Item 9 GM13/20 COVID-19 Pandemic - Update on Council's Response................................... 1
General Manager's Report No. GM13/20
Office of the General Manager
Date of Meeting: 10/06/2020
9 COVID-19 PANDEMIC - UPDATE ON COUNCIL'S RESPONSE
· The COVID-19 Pandemic is continuing to impact the community however substantial progress in containment of the virus over the past month has enabled the reopening of many of Council’s facilities, although with amended service levels.
· The majority of staff continue to work from home and our service delivery has been adapted to ensure continuity of service has been maintained where possible or practical.
· The recent announcements by the Federal and State Government concerning the staged removal of containment measures will now enable the re-opening of most Council facilities by or during July 2020.
THAT the contents of the General Manager’s Report No. GM13/20 be received and noted.
The purpose of this Report is to provide an update on Council’s current response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The World Health Organisation has declared the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic. As the pandemic is expected to impact on Council’s operations for an extended period, an ongoing status report will be provided to each ordinary Council Meeting for the duration of the pandemic and through the recovery phases.
Status of Pandemic Response
Over the period of mid-May to mid-June 2020, the various pandemic containment measures implemented by Federal, State and Local Governments through April/May 2020 have greatly assisted in stabilising the spread of the virus through the local community.
On 15 May 2020, playgrounds and skateparks were re-opened following an easing of restrictions announced by the State Government. Appropriate signage has been installed at each site to inform the community of the COVID-19 measures. From 1 June 2020, Council’s Administration Centre and all branch Libraries were re-opened to public access but with reduced hours and service limitations. The Aquatic Centres, Brickpit Stadium and community centres are the only major facilities which remain closed. Further commentary on ongoing strategies for these facilities is provided later in the report.
Implementation of Action Plan
The Pandemic Action Plan has not required significant revision since the previous status report to the General Meeting on 13 May 2020. The Pandemic Coordination Team (PCT) continues to give consideration to how we proceed with the reopening of facilities in line with Government guidelines.
More detailed information on the status of operations by Division, is provided below:
Status of Operations over May/June 2020
Throughout May/June 2020 the easing of COVID-19 measures has enabled the staged reopening of various services and facilities provided by the Community & Environment Division. These changes are summarised below with more detail provided later in the report.
Libraries re-opened to public access on 1 June with a “Click and Collect” model where customers would order books online, or over the phone, and they would then be made available for collection at the various libraries. Access to further services in the libraries, such as public computers, will be phased-in over coming weeks. The normal operating hours have also been reduced to fit within the permanent staff-hours available.
Council’s sports fields were open to training activities from 25 May, and from 1 July competitive community sport will be open for persons aged 18 years and under, in accordance with revised State Government guidelines.
Community Centres are scheduled to be re-opened in early July. Contact is now being made with regular hirers to inform them of the additional COVID-19 requirements, include cleansing, and each facility is being fitted with cleaning wipe stations and hand sanitiser/soap dispensers prior to opening.
The current limitation on gatherings will not enable any public domain community events to be organised at the present time. As advised last month, Council’s Events Team launched an on-line community events platform “Friday Night Vibes” and this will continue until the end of June 2020.
Essential services such as waste and cleansing services continue to be provided to residents.
The Infrastructure & Major Projects Division continues to operate with most of its staff working from a home-based environment. The outdoor construction and maintenance crews have been able to undertake their tasks, including the delivery of the High Pedestrian Activity Area works at Pennant Hills.
The permanent staff within the Division remain productively employed on a range of tasks. Maintenance works at the Hornsby Aquatic & Leisure Centre, Galston Aquatic & Leisure Centre and Brickpit Stadium are underway to allow for a possible opening in July 2020, in accordance with previous advice to Councillors, and subject to a reasonable range of services to be provided which support the viability of the operations of this business unit.
Planning & Compliance Division
The number of development applications received continues to be generally comparable to previous years. The number of Service Requests received by Council in relation to planning, building and environmental compliance remains substantially the same. Staff have continued to efficiently assess applications and investigate service requests while implementing work from home arrangements. With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, traffic rangers have reduced patrols in our parks, playgrounds, skate parks and Hornsby Mall to encourage social distancing, and have returned to duties of parking enforcement and monitoring heavy vehicles, particularly in response to community requests.
