City of Clearwater staff, services carry on in face of pandemic

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne meets daily with his internal working group to ensure city services remain available to the city’s residents during the coronavirus outbreak.

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Planning and Development Department and other city departments are staffed and operating, but the public may not go beyond the lobbies of those buildings. But myclearwater.com — the website where residents can pay fines, apply for and pay for various licenses and permits including business tax receipt, tree removal licenses, and view city records, and conduct other business with the city online — is open for business.

That’s the message of City Manager Bill Horne, who oversees the daily operations of the city. It’s a difficult job on a normal day, and challenging during the city’s robust coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing effort.

The city work goes on, though, according to Horne, who said “some employees” have been tested for the virus and are at home awaiting the results.

“Our services online are still uninterrupted,” Horne said. “We are reducing the public’s presence in our facilities without reducing services to our constituents.”

Though city libraries and Parks and Recreation Department facilities like the Long Center and the city’s gem-like beaches are closed to the public, the coronavirus scare hadn’t seemed to slow citizen’s ability to do business with the city on March 24.

For instance, building contractors who need a building permit or other construction document can apply for them online and pick them up in the lobby of Clearwater’s Municipal Services Building at 100 S. Myrtle Ave. The rest of the building is closed to the public.

The building, which houses the planning department, city’s Public Communications Department, and other offices, is closed to the public, but city staff was busy processing engineering and construction applications in the offices above the lobby.

The reception desk was manned by a staff member who could call for staff to come down to speak to a contractor or resident with questions — though most information is available online. A table in the lobby displayed permit applications and other engineering process forms, complete with pens and sealable envelopes. When contractors apply for permits in the lobby, they must include copies of their contractor’s license and other documents, such as architectural drawings. They can fill out an application and insert the application and their accompanying paperwork into the sealable envelope and drop it in the bin. A city worker retrieves the bins for staff processing. Once approved and ready (in a few days) the city emails the applicant with a link to pay any fees or costs. The contractor then comes to the lobby where a planning staff member from upstairs hands the permit to the contractor. Other licenses and documents can be mailed to the applicant’s home.

“The world has to keep moving,” said David Ashmore, president of Ashmore Air Inc., a licensed heating, air conditioning and ventilation contractor who waited in the lobby for a permit that was soon handed to him by a staff member who came downstairs.

“There was very little human intervention. I came in on Monday and submitted my paperwork and plans in a sealed envelope for a residential AC permit, and here it is,” he said, waving his permit.

The Clearwater Police Department headquarters — around the corner at 645 Pierce St. — are closed, with a sign on the door tells citizens police are in full operation, answering 911 calls and patrolling throughout the city. The lobby doors are locked, but upstairs and throughout the building, the department is fully staffed, with police department commanders running their full shifts.

Rob Shaw, the police department’s spokesman, said residents can notify police of non-emergency incidents online.

“If a citizen wants to file a police report, they can fill out a report online at the Clearwater police department’s website, clearwaterpolice.org.

“We are encouraging people to fill out police reports online,” Shaw told the Beacon. “Police presence throughout the city is unaffected; we are responding to all calls, though the headquarters is closed to the public to reduce the exposure of the public and ourselves.”

Police are doing directed patrols of large shopping centers, malls, and warehouse areas to prevent burglaries and discourage other misbehavior where businesses are closed.

The Clearwater Fire and Rescue Department likewise is fully staffed, though all fire training has been postponed until further notice, Shaw said. Firehouses, which sometimes host nearby residents who drop by to say hello, are discouraging public visits, he said.

The City Council and mayor’s offices, city manager, and city attorney’s offices and other city administrative offices are open on the sixth floor of the Bank of America building at 600 Cleveland St. in downtown, but it is recommended that visitors call and make an appointment first. As the receptionist did before the onset of the virus, she buzzes visitors in. Visitors must wait in the sixth-floor lobby for a city official to emerge and talk with them.

Horne, who is calm in the face of perhaps his biggest professional challenge, was granted emergency powers by the City Council on March 18 to make staffing and other decisions — much of which he can make anyway as city manager.

He holds a daily 9 a.m. meeting with the working group he formed before the council declared the state of emergency. The group includes Horne, Emergency Manager Jevon Graham, City Attorney Pam Akin, Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell, Public Communications Director Joelle Castelli, and other managers. The group evaluates the latest coronavirus control efforts at the federal, state, and county level. Using the information, they determine which staffing and other changes to adopt in the ever-shifting battle. The goal is to ensure the public continues to receive city services.

In addition, Horne holds daily video conference calls with Slaughter at 1 p.m. and Pinellas County emergency managers at 2 p.m. He has asked the heads of the finance, risk management, budget, and IT departments to determine which actions those departments should take in delivering services.

“We have to remain in compliance with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order, the Pinellas County Emergency Management’s order and the City Council’s emergency order,” Horne said. He also has to ensure city operations are in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention efforts such as use of disinfectant cleaning, social distancing, and the number of people allowed to congregate.

He has also asked each department head for plans showing how they can provide services with reduced staff if and when the virus requires employees to shelter in place or recover at home, Horne said.

“One variable we have to watch is how the COVID-19 virus impacts city employees,” Horne said. “If their work is impacted by COVID we adjust how we deliver our non-essential services. Essential services — police, fire, solid waste, utilities and others — will be available 24/7.”

It has become a constant that every day brings something new; Horne and city staff sign in a new mayor and two new city council members March 30. The first regular meeting of the new City Council is April 2.

There has been talk of video conference of the event without the principles gathering in the same room. Horne is still working out those details.

The emergency order is for 30 days or until competent authority declares the state of emergency and measures terminated.