The toll of the coronavirus pandemic is already evident in the City of Davenport: the SkyBridge is closed. So are the Main and Eastern public libraries, The River's Edge, the Junior Theater and other city facilities.
And yet municipal life carries on. Pothole crews are still on the streets. Police officers are still out in the community. Firefighters are working hard to serve the city.
The COVID-19 crisis is evolving rapidly, posing unprecedented challenges to every part of the country, Iowa’s third largest city no exception.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Davenport leaders talked about how the city is responding to a once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis, from workplace policy changes to new financial maneuvers around a large bond sale.
Many changes impact Davenporters. Public transit remains operational, with free ridership as a health precaution to limit passenger-driver contact. Corri Spiegel, city administrator, said the city is considering suspending Sunday service in order to perform deep cleaning of buses.
Above all, local leaders are praising city workers for their tenacity and resolve amid pandemic.
“They just keep doing their job,” said Davenport Mayor Mike Matson. “The staff and everybody involved in your government is doing an outstanding job.”
City personnel planning
City staff began preparations for the COVID-19 crisis about three weeks ago, Spiegel said.
Now in the throes of the pandemic, city staff stay apprised of news through a slew of routine meetings with other local leaders, including neighboring towns, the county, private sector leaders, public health officials and others.
Davenport had 43 full-time employees in travel quarantine as of Wednesday, and the majority were expected to return to full service by April 6, Spiegel said.
As a result of local initiative and federal law, the city has adopted new, internal workplace policies until the end of the emergency period, which applies to all of the city’s nearly 1,200 active employees, of whom just under two-thirds are full-time.
The policy permits employees to work from home under certain listed conditions including approval from the supervisor.
Employees can also use any accrued leave, including sick leave, to care for their children if the child's school is closed or routine childcare services disrupted. City workers can also donate their sick leave to another employee's sick leave bank.
The policy was signed by all six major unions that work with the city.
To identify essential personnel, the city has relied on an advisory memorandum from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security. Most of Davenport’s essential personnel are located within the Police, Fire and Public Works Departments, Merritt said.
One of the most important changes involves sick leave policies. As approved Wednesday night by City Council, and per the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed by President Trump last week, Davenport’s policy means that an employee could request 80 hours of paid sick leave, if the employee is subject to a quarantine or isolation order, if they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking a medical diagnosis, if they’re caring for an individual in quarantine or a child out of school, among other reasons.
In addition, once the up-to 80 hours of leave are exhausted, up to an additional 10 weeks of paid leave are available for an employee unable to work due to the need to care for a child whose school is closed or whose child care provider is closed or unavailable.
“The City has tried to be as flexible as possible in the development of policies that would permit our employees to continue getting paid, while also being mindful of the financial due diligence and responsibility that we have as a local government,” Merritt said by email before the meeting.
Merritt cautioned that the situation is still evolving, as federal and more local rules around work and the pandemic force workplaces including the city to adapt.
Market turmoil forces bond creativity
Wednesday night was the final meeting for Brandon Wright, city chief financial officer and assistant city administrator, who is leaving to become the city manager of DeSoto, Texas.
Before leaving, Wright faced a complex final meeting in which he guided the council through a series of maneuvers intended to save the city money.
The City Council was expected to pass an ordinance providing for the sale and issuance of up to $51.2 million in bonds.
But the coronavirus pandemic has roiled financial markets, complicating the bond sale. Jon Burmeister, managing director of Public Financial Management, the city's municipal adviser, told council the municipal bond market “hasn’t been so dislocated since the Great Depression.”
So he and Wright advised council pursue a private placement option, which was described as a “plan B” alternative that would save the city about $1.1 million, according to Burmeister.
Under private placement, the bond sale would proceed not through the open market but through a private offering specifically through Colorado-based Key Government Finance.
“The financial institution is buying the credit of the City of Davenport, and they’re fixing this interest rate in,” Burmeister explained. “So I think it protects the city from the perspective that if something happens at the bank, you just keep making your normal payments, and you’re kind of insulated from that.”
Wright acknowledged the move was unorthodox but justified by the financial figures. “Typically, that is going to be a higher interest rate than what the bond market would provide for you,” Wright said. “In this situation, however, it turns out that it’s quite a bit favorable to the city to be able to use private placement.”
The low bid through the open process was for 2.46%, which was “not a bad result,” Burmeister said. But a private placement option through Key Government Finance was for 2.07%, which would save the city $1,068,000, Burmeister said.
After a series of convoluted maneuvers, council rejected the competitive process bids so that it can hold a special meeting on Thursday afternoon to accept the private placement.
Upon his exit, Wright was roundly praised for his stewardship of city finances.
“We could be in a world of hurt without you,” said Alderman Rick Dunn.
Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times.
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