Corporate Support Division
As reported last month, the Corporate Support Division have been able to transition most of its staff towards a working-from-home arrangement. Significant effort has been undertaken by the Division to assist the organisation with technology requirements, establishing online services, communication platforms and virtual council meetings.
The Customer Service Centre at the Administration Centre was reopened to public access on 1 June although with restrictions on numbers of persons allowed in the foyer area, and with reduced opening hours.
Financial assessments are being prepared on an ongoing basis to determine the financial consequences of this pandemic and the appropriate action needed to maintain long term financial sustainability. Procedures have been established to assist in providing community support for those experiencing financial hardship from COVID-19. The Delivery Program and Operational Plan, separately reported on the agenda of the 10 June 2020 General Meeting has considered the forecast impacts on budget, projects and services for the upcoming financial year.
Office of the General Manager
The General Manager and Executive Assistants are providing services as normal, including the Councillor Help Desk and management of Mayoral correspondence.
All staff within the Strategy and Place Unit continue to work from home and to manage current workloads effectively. Some members of the unit are returning to the office on occasional days as required for work purposes and this is being managed within current guidelines. A Communications and Engagement staff member remains a member of the PCT and provides support accordingly.
The demand for the team’s services remains high, as we now move into the current recovery phase. The design team have been rolling out signage for both external and internal facilities; social media and website remain our primary digital communications channels and are updated multiple times daily; and we continue to inform residents through eNews and local print advertising.
Community response remains positive and appreciative of Council’s response to the pandemic. This is reflective of the response from the community over the last six months as we dealt firstly with the bushfire emergency, then storms, and now COVID-19.
Since 1 November 2019, Council has posted over 500 times on its main Facebook page. These posts have reached over 3.17 million Facebook users and achieved almost 240,000 engagements. In the same period, followers of our main Facebook page increased by double the amount achieved in the 12 months leading up to 1 November 2019.
Council has also seen significant increases in traffic to our main website, and interestingly, to our Discover Hornsby website, as residents seek out opportunities for outdoor exercise over the last few months of restrictions. Visits to Discover Hornsby have jumped from 1,100 in March to around 4,000 in May, and most of these have been from new users.
While this demonstrates the effectiveness of these digital channels for Council, we continue to look at new ways to communicate with our harder to reach residents who may not be consumers of digital media. For example, this month we commence print advertising in the Dooral Round-up which reaches Cherrybrook and parts of Galston that are more towards Dural, Arcadia and Kenthurst areas.
Council-run Citizenship Ceremonies remain on hold until we can conduct face-face ceremonies (even if only in small numbers). The Department of Home Affairs continues to conduct online ceremonies, and this has included many of the new citizens due to be conferred in previously scheduled HSC ceremonies.
On Monday 8 June, Acting Immigration Minister, The Hon Alan Tudge MP announced that councils may now choose to conduct citizenship ceremonies in-person, online, or both. Council staff are currently evaluating this lifting of restrictions to determine the best approach for our ceremonies.
Ongoing work of the Strategic Place Management team to support local business recovery is outlined later in this report.
The Risk & Audit Unit is also operating as normal, but its priority focus is providing support to the PCT.
COVID-19 Local Government Economic Stimulus Package
The State Government has announced a $395 million relief package for councils in NSW. Whilst the final details are still being worked through, and every council will need to submit an application, it is currently unlikely that Hornsby Council will qualify for any significant support through this package.
The main benefit that will accrue to Council is a one-year holiday from a recently announced increase in the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) for 2020-21 which equates to $500,545. Unfortunately, Council will very unlikely meet the eligibility criteria for the Job Retention Allowance component of the package for permanent staff. Advocacy is continuing to see that the final assessment criteria are relevant to the real needs of local government.
Impacts on Local Business and a Community Support Package
Over the past month an increasing number of local retail and food businesses have re-opened in line with a relaxation of State Government requirements.
