Item 10 GM9/20 COVID-19 Pandemic - Update on Council's Response..................................... 1
General Manager's Report No. GM9/20
Office of the General Manager
Date of Meeting: 8/04/2020
10 COVID-19 PANDEMIC - UPDATE ON COUNCIL'S RESPONSE
· The COVID-19 Pandemic is having an unprecedented impact across all sectors of the economy and in each local community.
· In response to this pandemic, Council has activated its Pandemic Management Plan and COVID-19 Action Plan in order to maintain business continuity and continue to deliver services to the community.
· To date, various changes to Council’s operations have been introduced in response to Federal and State Government directives for the containment of the pandemic.
· The duration and extent of the pandemic is currently unknown; however, planning is underway to consider how best to manage the impact on future operations and prepare the organisation for the recovery phase of the pandemic.
THAT the contents of the General Manager’s Report No. GM9/20 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. Over the month of March 2020, the response from Federal, State and Local Government has substantially escalated.
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.
Activation of Pandemic Response
In response to the increasing health warnings about COVID-19 throughout February 2020, and in expectation that a global pandemic would likely be declared, Council’s Executive Management Team (EXCO) convened on 2 March 2020 to endorse Council’s Pandemic Management Plan and to proceed with the development of an action plan specific to COVID-19. A Pandemic Coordination Team (PCT) comprising of four (4) staff was also appointed to advise on the implementation of the various actions required to protect the health and welfare of staff and the community, and to maintain business continuity as best as possible.
Initial messaging was provided to staff and to the community via Council’s website and social media platforms, that Council was mindful of the emerging COVID-19 situation and that our actions were being guided by information provided by NSW Health (being our single source of truth).
Implementation of Action Plan
The initial risk assessment of the PCT identified there was significant business continuity exposure if whole work teams were directed by NSW Health to self-isolate for 14-days if there had been close contact with a COVID-19 infected person.
The early work of the PCT, therefore, sought to quickly protect the continuity of essential service functions such as Waste Management, ICT, Customer Service, Communications, Emergency response capability (trees/asset repair), Human Resources & Payroll functions, Finance, Senior Executive, Delegations and Council meetings. In this regard, action plans were developed to split personnel in these functional areas to different worksites and/or work-from-home arrangements. The recent introduction of new ICT software such as VM Ware and Skype for Business enabled these measures to be implemented at short notice without significant impacts on productivity in these essential service areas.
In response to the escalation of Federal and State Government concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and the introduction of new virus containment measures (such as bans on non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people and self-isolation of persons travelling from overseas), this first phase of the action plan was implemented on Monday 16 March 2020 and essential service teams were split.
The second phase of the action plan set about to accommodate working-from-home arrangements for the majority of other staff, where this was possible. On Friday 20 March 2020 an initial test of our work-from-home capability was undertaken with a trial of approximately 80 staff. Following this successful trial, and in accordance with Federal and State Government directives, remaining staff were transitioned to work-from-home arrangements and approximately 260 personnel are now working under these arrangements, with direct travel to and from field inspections. For services that cannot be delivered remotely such as open space and asset maintenance, construction, regulatory and environmental health functions, a number of measures have been implemented to ensure continuity and the safety of staff.
The second phase of the action plan also addressed any new containment measures which were announced (or anticipated) from the Commonwealth and State Government. A rolling series of changes to Council’s services and closures of facilities were regrettably, but necessarily, introduced. Although our major facilities are now closed to public access (including libraries, aquatic centres, Brickpit Stadium, Community Halls and Meeting Rooms, Community Recycling Centre (CRC), Administration Centre and Council Chambers) there was a concerted effort to keep them open for as long as possible in order to maintain service levels to the community. There was also agreement between the General Managers of NSROC councils to keep in daily contact to ensure that major decisions on closures of facilities in the northern region of Sydney were aligned as closely as possible.
The most recent containment measures have now required the closure of playgrounds (of which Council has 140) and skateparks. Open space areas, boat ramps, public amenities, footpaths and roads are essentially the only council assets which remain open for public access, although strict social distancing measures are in force within these areas.
More detailed information on the status of operations by Division, is provided below:
Status of Operations
Community & Environment Division
In response to public health measures, the Community & Environment Division has needed to make changes to a number of the services and facilities it provides to the community. This includes physically closing Council’s libraries at Hornsby, Pennant Hills, Berowra and Galston to customers and transitioning to online delivery of services where possible. The home library service is continuing albeit via a doorstep drop-off/pickup model.
Council has also closed its network of community centres to the public and provided refunds to affected hirers.
Council’s open space areas remain open for residents to use following appropriate social distancing, however, playgrounds, skateparks, outdoor fitness and tidal pools have been closed. Council continues to monitor these areas to ensure that public health measures are followed.
Essential services such as waste and cleansing services continue to be provided to residents. In this regard, staff have been working with our contractors to ensure that suitable business continuity measures are in place.
