Canton/Stark County, Ohio, where I served as county recorder, county auditor, and as the first woman elected mayor of the city of Canton. My path of service took me to Washington, DC where I served as deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, and as director of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Currently, I am vice president of the board of Arts in Stark; a member of the Exchange Club of CantonStark County; president of Stark Housing Network; a member of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio; and vice president of the Mariners Island Condo Association. In 2000, I served as General Chairperson of the Pro Football HOF Festival. My volunteer service to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, altogether, covered 35 years.
I’m a founding member of Women’s Impact and was named the 1st Athena Award winner in Stark County. Women’s Impact brings established women leaders together with emerging women for mentoring.
What effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on county operations?
In being consistent and supportive of the orders issued by the Governor DeWine and Director Acton, in Stark County, some county offices and elected officials have severely restricted or eliminated in person interaction with the public and are conducting the business of their offices over the phone, via email or through limited by appointment access to their offices. Some offices have created staggered reporting times and are also limiting those utilizing county vehicles to only a single employee in the vehicle.
Our courts have limited some court activities as well as expanded the use of technology in holding more hearings, etc. over audio or video conferencing. The county office building remains open, but public traffic has been severely reduced, due to the changes in operations by the Courts and other offices.
The commissioner’s office, along with other offices have a significant number of employees working from home, as well as scheduling those employees who are still working on-site, in teams, working alternating schedules to try and limit exposure and increase social distancing in the work place.
Was there a crisis plan to put into place?
Most county departments had Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPS) in case of a physical disaster, but not a crisis plan for a pandemic situation. Some parts of the commissioner’s COOP were used as a starting point to make the needed adjustments to the operations of our office.
How are you and your fellow commissioners managing meetings?
In consideration of public distancing, most constituent meetings and other outside meetings are being handled over the phone. Since the state legislature made the changes necessary to the Ohio Revised Code, to allow public bodies to conduct meetings electronically, the weekly Board Meetings of the Commissioners have been held via teleconference. In accordance with the ORC requirements, these meetings are announced and published. In addition, a public access line is available for the public to listen to the meeting. While utilizing the audio conference meetings, the normal Public Speaks portion of the meeting is not available in its previous form. However, written “public speaks” comments may be submitted to the Board via a dedicated email address and they will be made part of the public record of the meeting.
Regarding budget cuts, what factors led you to your decision to make those cuts?
Upon a review of county revenues conducted by our county director of Management & Budget, it was determined that more than 60% of the county’s 2020 Revenues (primarily sales tax, conveyance fees, interest income, Ohio local government fund, casino tax, etc.) stood to be severely impacted by the current pandemic.
Though it was still too early to calculate the actual extent and duration of the impact on county revenues, the board of commissioners felt it would be a prudent financial strategy for the board to take the initial step of reducing our current budget appropriation (by about 2.3%) and also some additional actions to minimize ongoing 2020 budget expenses. Some of those other actions included suspending consideration of our 2020 capital budget, hiring and wage freezes (except when required by a union contract) and requesting the cooperation of elected officials and department heads in minimizing any discretionary spending. It was felt by the board that the sooner we acted may lessen the severity of any additional potential future budget adjustments.
It is widely acknowledged the virus will cause a significant drop in sales tax dollars. What additional changes are you considering making to adjust for the loss of revenue?
Subsequent to the board’s previously mentioned 2020 budget actions, our county budget commission has recently reduced the 2020 Certificate of Resources for our sales tax by $7 million, a 23% drop in 2020 Sales Tax Revenue or almost 10% of our total 2020 Operational Budget Revenue. With the combination of the previously mentioned 2020 budget adjustments, along with prudent financial management over the past years, Stark County has a sufficient unencumbered carryover balance to allow us to “weather the storm” for a few months, without any additional budget changes.
Over the next 45-60 days, we will get a better feel for three important questions; 1) how significant will the impact on our budget revenues actually be? 2) how long with the current conditions continue? 3) how quickly or slowly will revenues begin to recover? We will take this time to develop multiple contingency plans for our budget, depending on where we see things going at that time. In an unprecedented event like this, all options must be on the table and under consideration.
With the amount of disinformation and misinformation in the public, what are you doing to ensure county residents have accurate information to stay safe?
The commissioners provide weekly updates regarding the county on a local radio station. In addition, the commissioners are regularly invited to partake in various roundtable chats and community meetings, most of which are now held via teleconference. In addition, our local newspaper has been very diligent through both its news coverage and website in keeping Stark County residents up to date on the impacts and changes on county operations. In addition, the home page of the county’s website now has a banner and link for COVID-19 Information. This link directs residents to a variety of properly vetted local, state and federal sources of information.
Anything to add?
I would like to say a special “thanks” to the first responders, doctors, nurses, and all of the employees that support the front-line medical efforts. And of course, thank you to the county family of employees that pulled together to keep the engine of local government running. Together, we will get through this stronger and wiser. Use common sense, be calm and be cautious.
This interview originally appeared in the spring edition of CCAO’s County Leader. To read the full edition, click here.