Overall, the Hornsby Helps Support Package has been well received. The opportunity to extend fee waivers and discounts into the next financial year to minimise further financial impact on local business and provide incentive during the recovery period that follows, is provided in the 2020/2021 budget but any support will be offered on a case-by-case basis, subject to business being able to demonstrate hardship.
Last month, Council launched the Hornsby Localised platform to support the development of a Town Centre Recovery Program across the Shire. A partnership has been formed with the Hornsby Chamber of Commerce and the Dural and Round Corner Chamber of Commerce to support the roll out of the platform. The platform is similarly being supported by a number of civic groups across the Shire such as the Pennant Hills and District Civic Trust.
The intent of the Hornsby Localised platform is to engage with businesses and civic groups who are predominately located within town centres and produce a local plan to support recovery efforts for those town centres. All businesses within the Shire are able to register and use Hornsby Localised at no cost, and a number have already registered. A focus is being placed on businesses in town centres in the first instance due to the relative complexity of re-opening those businesses, their interface with public space and the socio-cultural function that they serve in the local community.
As previously reported, staff have remained committed to serving the community and many have been working extremely hard to enable our business continuity plans to be implemented so that our services, which are not otherwise affected by mandated closures, can continue to be delivered as normal.
Even where some normal services have been disrupted, staff have adapted their service delivery capability by launching several new services, as previously outlined.
From a health perspective, it is pleasing that no staff have been confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus. Although specific staffing matters are not for discussion in a public report, it can be stated that our goal is to keep our permanent staff employed, paid and continuing to deliver core services to our community. Recognising that some staff workloads have been impacted due to closures of facilities, however, some staff have been redeployed to assist in other areas where resources are required.
A very pleasing aspect of the response from staff was a widespread voluntary acceptance of a 20% reduction in working hours for a 3-month period from 27 April to 24 July 2020. Due to the high take up of this measure, the voluntary timeframe has now been shortened to finish on 3 July, however, some staff will continue to take leave until 24 July. For most staff this involves moving from a 5-day week to a 4-day week and utilising their annual leave for this remaining day each week. Some staff, however, are taking leave without pay. This action by staff is to be commended as it substantially reduces our leave liabilities or provides direct cost savings to the budget. As a result, we will be in a better position to retain all our permanent workforce for a longer period if the pandemic measures are protracted, with savings being committed to funding part of the budget shortfall for 2020/2021.
There are currently no immediate plans to return all staff to the office due to the ongoing risk of widespread staff exposure to the COVID-19 virus. A variety of return to the office scenarios, however, are being considered and will be implemented over coming months. It is expected nevertheless that many staff will continue to work-from-home for an extended period if they can still effectively undertake their functions without being in the office, with increased transition to offices from early to mid-July 2020.
As detailed in Corporate Support Director’s Report No. CS11/20, 2019/20 – March 2020 Quarter Review (13 May 2020 General Meeting), initial estimates on the impact of the pandemic indicated that Council may forego up to $9.375 million in lost income during the 2019/20 financial year. To maintain tight budgetary control, a range of expenditure reductions were recommended. As a result, Council’s forecast 30 June 2020 surplus of $3.981 million reduced to $1.507 million.
The impact on the 2020/21 financial year has also recently been assessed as detailed in General Manager’s Report GM12/20 Adoption of Council’s 2020-22 Delivery Program including the Operational Plan 2020/21 (10 June 2020 General Meeting) and equates to $10.671 million for the year. The report recommends a range of expenditure reductions to offset the impact, which also amount to $10.671 million and would result in the current forecast surplus of $1.637 million for the 2020/21 financial year being maintained.
As most of the disruption events in relation to COVID-19 have only emerged since March 2020, the full extent of community welfare impacts is not yet known. At a State Government level, the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) moved to operational status on 17 March 2020 in response to COVID-19. The SEOC has representatives from 22 State Government agencies, including the Office of Local Government and will have the capacity to direct resources as required to the areas most affected by the pandemic. As community welfare needs arise within Hornsby Shire, our requirements will be referred to the SEOC for assessment. Planning by Council in the short to medium term may need to prioritise community welfare programs to aid those in need. Council’s Community Development Team are currently researching gaps in the area.
