PORT ANGELES — City lawmakers have declared an emergency because of the COVID-19 outbreak and directed staff to provide “legal and reasonable” utility bill relief during the rapidly-evolving crisis.
The City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to affirm and ratify an emergency declaration made by Port Angeles City Manager Nathan West earlier in the day.
The declaration suspends bidding requirements and a provides a “great deal more flexibility to be nimble relative to contracting,” West said.
City staff will make utility payment arrangements with customers rather than disconnect utilities during the COVID-19 emergency, West told the council.
“Staff is prepared to work directly with those in hardship situations to work out a payment plan, recognizing that plan may require adjustments if COVID-19 economic circumstances continue to remain,” West said in a prepared statement.
“As a reminder, the city of Port Angeles also offers utility discounts for low income individuals on electric, solid waste, water, wastewater and stormwater.”
Health officials reported Wednesday the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Clallam County, a man in his 60s who was exposed in King County.
“I ask that members of the public recognize that our circumstances are changing daily with little notice,” West said Tuesday.
“As a city, we are dedicated to continuing to adapt our plans and respond to the needs of the community.”
The city is tracking its costs for the COVID-19 emergency for possible reimbursement from the federal government, West said.
After a lengthy discussion on the coronavirus outbreak, City Council member Mike French made a motion to direct West to “provide legal and reasonable utility bill relief to our utility customers or to provide the City Council options at our next City Council meeting for that.”
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for April 7. French’s motion passed 7-0.
“I think this is something that we need to do to support our community,” Deputy Mayor Navarra Carr said.
French, a downtown restaurant owner, said small businesses that are forced to close during the COVID-19 outbreak will be saddled with high base rates on their utility bills even if they stop using utilities.
“This council might get an unpleasant surprise when a bunch of business owners realize how much of their utility bill is base rates when they’ve turned off pretty much everything,” French said.
“All their lights are off, they’re not heating their place, they’re closed up and they still have a pretty darn big utility bill. We should be providing more relief.”
Earlier in the meeting, French had suggested that the council consider discounted base rates and a lower utility tax to help struggling businesses and individuals during the COVID-19 crisis.
West said he was “quite comfortable” with French’s motion with a caveat that details would come later.
“I want to take a great deal of care recognizing how many rumors we have already seen in this current situation,” West said.
“I do not want the motion on the table to give any false hope at this point or result in rumors that get out to say a customer can do this or can’t do that and what the rules actually are.
“I want to be really clear those aren’t going to be developed tonight,” West added, “but I am quite comfortable with the motion recognizing that staff, too, believes we need to find some solutions here that ultimately benefit our community.”
Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin made several suggestions for ways the city could help amid the COVID-19 crisis.
“Public handwashing stations I think is a fairly low-hanging fruit that could tackle what’s going to help people to do the most effective thing they can do, which is wash your hands frequently,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
A Washington Low Income Housing Alliance official had suggested expanded rental vouchers to help renters make monthly payments and landlords who rely on rent income to pay their mortgages, Schromen-Wawrin said.
“If we don’t see that voucher money coming, I think we should consider a moratorium on evictions, and also a moratorium on mortgage payments,” Schromen-Wawrin said during the three-hour council meeting.
“Keeping people in housing is just as important as finding housing for the people who are homeless, and keeping people in housing is probably going to be much more cost effective than sheltering people who are currently unsheltered.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee placed a 30-day statewide moratorium on evictions and called on all public utilities in the state to suspend shut-offs, waive late fees for out-of-work customers and expand bill assistance for economically impacted customers.
Schromen-Wawrin on Tuesday said the city could help reduce the chances of COVID-19 infecting the population in the 120-bed Clallam County jail.
“If we don’t have to be arresting somebody, if we can cite and release somebody, I feel like we should be doing that,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“Obviously, that’s a decision by the (police) officers, but it’s a decision that we shouldn’t take lightly, putting somebody in jail under these pandemic situations.”
Schromen-Wawrin encouraged the public to help their neighbors who may be struggling with social isolation.
“Ultimately, a lot of this stuff is going to be neighbor-to-neighbor support,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“The more that people step up for other people in the community and don’t look to government to provide things that people can provide to each other, I think the better off we’re all going to be in this.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.