Jefferson County Commissioners Pivot to Handle Unfamiliar Challenges

Chairs were put in the foyer to the Jefferson County Commission chamber to promote social distancing. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Tony Petelos brought a lot of government experience when he took the job as Jefferson County’s first county manager. He had been a state representative, a commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources and mayor of Hoover.

But Petelos – like nearly everyone else – didn’t have much preparation for dealing with a pandemic

“We had almost none,” said Petelos, who recently retired. “When the governor in March of 2020 shut everything down and then we decided to open back up in May, it was, ‘OK, how do we handle this?’ And not just us. Everybody was flying by the seat of their pants as far as, ‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we do it?’ and getting it done.

“I can say that in my 10-year career (with Jefferson County), the busiest I’ve ever been was year one when we filed for bankruptcy and year 9 and 10 with COVID,” he said. “Every day, we had to figure out how to do something and we made a lot of changes and those changes are still in place today.”

Suddenly, Jefferson County officials had an ever-changing set of variables when it came to serving their constituents. Additional challenges came in protecting themselves and their employees from the novel coronavirus and managing billions of dollars doled out by the federal government to help people navigate the shortfalls that were inherent when society shut down for a time.

Cal Markert was deputy county manager when the pandemic initially showed up in the state. Since then, he has succeeded Petelos.

“Gosh, it seems like it was centuries ago, but it was, what, two years?” Markert said. “It happened so fast, really, when we got the emergency declaration.”

Conversations began months before between Jefferson County leaders and the Emergency Management Agency. But those weren’t EMA’s first pandemic conversations.

Jim Coker, director of Jefferson County EMA, said Jefferson County – like Mobile County – has the advantage of having its own health department.

“The health department and the EMA have been practicing and exercising and planning for pandemics for decades,” Coker said. “Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve learned a lot of other things such as how to work remotely, how to work virtually, and we’ve taken many of those tools and used them in other aspects of what we do, such as Zoom calls for tornado watches and warnings.”

Pandemic training included a bit of a new vocabulary. They had to learn terms such as points of distribution sites (PODS), joint information center (JIC) and threat and hazard identification risk assessment (THIRA), which were important to make sure various entities delivered the same message to minimize confusion.

“Public health really has been operating somewhat behind the scenes as far as the public eye,” Coker said. “But this has really brought it into everyone’s eyesight.”

Plexiglass separated customers and clerks in the Jefferson County Revenue Department. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Very visible for Jefferson County government leaders were the millions of dollars they were charged with distributing to help people and governments address the ever-changing circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

“That was one of the most challenging aspects of it,” Markert said. “We already have a budget. We go through an extensive budgeting process, and then all of a sudden, now we’ve got $120 million that we’ve got and it’s got to be spent within a year.

“It was extremely challenging to figure out what the rules were, how to divvy it out, how to use it, how to keep records,” he continued. “I’m sure we’ve made some mistakes but we’re very proud of how we did that. It was extremely taxing on the whole county system because we practically had to double the amount of money we spend in a year.”

Justin Smith, an assistant to the county manager, said there was a lot of confusion as the county looked to navigate the often-changing landscape.

“The plan that was initially presented to the commission early on, not too long after the (governor’s emergency) declaration, was very different from what we actually did at the end,” he said. “Much like the public health authorities, we were learning on the fly about stuff and the United States Treasury was, too. Those guidelines for eligible uses of those funds, if they changed once they changed two dozen times throughout that whole process, and usually for the better.

“Something that we didn’t plan on doing because we didn’t initially think it was eligible would later on become eligible and have a higher and better use for those funds than what we had planned.”

Much of the money went to the most basic of needs, helping people stay in their homes.

Birmingham Urban League provided a “Herculean effort,” creating its rental assistance program from nothing, Smith said, because that was a priority set by the commission. Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity was another agency that was initially involved in that effort but ceased when its financial issues arose.

“But Urban League, we’re still working with them now and they’ve done a great job and have been a great partner,” Smith said. “There were several entities that we worked with to address food insecurity.”

Other agencies, once vetted by a consulting firm, were allotted federal funds to provide needed goods and services.

Preventative Measures

Jefferson County officials also had to make arrangements to fight COVID closer to home.

They increased cleaning efforts in county facilities, wiping frequently touched surfaces to reduce the spread of the disease. When dictated by state or city rules, face masks were required.

Hand sanitizer become necessary office equipment in the Jefferson County Department of Revenue. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

The county also installed plexiglass at service counters and made hand sanitizer available throughout county sites.

The county adapted its operation to allow it to continue to serve the public. The department that administers building permits provided one example.

“We already had plans to go online where you wouldn’t have to drive to the courthouse and see a person,” Markert said. “We really ratcheted that up and were able to get very quickly where people could still get a building permit and continue their building permit or a development permit online and not have to come up here when we’re either shut down or (had staffing shortages) because of all the quarantining going on.

“That was extremely beneficial,” the county manager said. “It took us a lot of time and effort to get to that point but that was very helpful.”

Before the pandemic, the county ramped up the opportunities for residents to pay for licenses and car tags with credit or debit cards and to use those tools online.

Commissioner Lashunda Scales had been livestreaming meetings of the commission from the beginning of her first term. The office of public information, directed by Helen Hays, ultimately assumed that responsibility, which became critical when, under the emergency declaration, commissioners “attended” meetings from their homes.

Public Information Officer PIO Helen Hays manages the livestream of a commission meeting. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Additionally, department heads were able to contribute to commission meetings remotely, minimizing the people who had to be in the committee room or commission chamber.

Planning and Zoning meetings were added to events that could be attended online. There was thought of discontinuing that, Hays said, but the public liked it and asked that it continue.

Likewise, other precautions begun during the pandemic will likely remain when the threat has subsided.

“Everyone is familiar with Zoom calls or Teams calls or Go To Meeting calls,” said Coker, the EMA director. “In Jefferson County when we have a tornado watch, we have an open Zoom call. We invite decision-makers to this open Zoom call because we learned how to work remotely during COVID.

“One of the outcomes of COVID-19 is we learned how to work remotely,” Coker said. “We learned how to use case COVID-19 tools elsewhere in emergency management.”