Tomorrow East Ridge will be back in business.
City officials have followed Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Governor Bill Lee’s lead on re-opening commerce amidst the public health crisis of COVID-19.
While many businesses in East Ridge were directed to close or alter operations in an attempt to mitigate the virus, some folks out here kept on with their daily lives as if catching COVID-19 was nothing more than a common cold.
Many people on social media were bemoaning the fact that traffic on Ringgold Road was heavier than ever. The parking lot at ACE Hardware was packed. People just weren’t heeding the experts’ advice to stay home to potentially slow and then stop this pandemic.
Tomorrow all the restaurants in the city will be able to carry on its business, albeit with some rules: 50 percent capacity and the bar won’t be open. Retail stores will follow suit on Wednesday. The rule there is, again, 50 percent occupancy.
In an East Ridge News Online poll, about 60 percent of the folks who responded said they weren’t ready for the city to re-open. Some people _ actually a lot _ are frightened, very frightened about getting sick and even dying.
On the other side of the equation, some people _ actually a lot _ are frightened that if they don’t go back to work they won’t make it either … financially that is. Economists have said that 40 percent of the people in this country don’t have the wherewithal to come up with $400 in an emergency.
As a backdrop to this health and economic crisis, East Ridge City Manager Chris Dorsey was beginning to craft a budget to provide services to our 21,000 residents in the coming year.
He’s got problems. How much did the business closings and stay-at-home policy affect sales tax revenues? He’s got 140 employees, about 40 percent who are fire and police doing dangerous and challenging work in the best of times.
He’s also got a fire and police department whose personnel as of March are owed collectively $168,000 in overtime and “comp” time pay for this year. To spell it out, “comp” time is the practice of allowing employees to take time off if they work more than 40 hours a week, instead of paying time-and-a-half for overtime.
At last week’s city council meeting Dorsey spent about 15 minutes explaining to the mayor and council that the 168 grand is considered “debt,” in terms of formulating any budget, and he intends to do something about it. City budgets must be balanced. He wants to take the money from the fund balance (more often than not referred to the “rainy day fun”) and get it off the books.
Dorsey then double-downed, telling the council that he wants to abolish the practice of “comp” time altogether. Instead, he wants to pay for the overtime. He stressed that he wasn’t taking anything away from the employees. “I’m not taking a dime out of anyone’s pocket,” Dorsey told the council.
Oddly enough, some of the employees would rather have “comp” time than be paid in cash. One firefighter told East Ridge News Online that he’s accumulated about two months of “comp” time and if he gets hurt he could use it and still get a check to support his family.
Employees have already begun lobbying the mayor and council not to go along with Dorsey’s plan. However, Dorsey, by virtue of the City Charter, has complete authority over the day-to-day operations of the city.
Dorsey needs to be cautious. If employees convince several city council members that Dorsey is not on the side of employees, his tenure in the chair may be abbreviated. One needs to look no further than the dismissal of Andrew Hyatt, whose big blunder was wanting to put time clocks in city buildings for more accountability from employees.
So, in coming weeks, East Ridge is gonna find out about its public health and maybe more about its economic health. Businesses will open and employees will do what they have to do to go back to work. Some people will venture out and patronize these businesses. Others will stay home and see what happens.
Dorsey and his staff will try and figure out how to balance a budget where 65 percent of the $14 million operating budget goes to employees’ salary and benefits.
I guess the ultimate question is; will Dorsey balance it on the backs of the employees or the backs of the taxpayers?