The North Wilkesboro commissioners approved a resolution Thursday giving emergency powers to Town Manager Wilson Hooper during the coronavirus crisis.
The resolution, passed unanimously, granted Hooper the “comprehensive authority” to make decisions related to the town’s personnel policy, utility and town government policies and general business operations as long as the town operates under a state of emergency, which was declared by Wilkes County on March 13 and amended on March 19.
On Wednesday, the towns of Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Ronda revised their declarations of emergency to prohibit mass gatherings of 10 or more people within town limits. As such, the work session Thursday was limited to nine people inside the commissioners’ room of Town Hall. Some members of town staff waited outside the room, listening to the proceedings. The meeting was also publicly broadcasted over Facebook Live for the first time.
Under the terms of the resolution, Hooper was granted authority to take necessary actions under, but not limited to, the following scenarios without consulting with the board:
• Personnel policy – to adopt amendments to the town personnel policy such as emerging practices regarding employee leave, designating essential vs. non-essential positions, promoting telework and flexible scheduling etc.;
• Utility and town government policies – to take necessary action to address issues and make adjustments to amend utility services such as temporarily suspending utility disconnections, non-payment fees, etc.;
• General business operations – to modify business practices such as altering business hours for walk-in customers, halting non-essential services, and offering alternative business transaction techniques that lessen public contact, etc.
“Some of these things I’ve already been doing, but it’d be nice to have your official approval,” said Hooper.
“I’ll try my best to keep you informed, but the urgency with which we need to act means that sometimes I can’t keep you informed of things. Things are happening too quickly,” he said.
Hooper said that no town services have been closed since the state of emergency. “The town is open for business, but it’s not business as usual. All services remain open.”
He emphasized, “The day is coming where services will have to be modified in a way that’s apparent to the general public. Grass near the corner of your house might not get mowed. Potholes will go unfilled. Zoning review will be delayed. The swimming pool (at Smoot Park) might not open.
“Elective things, or what I call ‘nice to haves,’ will go away for a while so we can focus on providing core services.”
Hooper stated that he believes that Gov. Roy Cooper will soon issue a statewide stay-at-home order. “I think the reason he hasn’t done it yet is that he and his people are working on a list of a statewide essential jobs and services that would be exempt from the order.”
While noting that opinions vary, Hooper said he believes the state will experience a spike in COVID-19 cases in two to eight weeks. “Once we’re past the peak and on the other side, it’s hard to know what the recovery will look like. I imagine, like the buildup, it’ll be done in steps. Prohibitions should be rolled back one-by-one.”
Referencing the efforts of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in revitalizing the country after the Great Depression, Hooper added, “We’ll all have to channel our inner FDRs, but I’m confident we’ll weather this. The good news is, our town staff is experienced and have good instincts.”
Mayor Robert Johnson thanked the commissioners for their support over the last two weeks as he led the town’s emergency response with Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore and Ronda Mayor Victor Varela. “We had rather err on the side of caution and safety than sickness and death,” said Johnson. “I appreciate Wilson’s help and guidance.”
Commissioner Andrew Palmer said, “I’m really happy to be here and see all of you tonight. It brought a little bit of normalcy to my life and a sense of humility and appreciation for all of you.”
Palmer wore a face mask and gloves to the meeting, saying it was due to his lingering cough and concern for his at-risk family members.
The board unanimously approved the cancellation of town budget work sessions scheduled Tuesday and Thursday. Hooper suggested the postponement of budget talks until the board’s next regular meeting on April 7.
“This issue (COVID-19) has blown our budget to heck,” said Hooper. “All the work that we did to present to you next week, we’ve had to go back to the drawing board. So, we need a little more time.”
Hooper said that town revenue would be greatly impacted by a loss of sales tax and water consumption resulting from the current economic downturn. “Sales tax will spike, and then it’ll dip and stay dipped for a while. I’m hoping the state will accelerate the three-month lag and tell us sooner what our sales tax figures look like before the end of the fiscal year (June 30).”
The commissioners also agreed to change the April 7 meeting to virtual, meaning the board members would vote from separate locations and the meeting would be held via Skype, Zoom or another video conferencing platform. Hooper said the meeting would still be properly advertised, and the public would be provided a link to watch the meeting. No vote was required on virtual meetings.
The Thursday work session video was archived at facebook.com/pg/NorthWilkesboroNC/videos. Videos of subsequent public town meetings will also be cataloged there.