Business continuity planning is expected to shift over time as the impacts of the pandemic affect different parts of the organisation in different ways. This may be due to health impacts on work teams directly associated with the COVID-19 virus, decline in workloads in some areas but increased workloads in other areas due to changing social needs, or as a result of changing economic circumstances.
The PCT is convening daily via Skype and twice-weekly with EXCO to promptly address any emerging business continuity issues to refine our future course of business.
Community Engagement Activities
A significant program of community engagement has been planned across a wide range of Council initiatives, studies and projects in the coming months. Due to the social distancing requirements and inability to meet in groups, the scheduled community engagement for a number of programs will be postponed or moved to an online format. Upcoming engagement on the various strategies due to be presented to Council will be reviewed and reported to Council accordingly.
All engagement activities will be assessed against the following principles:
1. Council will ensure that legislative requirements and grant conditions are met.
2. Council will continue to respond to the immediate needs of the community.
3. Council will ensure that public participation seeks out and facilitates the participation of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision. Where this is not feasible, decision-making and key initiative milestones will be put on hold.
4. Council will ensure that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
5. Council will properly consider the impacts of COVID-19 on future priorities and resource availability.
A workshop will be held with Councillors over the coming fortnight to consider amended community engagement for major Council initiatives and projects for the coming months, including the re-initiation of Council’s Advisory Committees.
Council has several major projects that are currently in development. These include the redevelopment of Hornsby Quarry, Westleigh Recreational Area, Public Domain Improvements, tree planting, Sportsground Strategy and a major review of Hornsby Town Centre Plans and Strategy.
Considering the overall and emerging risks to Council from this pandemic, consideration will need to be given to where Councils priorities and capacity will best be utilised. Future monthly reports to Council on COVID-19 impacts will continue over the coming months. In short, we will need to be aware of financial delivery and ongoing risks arising from these projects and ensure that other priorities have not emerged as a result of the pandemic. Currently, staff will continue on the development of these major projects cognisant of the fact that progress will ultimately need to occur in balance with our capacity to engage with stakeholders in a meaningful way and in alignment with resource availability and priorities.
The following Principles continue to underpin each and every decision in relation to when our services and facilities will be re-opened:
1. Health and safety of the public and staff aligned with State Government advice.
2. Facilitating recovery and reopening of services to the community without unnecessary delay.
3. Acknowledging financial and resource limitations and uncertainty in the period up to 30 June 2020 at least.
Taking into account the above, the following actions have taken place and are proposed:
The Administration Centre Customer Service counters were re-opened to public access on 1 June 2020. Opening hours have been scaled back initially as there are insufficient staff-hours available to provide continuous customer facing contact throughout each day.
The foyer area has been modified with the provision of screens at the counters, social distancing floor decals and provision of hand sanitiser for members of the public. There are also limits on the number of persons in the foyer at any time in accordance with social distancing requirements.
The roster of opening hours has been advised to the community via Council’s website, social media platforms and signage, and will be varied as resources allow.
Playgrounds, Skate Ramps and Picnic Shelters
Council’s playgrounds and skate ramps were re-opened to public access on 15 May in accordance with revised State Government guidelines. Bookings for picnic shelters, weddings in parks and the camping grounds at Crosslands Reserve resumed on Friday 5 June 2020 with hirers subject to applicable COVID-19 restrictions.
Libraries re-opened to public access on 1 June 2020 in accordance with revised State Government guidelines. The initial opening phase was limited to a “Click and Collect” model where customers would order books online, or over the phone, and they would then be made available for collection at the various libraries. Access to further services in the libraries, such as public computers, will be phased-in.
The normal operating hours have also been reduced to fit within the permanent staff-hours available. Casual staff will not be returned to work until there is more certainty about the suppression of the COVID-19 virus in the community, there is minimal risk of more severe lockdowns in the future, and Council’s financial position is clearer.
Aquatic Centres and Brickpit Stadium
The revised COVID-19 measures permit the opening of gymnasiums and indoor swimming facilities from 13 June subject to restrictions on numbers of patrons at any one point in time. Council is keen to see these facilities being opened to use as soon as practical.