Infrastructure & Major Projects Division
The Infrastructure & Major Projects Division has transitioned much of its staff to a working-from-home environment. The exceptions to this are the outdoor construction and maintenance crews and the workshop team. These employees generally travel from home to worksites although some are required to collect trucks from the depot where appropriate social distancing measures are in place to separate teams.
The permanent staff within the Division are currently productively employed on a range of tasks and this is expected for some time.
Planning & Compliance Division
The NSW Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Environment has confirmed that it is imperative that councils continue to provide planning and assessment services during the current crises to ensure the industry provides economic opportunities both now and when the pandemic ends. With that in mind, assessment planners have successfully transitioned to work-from-home and continue to evaluate and determine development applications. Planning Panels continue to operate (both local and regional panels) and on 25 March 2020, the Local Planning Panel met with new procedures in place to meet social distancing requirements, including facilitating members of the public to phone-in to address the Panel. Future meetings of the panels are anticipated to be held as virtual meetings.
The NSW Government has acknowledged that during the COVID-19 pandemic the carrying out of Council’s regulatory functions may be particularly challenging, however local communities will continue to look to their council and other regulators to protect them from harm and maintain our planning laws. A system is in place to triage requests and complaints received and those assessed as most critical are dealt with immediately while less urgent or less serious matters may be delayed. Council’s compliance resources have been allocated to target unlawful behaviour that has the greatest potential to cause harm to people, the environment, critical public infrastructure and services. Our officers are continuing a program of announced inspection of take-away food premises to assist in ensuring the health of the community. Our Backyard Swimming Pool Inspection Program is under review to continue to focus on those where residents are seeking to upgrade their pool or require certification for a contract of sale. Further, our traffic rangers continue patrols focussed on blatant and dangerous breaches of parking regulations and are also assisting with the monitoring of our parks and reserves to encourage social distancing.
Corporate Support Division
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.
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.
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 have moved to working-from-home and continue to undertake daily tasks remotely. A Communications and Engagement staff member has been assigned to the PCT and has been working from home since 16 March 2020 when Phase 1 of Council’s action plan was implemented.
The community is being updated regularly through Council’s website and Facebook posts. The website has a dedicated section for COVID-19, to better present relevant information to the community and to better house important content moving forward. Communications to date have been focussed on updating the community with changes to Council’s services and facilities, and this will now move towards opportunities to maintain connection and engagement with our residents.
Citizenship Ceremonies have been cancelled until further notice.
The Risk & Audit Unit is also operating as normal but is also providing support to the PCT.
Postponing of Local Government Elections
To provide certainty to councils, communities and potential candidates, the NSW Government has made the decision to postpone the September 2020 local government elections. The decision to postpone the elections is necessary to ensure the health and safety of voters, NSW Electoral Commission staff and election candidates. It follows Parliament passing amendments to the Local Government Act to provide the Minister with the power to postpone the elections for 12 months with a possible further extension to 31 December 2021 should the need arise.
Councils are waiting on further advice from the Office of Local Government regarding possible extensions of time to adopt Operational Plans and budgets.
Impacts on Local Community
In addition to concerns about the health implications of being infected with COVID-19, the impacts on the community over the month of March 2020 have been dramatic in most other respects. Apart from observable shortages of essential household items in supermarkets due to panic buying, there have widespread closures of retail and food businesses in the local shopping precincts. There have also been major disruptions to normal life with limitations on social gatherings, cancellation of sport and other events, closures of major public facilities and limitations on non-essential travel. Although there have been substantial stimulus measures introduced by Federal and State Governments in recent weeks, there is also an increasing level of unemployment and the uncertainty this brings.
Accepting that these changes have been rapid, members of the community have been broadly supportive and understanding of the decisions made by Council over the last month. The social consequences of this pandemic, however, will certainly become more evident as containment measures continue to remain in place. As most of the business continuity measures and government restrictions have now been implemented in respect of Council’s operations, the PCT will be giving consideration to how Council can best respond to the potential social and economic impacts of the pandemic. A strong focus on moving service platforms to online and electronic means has already occurred. Staff are rapidly coming to grips with how increased digital content can be utilised to provide services to the community.
Impacts on Local Business and a Community Support Package
The impacts of COVID-19 on local businesses have escalated as social distancing restrictions have been increased. Throughout March 2020 there have been a substantial number of retail and food businesses closing their shopfronts and moving to online services and/or takeaway/home delivery where possible. Although not as apparent, many other businesses outside of the main retail areas are also reported to be closing or reducing staff numbers.
The Federal and State Government stimulus packages for business will ultimately be the most critical measures in minimising the economic impacts of this pandemic. However, recognising that local government can help ease the cost pressures on local business, a Hornsby Helps Support Package has been introduced. The measures in the support package to date have been estimated to represent savings of $3.483 million to local business and the community up to June 2020.
