A dozen weeks ago, the coronavirus pandemic started shutting everything down in Philomath and around the state. Since then, the community has endured stay-at-home orders, no school, closures and numerous other restrictions.
The news of Benton County’s entry last month into Phase 1 of a reopening plan served as a positive sign that the region could be close to returning to some semblance of normalcy. The county could be transitioning to Phase 2 late this week if all goes to plan and approvals are passed down from the state.
But as the city comes back to life, what can be expected in terms of the economy? Businesses have struggled through this period, many folks lost their previous level of income through layoffs and furloughs, and government-related funding sources will provide fewer dollars.
Chris Workman, who has served as the city manager since the spring of 2014, believes Philomath, and Benton County in general, has fared better than some other cities and counties in Oregon. He bases that view predominantly on the fact that the city’s revenue is based mostly on property taxes and not, for example, a transient lodging tax like you see in coastal cities, or a sales tax that you see around the country.
“It’s not necessarily to the credit of anything the city’s done, but we’re in a fortunate position that our revenue sources are pretty stable,” Workman said. “As the city budget goes, I think we’re in pretty good shape.”
The city also has no local option levy in place as a source of revenue.
“The fact that the General Fund solely relies on property taxes gives us some additional security,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re not concerned a year out, two years out, three years out, that this is going to have some effects long term — there will be some ripple effects — but we also recognize that construction is going on, we’re still bringing in new homes.”
Around the city, work has continued on The Boulevard Apartments’ newest buildings and various subdivisions from Millpond Crossing to Newton Creek Estates to Habitat for Humanity to Heather Glen.
“These subdivisions that we’ve got in place, yeah, there may be a few homes here and there in town that get foreclosed on and we don’t collect taxes there for the next two or three years,” Workman said. “But in the last couple of years, we’ve kind of set the table for different types of housing to come in and so that’s helped spur new property tax revenue coming in.”
As far as the community at large, Workman believes that most people have continued forward with fairly stable sources of income. For example, the city’s largest employer, the Philomath School District, did not layoff employees. Many others have continued to work at places like Oregon State University or Hewlett–Packard.
There has been more of an impact on those who work in the service sector or for those in entry-level positions
“It’s not to say that we haven’t been affected, but by and large, we’re in a very good position that we can come out of this in good force,” Workman said. “I’m not concerned about the long-term effects that this is going to have on Philomath. I think we’ll come out of it OK and get ready to get back to work and get back to business.”
Shelley Niemann, who serves as the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce’s director, said businesses are starting to open back up after initially being caught off guard with the implementation of Phase 1 arriving a week earlier than what had been anticipated.
“Some were very grateful for that, others felt a rush to get their safety requirements in place,” Niemann said. “But the good news was they didn’t have to open — just because you could open doesn’t mean you were required to open. So there was a lot of flexibility there.”
In the food and service industry, as of last week, a few restaurants in town had opened up on-site seating while others continued with takeout orders or curbside pickups. Many restrictions are involved with distancing requirements, which translates to only a fraction of what a business would normally accommodate.
Niemann said she did reach out to businesses for updates but she has received sporadic information so far.
“The county’s put out a lot of good information; they put out a guide for reopening for our local businesses and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our members about how helpful that has been for them,” she said. “Even with all that, it’s across the spectrum — some are comfortable and excited to be open again and some are being cautious.”
Overall, Niemann believes the impact on many local businesses could’ve been worse.
“For Philomath, I’ve heard a lot of positive things and it really comes back to our community being very supportive of those businesses that you could still access in some fashion during the closure,” Niemann said. “A lot of businesses are doing fine. I think the ones that got hit the hardest are our gyms ... our salons, our barbers.”
It’s unknown exactly how many businesses have received stimulus money and how that plays into the survival rate.
Elsewhere around town, the city reopened the Philomath Police Department’s lobby last Tuesday — not difficult with a barrier already in place. But for now, City Hall and Public Works will continue to operate with restrictions. Those buildings do not have “splash shields” installed but beyond that detail, Workman said things have gone well.
“We’re not in any big hurry to open City Hall back up for the public to be coming back in because it’s been going really smooth,” Workman said. “The reality is we’re not getting any complaints or concerns about the customer service we’re providing. People are able to call and make utility payments and a lot of people have converted over to paying their bills online and so, our employees are doing a lot of that stuff from home.”
City officials have been working on solutions to certain situations, such as the municipal court clerk and how that would look if working from home.
Before the pandemic hit, City Hall had been looking to expand and redesign its working space with more employees added to the staff.
Philomath Community Library remains closed for now. The local library is part of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library system and the building is owned by the city. The two entities are working together on a reopening plan.
“If they open, their biggest thing is the cleaning and the sanitation,” Workman said. “In addition to what the employees do during the day, they’ll have to have professional custodians come in and do a full wipe-down every day.”
The city currently provides custodial service to the library a few days a week but what’s included in the cleaning would not be sufficient, Workman said. The person who does the cleaning is also not in a situation to take on more hours.
“Corvallis is looking at who they’ve got doing their custodial work to see if they can just add the Philomath building as an expansion,” Workman said. “Once we get that set up, we’ll look to open it back up for specific things.”
Workman said the city’s council and committees will continue to meet for their public meetings through videoconferencing. In the case of City Council, crowds of 30 to 50 people have showed up in the past depending on the agenda topics. If the council chambers was to open back up for meetings, social distancing would be required and many people would likely have to be turned away.
“Even to get my entire City Council and staff in that room spread out with space to have their packets and their laptops, that alone takes up half the room or three-quarters of the room,” Workman said. “Every month, new people are using Zoom for the first time, so I think people are getting more and more used to it."
There are public hearings on the horizon, however, which does create some logistical concerns. A budget hearing is on the City Council’s agenda for June 8 and others will be coming up involving the comprehensive plan update and the streetscape project.
Workman said he’s a little concerned about the city receiving public comments during those hearings from residents who would like to participate but are not able to through the technology in place.
“It’s a concern but my hope is that people continue to get familiar with it and we get more and more people ... if it’s important to them, they’ll follow the pretty simple instructions, click the link and join the meeting to give their input,” Workman said.
Workman said the city has seen no delays because of the pandemic with some of its other ongoing projects — the comprehensive plan update, the streetscape project and the water treatment plant construction. Presentations, meetings and hearings will be coming up, such as an anticipated streetscape update at the June 15 Planning Commission meeting.
Current timelines call for the water plant to be constructed during the summer of 2021 and the streetscape construction to occur in the summer of 2022.
As far as recreation goes, city parks have never closed but there have been restrictions when it comes to the playground equipment and large gatherings. When Benton County’s Phase 1 plan went into effect, the city started to take reservations for park facilities, as long as the groups are 25 or less.
“There’s not a lot of information on Phase 2, other than it could go up to groups of 100 and it could remove the travel restrictions,” Workman said. “When we get to there, we’ll update our reservations accordingly.”
There has been no set date on when the new tennis courts may open to the public other than school officials won’t look at the possibility until after the high school’s June 20 graduation. The city, which partnered with the district on the project, is working with the school on a potential opening date.
Clemens Field also remains closed, a facility that the public will use for walking or running. However, the public has continued to use the various paths on school district property to get in exercise or enjoy a walk.
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