Clarification is still being sought from the State Government as to whether there are ongoing restrictions on the numbers of persons swimming in a pool at any one time. This limit is currently one swimmer per lane and if this was to be remain, it would not be financially viable to open the aquatic facilities due to the costs of heating the pools and provision of lifeguards for such a limited number of patrons.
The following requirements are therefore considered to be the necessary pre-conditions for opening of the aquatic centres in a viable manner:
· Introduction of learn-to-swim lessons albeit in an initially limited form.
· Allowing 4 people per lane (casual and squad swimmers) and the ability to also concurrently conduct aqua-aerobics classes of at least 10 in a safe manner.
· The ability to allow more than 10 people to use the gymnasium at one time.
· Toilets and change rooms allowed to be open for patrons use.
When these pre-conditions have been satisfied a period of 10 days is then required to return both the centres to full operating capacity (pools heated, casual staff re-engaged, and lane-hire arrangements confirmed for squad and learn to swim). With this in mind, the opening dates for the aquatic centres will not be confirmed at this stage and the community will be informed accordingly. It is proposed that as soon as we have these matters clarified, the aquatic centres will open without further delay.
In relation to the Brickpit Stadium, contact is now being made with regular hirers to ensure they have undertaken their own risk assessments prior to resuming their sporting activities. It is proposed, subject to advice from the regular hirers, to open this facility from 1 July 2020.
Community Halls and Meeting Rooms
The revised COVID-19 measures permit the opening of community centres from 13 June subject to restrictions.
Council staff are currently making contact with regular hirers to establish their plans for resuming their hiring activities and to inform them of the additional COVID-19 requirements, include cleansing. Each facility is also required to be fitted with cleaning wipe stations and hand sanitiser/soap dispensers prior to opening. As the supply of these specific items is due on or about 22 June, and time is required for installation, the proposed date for reopening of the centres is early July 2020.
Council’s sports fields were open to training activities from 25 May, and from 1 July competitive community sport will be open for persons aged 18 years and under, in accordance with revised State Government guidelines.
Due to the impact on winter sports, numerous requests have been received from local community sporting organisations seeking the modification of the season dates to allow equitable access to sporting fields. A joint announcement from different sporting codes, signed by their respective CEO’s, is expected soon in relation to agreed dates that extend the winter season and accommodate the ground changeover requirements. Bookings for facilities will then proceed in accordance with the revised timetable.
The current limitation on gatherings will not enable any public domain community events to be organised at the present time. As advised last month, Council’s Events Team launched an on-line community events platform “Friday Night Vibes” and this will continue until the end of June 2020. Council’s capacity to plan for larger public domain events, however, will continue to be assessed in keeping with the latest State Government requirements.
Long-term Overview of Recovery
Over the longer term, some projections suggest that the social and economic recovery from a pandemic may take up to 10 years. Whilst Council will progressively re-open its facilities it is nevertheless anticipated that the previous levels of demand for our facilities and services will take some time to return to normal.
Preliminary economic modelling from consulting firm, Informed Decisions (who have provided the demographic information underpinning our LSPS), indicates that the three most affected sectors in the Hornsby Shire will be accommodation and food services, education and training, and retail trade. Early indications are that gross regional product could fall by -12.7% in the June quarter 2020 and local jobs could fall by -8.2% which equates to a fall of 4,154 local jobs. This will be greater when the impacts on JobKeeper recipients are included. Further analysis of the impacts of the pandemic will continue to be assessed.
Local Government will be a significant resource in supporting the recovery and rebuilding of our communities and promoting economic activity. In this regard, staff are compiling information on potential projects that can support any stimulus funding that becomes available in either the immediate future or as longer-term recovery efforts commence. Based on known and adopted priorities, these opportunities are being conveyed to State and Federal Governments.
The budgetary impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are outlined in this report.
There are no immediate policy implications associated with this Report. A number of matters contained in this report, however, will be subject to further reporting.
Council has activated it business continuity plans for its operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and implemented the various containment measures of Federal and State Governments. Council’s response to the pandemic is assessed on a regular basis.
The officer responsible for the preparation of this Report is the General Manager – Steven Head.
Office of the General Manager
File Reference: F2009/00827