OSCODA – Deliberating for two hours on March 17, the Oscoda Township Board of Trustees gathered for a special meeting in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
They approved a series of motions, which included shutting down public access to the township hall building for the next three weeks. The tentative date to reopen is Wednesday, April 8. So long as they don’t have to extend the shutdown, the idea is for the board to hold their next regularly scheduled meeting as planned, at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 13, in the Robert J. Parks Library.
Trustees voted to conduct a special meeting prior to this, though, at 2 p.m. in the library on April 8. This way, they can reevaluate the situation, determine if the shutdown needs to go on longer and whether they will, in fact, hold their April 13 regular meeting.
Officials say they will assess things as they go along, and they can cancel the special meeting if needed. They gave consensus that, in the interest of limiting contact with others, they would be fine leaving any meeting cancellations up to an executive staff decision.
In attendance at the March 17 special meeting, held in the library, were three members of the public, Township Superintendent Dave Schaeffer and all board members but Trustee Jim Baier.
Despite the closure of township hall to the public, residents will still be able to pay bills, and some select services/operations will go on as usual.
Further outlining the changes is the “Oscoda Township Government and Virus Precautions” document, which was prepared by Supervisor Aaron Weed and approved by the board in a 6-0 vote.
It begins with a list of immediate precautions, such as to limit close proximity and physical contact with others, use care when touching surfaces, wash hands frequently and so on.
Weed also wrote that, effectively immediately, he is waiving the policy of employees needing to bring medical verification for anyone who feels ill. The waiver will stay in effect indefinitely.
A majority of the remainder of the document is summarized below, minus some items specific only to township staff/officials.
Old Orchard Park:
The park will be closed until Thursday, April 16. Bidding of camping spots will tentatively begin on this date, as well, but the date may change based on the developments of COVID-19.
Robert J. Parks Library:
The library was closed March 16, and is expected to reopen on Monday, April 13. This date may be extended, based on changing circumstances. Book returns will be suspended until the library is reopened. Late book return fees will be suspended during this time and resume upon reopening.
The procedures listed below went to effect once the shutdown commenced.
• Utility billing will operate at a limited extent. Timely payment is encouraged to avoid confusion and, during the shutdown, bills may be paid via the township website, at www.oscodatownshipmi.gov; by utilizing the drop box in the township hall parking lot; over the phone using a credit card, by calling 855-894-2402; or sending payments through U.S. Mail.
* Transfer of funds via person to person will not occur.
* Late fees and water shut-offs will be waived during this current billing period. However, late fees prior to the shutdown period will not be waived.
* Normal billing, turning-on service, and shut-offs will resume in the next billing period.
* Water and sewer employees may not be available to enter your home/structure during this time related to water turn-ons and meter maintenance. Please plan accordingly.
* Service turn-on will still be performed.
• Incoming phone calls. Staff will not be available to take calls. Those with an emergency are asked to dial 9-1-1. Otherwise, the public is encouraged to use e-mail as the primary means of communication with township staff. Some offices will still correspond by e-mail during the shutdown.
• Notifications. In addition to signs being posted on the township hall building, notices will be sent to the newspaper, radio station and shared on the township Facebook page, website and digital sign.
• General. Critical operations will continue, such as maintaining water/sewer infrastructures.
* The treasurer, clerk, superintendent and supervisor will still perform primary functions; however, it will be from their homes, to the largest extent possible.
* Township employees will be paid normal pay rates during the shutdown.
• Emergency Services.
* Police operations will continue, but may become limited in the event of a potential manning shortage and possibly the need to limit exposure to other people.
* Fire department operations will continue as normal; however, weekly meetings and training sessions are cancelled until further notice. A limited number of people will be able to maintain and inspect the department’s equipment, so that it is still on the ready.
* The Department of Public Works (DPW) will conduct its critical operations only. Non-critical operations will be suspended.
• Zoning. Regularly scheduled meetings are cancelled and will resume in May. Special meetings due to critical zoning activities may be needed during this time. The fees for special meetings as a result of government shutdowns will be waived until normal activities resume. If such a meeting is scheduled, it will be open to the public, but anyone having signs of illness are encouraged to not attend to prevent any potential spread of viruses.
* Zoning permits will be determined on a limited basis. Property owners and contractors are encouraged to consider delays in project planning to help limit the spread of viruses. For critical projects, please contact the zoning office via e-mail and utilize the township website for on-line permits.
• Code Compliance. Enforcement activities will be delayed until the township reopens. Any code violation deadlines will be extended during this time. Outstanding fees will also be granted an extension during this time.
• Assessing. Most assessing activities are suspended until the township re-opens. Property owners are encouraged to utilize the internet services provided by the township, county and state for research, and to save any questions or issues until reopening of assessing services.
Assessing staff will conduct only critical activities that the state requires during this time.
• Board of Trustee Meetings. Regularly scheduled board meetings will be held on a case by case basis. Cancellations will be determined the day prior to the meeting. Special meetings will be scheduled based on critical activities. Otherwise, executive staff will handle all necessary interim decision making (based on inherent statutory authorities) until normal activities can resume. If a special meeting is scheduled, it will be open to the public, but anyone having signs of illness are encouraged to not attend meetings to prevent any potential spread of viruses.
• Cemetery operations will cease. Arrangements for the deceased will need to be made through one’s selected funeral home. Internments will commence if funeral facilities exceed storage capacity, but funeral gatherings will not be attended nor supported by township staff.
• Township contractors are encouraged to take extra precautions and the steps necessary to help prevent the spread of viruses.
