How do you run a municipality in the time of COVID-19? 'On the fly'

Apr 1, 2020

You have limited advance knowledge of how much money you will get from Washington or Albany, you don't know what your sales tax will be and you don't know what your Medicaid costs will be because there is a pandemic roiling the world. Now, running a local government, town or county.

Officials still have to worry about building or repairing roads or bridges or filling potholes and trying to plan for next year's projects. Erie County wants to rebuild Maple Road. Chautauqua County starts a Fredonia bridge project on Monday.

Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa said most municipalities are winging it.

"There's rules for how you approach a tornado or a hurricane. There's rules for how you approach a truck overturning on the Thruway. This one, we're writing the rules as a group of municipalities and municipalities working together with the county and the county working together with the state. All those rules are getting written on the fly," he said.

Spring usually marks the start of road and bridge maintenance, but COVID-19 has changed the rules of group work.
Credit City of Buffalo

Kulpa said around 40% of his town workers are physically on the job, with the rest working remotely - planning for daily operations, preparing for this year's $17 million in capital spending and trying to prepare a plan for restarting everything when the virus subsides.

Erie County takes bids Thursday for a renovation of Maple Road between Hopkins and Transit, perhaps the biggest project in the county's $40 million road and bridge schedule this year. Projects like that require four workers in a municipal pickup truck on the job and some won't take that chance.

"Engineer estimate on that project is about $6 million. It's on our busiest road. No need to debate that," said Erie County Public Works Commissioner William Geary. "Maple Road sees 30,000 cars a day. Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. There's a lot to be had by reconditioning that road and making sure it's a safe way to travel throughout the community."

On Monday, workers will be shutting down Matteson Street in Fredonia, the start of a $2 million project to replace a bridge over Canadaway Creek. It is a bridge whose steel and concrete has reached the end of its useful life. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's rules on essential work, this qualifies because the creek span had become a health and safety issue.

Chautauqua County Executive P.J. Wendel is trying to do the lake and stream maintenance and hoping tourists return this year.
                
"We got to get right back to business," Wendel said. "Unfortunately, the rest of the things we do here in county government haven't stopped, and maintaining our waterways is something we feel is very important to us and also to our economy. Our healthy waterways give us a healthy lake. I feel confident that, yeah, it's a little challenging. Sometimes things come across you desk and you say, 'We're still doing this, right?'"