For the period until 30 June 2020, Council has granted full or partial fee waivers, where there is a demonstrated need, for:
1. Outdoor dining permits on Council land
2. Use of sports grounds, clubhouses and community facilities under leasing arrangements
3. Commercial tenants in Council owned properties – excluding telco towers, car parking spaces and Westfield
4. Residential tenants in Council owned properties
5. Operators of education and care services in Council owned properties (if, and when, they are closed)
In addition to the above, Council is:
· Taking a more flexible approach to managing parking in town centres although is continuing to vigorously enforce unsafe parking.
· Waiving or refunding booking and hire fees for use of community centres, parks and playing fields, lighting costs, admission and service fees, inspection and infringement fees until 30 June 2020.
· Providing hardship relief for rates subject to the provision of satisfactory evidence of need.
· Maintaining a Business Support page on the website with useful links to assist the business community
· Seeking to use local suppliers where possible, and
· Relaxing delivery restrictions on truck movements and delivery times for supermarkets
Current forecasts are that we should expect the restrictions to continue for at least six months. Further reports will detail decisions 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.
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.
From a health perspective, it is pleasing that no staff have been confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus. Should such a situation arise, however, the Safety and Wellness Team has focused its capability on managing staff illness and return to work requirements.
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, planning is currently underway to identify projects in other sections of the organisation where these staff resources can be deployed. Other measures such as utilisation of existing leave entitlements are also being considered and where agreed, reduction in hours.
Regular messaging is being provided to staff as these matters progress.
Recognising that there is an overwhelming amount of information in the public domain about COVID-19, our communications strategy has focussed on delivery of factual information about changes to Council’s services and operations. Rather than commenting on other aspects of the pandemic, links are provided to other agency websites for specific information about COVID-19.
The dedicated COVID-19 section on Council’s website has been updated and provides information on the following:
· General Information
· Find the Facts
· Community Support
· Business Support
· Latest news
Updates are also being regularly posted on Council’s social media sites and via traditional media.
Council is not immune to the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial estimates on the impact of the pandemic indicate that Council may forego up to $9.4 million a quarter in lost income from facility closures and reduced services, and from offering relief to the community as provided within the Hornsby Helps Support Package. Additionally, the number of hardship applications for relief from rate payments is expected to increase in line with the unemployment rate, which would have a significant impact on Council’s cash flow for the remainder of the 2019/20 financial year and potentially into 2020/21 financial year, depending on the duration of the pandemic.
In order to maintain as close to a balanced budget as possible for 2019/2020, a number of savings totaling over $5.5million has been identified. These include expenditure reductions, a recruitment freeze, the deferment of a number of Special Rate Variation Projects and planned maintenance of some Council assets, a reduction in Council’s legal budget, and the removal of some administrative and corporate budgets.
These savings measures will be detailed fully in Council’s Third Quarter Financial Review which will be formally presented to the 13 May 2020 General Meeting.
Reaffirming that a number of other risks to Council’s finances still exist, all efforts are focused on achieving as close to a balanced budget as possible.
The impact on the 2020/21 Annual Budget is currently being assessed as additional data on the amount of income lost, requests for rental relief and rates hardship applications are received. As noted in General Manager’s Report No.GM8/20 (8 April 2020 General Meeting) further information of the financial impacts on the 2020/21 Financial Year will be provided to Council at the 10 June 2020 General Meeting. It is expected, however, that the 2020/21 Annual Budget will be significantly affected, and subsequent quarterly reviews will likely require further refining of the budget and services that Council provides.
As most of the disruption events in relation to COVID-19 have only emerged through 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 and EXCO is convening daily via Skype 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. Statutory matters such as Councils Delivery Program and Operational Plan will still need to be undertaken subject to any amendments to legislation made by the NSW State Government.
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 recovery phase from this pandemic will need to be considered at the appropriate time. Some projections suggest that the social and economic recovery from a pandemic may take up to 10 years. Updates on recovery planning will be given when the full impacts can be more comprehensively assessed. The COVID-19 report to the 13 May 2020 General Meeting will provide an outline of the Recovery Plan.
Both the Federal and State Government have outlined unprecedented support and stimulus packages. These packages, broadly, are all supported, however, it is noted that none of the packages offer support for Local Government, ether by underwriting income, supporting our services or for employees, who along with contractors deliver these services for our community.
Local Government will be a significant resource in supporting the recovery and rebuilding of our communities and promoting economic activity. The provision of stimulus support to Local Government would preserve this capacity for these future tasks and help support the continued employment of over 50,000 people across the sector in New South Wales.
To this end, advocacy is being undertaken through NRSOC, LGNSW, Professional Staff Networks, Local Members and relevant Ministers of State and Federal Government.
Staff are also 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
There are no attachments for this report.
File Reference: F2009/00827