• Auditing. The auditor was to continue with work in the township until the end of March 20, with the clerk, treasurer and superintendent providing support to the auditor during this time. Afterwards, these staff were to commence limited services from home, to the most extent as possible.
Schaeffer, at the special meeting, said Weed prepared the document after working with various department heads and executive staff to understand the limitation of operations for the township, and what that means.
Officials then went into greater detail about each of the items that were outlined, in addition to approving several other steps related to the shutdown process.
Prior to voting on whether to close township hall, Clerk John Nordeen said the conversation at the special meeting was assuming a closure. “I’d like to see what the board thinks about closing to the public, but the employees maintaining a work schedule.”
He said he was in favor of staff still working at township hall, even if it’s limited to one person per office, so they can still answer phones, provide services or communication and so on. “I think every office has work that can still be performed during this time, and still have an output even while we’re shut down to the public.”
He proposed continuing this indefinitely, until a time comes when it is ordered that such offices have to be closed.
“I firmly disagree with that,” said Weed.
“I think we need to do our part in order to help prevent perpetuation of a potential problem. And I think that closing to the public is not enough,” he continued. “I think we need to protect our employees also, so that when it comes time to reopen, we have people available to it.”
Weed pointed out that coronavirus symptoms may not show for up to two weeks so, if there are still employees coming in who may be contaminated but not know it, they could spread the virus to a dozen or more other employees.
Should that occur, he warned that the township would be looking at a critical shutdown, where people won’t even be able to work from home and things just simply can’t get done.
“There’s plenty of things we do which are not absolutely necessary, but are a convenience to the public, and I think that a lot of that can be delayed,” said Weed. As he mentioned several times during the meeting, any unnecessary services should be suspended for now and anything coming up in the next month or so which isn’t crucial, should be delayed.
“But, in dealing with what’s absolutely necessary for the public health and welfare, I think that trying to continue with processes that aren’t necessary is too much risk – for not only the township operations, but also for the general public,” he said.
“I know we’re used to a certain level of business as usual, but we’re not in that situation right now,” Weed also remarked.
“My thought is, the fewer people that can come in contact with other people, the better,” Trustee William Palmer commented.
He said he knows of other municipalities which have been closing to the public, but are still having certain employees come in for limited periods of time. “But I think an overall shutdown of the building to the public is a good idea.”
Weed said it is concerning to him to only shut down to the public. “It’s not like the general public is carrying this and we, as the township officials, are not. Our people could very well be carriers, our pets could be carriers; there’s too much potential.”
He also pointed out that, during the shutdown, the utility billing clerk will be in the building to field phone calls for Fleis & VandenBrink (F&V), should there be a water or sewer emergency. “F&V still has to maintain the water and sewer systems and she is a part of that.” So, if too many individuals are in and out of township hall who may potentially contaminate others, Oscoda could lose people from F&V or the DPW, meaning these services can’t be provided.
“We’re down to two DPW workers right now. If those two get sick, we have no DPW workers to be able to handle things,” said Weed, warning that officials have to be careful with not shutting things down enough.
Officials ultimately agreed that, to help limit the number of people in the building, the clerk will work one week and the deputy clerk the next, as will the treasurer and deputy treasurer.
Palmer said that – given the magnitude of the situation, and the executive orders which have come down – he would like to see township hall shut down, with very limited access to the building by everybody involved.
He added that, at last check, there had yet to be a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Iosco County. “But I think it’s only a matter of time.”
Trustee Timothy Cummings made a motion to shut down public access to township hall for the next three weeks, effective March 18, permitting the treasurer, superintendent and clerk’s office to support the audit in progress that week. Beginning this week, the treasurer and clerk’s offices were to assume a weekly staff rotation, and approval was also given for the utility billing clerk to have access to the building.
The motion passed in a 5-1 vote, with Nordeen opposed.
In other utility matters, Weed stressed that, if there are any shutoffs, it won’t be because of a billing issue. Service may be shut off, though, if a household has a major water leak of some kind, for example. “People will have their services during this time.”
He added that people will need their water turned on, as well – such as those who are transiting to the community – so this service will still be offered also.
Trustees went on to discuss the township’s various tasks and projects coming up in the next few months. They highlighted those which they feel they can hold off on if needed, and those which they would ideally like to address at the next board meeting, should one be held on April 13.
For instance, the township typically hosts a drop off refuse program in both June and September. If the shutdown is extended, officials gave consensus that it isn’t completely necessary to have the program this year. Cummings also suggested holding just the one event in September, instead of both, which trustees were also in favor of.
Other items requiring board approval, which they agreed can wait if necessary, include potentially bringing phone and Internet service to Huron Shores Artisan Hall; select DPW purchase requests; the purchase of two golf carts for routine maintenance and trash pick-up at Old Orchard Park (OOP); seeking bids for soil erosion testing at the beach of OOP; and more.
In separate business, officials voted 6-0 to temporarily up the purchasing limit for the township supervisor and superintendent, from $2,000 per purchase without board approval, to $15,000.
“Will board members be advised of that?” asked Trustee Martin Gayeski, which Weed confirmed. He added that they definitely don’t want to be spending that kind of money in the meantime, but, it’s hard to know what may come up.
In another 6-0 vote, trustees authorized the treasurer’s office to pay the bills accordingly, during the shutdown period.
“Given the situation, I think this all sounds like a decent plan,” Palmer expressed, adding that officials will have to play things by ear as they go along.
As a reminder, there are a number of avenues for those in the community to learn of any updates during the shutdown, as noted earlier in this story. But Weed pointed out that the best source for the most up-to-date information will be the township website, www.oscodatownshipmi.gov.