Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst told residents in an April 16 town hall that the reopening of the community rests in Gov. Brian Kemp’s hands, but city officials continue to make plans for that day. Those plans include new safety precautions at City Hall and a possible “stimulus package.”
Ernst held his monthly town hall a little bit differently from pre-pandemic versions, using Facebook Live to reach constituents who followed the statewide stay-at-home order. He reminded them Brookhaven was the first Georgia city to act, shutting down City Hall immediately upon hearing a city employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
That employee apparently was released from the hospital and continues to recover, he said.
Ernst said he doesn’t know how the city and state will reopen. Cities and counties are waiting on the governor’s decisions. He expects a transition period and social distancing requirements. He said since Brookhaven and Georgia made stay-at-home orders after such places like California and Washington, our opening may come later. Local and state leaders will watch what happens with COVID-19 cases before taking action here.
Metro mayors may offer suggestions to Kemp if they disagree with his plans. And, Ernst said, the state may align with its neighbors to determine best practices for reopening.
During the question-and-answer portion of the town hall meeting, resident Catherine Bernard asked via Facebook about the status of large-scale testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus disease and what level of government was organizing it.
“You’re right, testing is what is going to get us out of here quicker,” Ernst said.
City Manager Christian Sigman said a private testing site for patients of Piedmont Healthcare opened up recently. DeKalb is opening two registration, pre-qualification screening locations. One will be in the south part of the county and the other in the northern part, but it won’t be in Brookhaven. The northern site has not been announced, so he couldn’t release any details.
“The private sector is setting up publicly available testing locations as we speak,” he said.
City Hall and ‘stimulus package’
When City Hall reopens, expect a changed environment. Nightly sanitizing was under contract before COVID-19. A deep clean that included fogging the building interior was performed. Sigman said “sneeze guards” are being installed to separate city staff and visitors so they don’t share breaths that may contain the coronavirus.
Social distancing will be enforced by limiting lobby visitors to four or five, with overflow outside and again practicing social distancing. Expect to see floors labeled with safe spaces at least six feet apart.
The City Council plans a “stimulus package,” but residents and businesses shouldn’t expect city funds.
“[When] people think stimulus, they think dollars. Don’t expect anything like that,” Ernst said in the town hall.
Asked later what other form stimulus could take, Ernst said only that a “Brookhaven stimulus package is being considered and there are no details at this time.”
Staff have been directed to propose ways the city can stimulate the economy and also promote a safe social stimulus.
Since the governor’s executive order supersedes all other pandemic related orders, all Brookhaven can do is match his directive. City Council did that so Brookhaven police officers can enforce the requirements of the order.
The mayor told his audience that circumstances made Brookhaven ideally prepared to deal with a shutdown of City Hall. The city had been preparing a disaster plan for months. They even had a practice drill set for April 21.
City services, construction moving at full speed
Though city hall remains closed, city government continues to operate.
“Services are actually off and running. Building inspectors are going out and inspecting, building code inspectors are doing enforcement,” Ernst said. “The city is running pretty much close to full speed.”
Brookhaven started handling permits online last year. The shelter-in-place order didn’t change much. He said you can’t go into City Hall. But you can call or email to get questions answered.
“The board of appeals and planning board continue to meet online as our city council has,” he said.
Brookhaven has pushed forward on its construction projects, taking advantage of the lower traffic count with so few cars on the road.
“We just did a contract for the Blackburn Park improvements from the park bond,” Ernst said. The city had projected spending nearly $1.3 million on these park improvements that include marquee fencing and parking lot renovations.
The Ashford-Dunwoody Road project at Montgomery Elementary School already was under contract. Work should begin as the intersection project at Johnson Ferry-Ashford Dunwoody is completed, which he expects to happen in about a month.
“Briarwood Pool is being worked on right now. Before COVID, we had all that rain. It rained every day for quite a while, so we got behind. There will be a delay in opening at this point,” Ernst said.
Heavy equipment will soon start moving dirt for the new public safety building along the Peachtree Creek Greenway, which is, expected to be completed in 18 months.
Finances remain in good shape
Financially, Brookhaven remains in good shape, Sigman said. The Finance Department and chief financial officer have tracked revenue sources from day one of the coronavirus crisis.
“The biggest revenue source is property taxes. Those are set as of Jan. 1 and we’re not worried this year,” he said.
The hotel/motel tax may be a small part of the city’s general fund, but it’s a large part of the tourism bureau’s budget. Officials will have to determine where they can spend limited funds.
“We will see a decrease in the municipal court by $120,000 to $125,000 a month in fines and fees,” Sigman said. “It will drop to zero as long as court is closed.”
Building fees and applications for building activity so far remain pretty constant, he said. If the shutdown continues for another 60 to 90 days, he expects it will have an impact.
Ernst said city reserves are strong enough that they could cover the entire park bond payment for 2021 if it was necessary.
–Bob Pepalis, with contribution by John Ruch