By Jack Mayne
Should locals taxpayer income be used by the SeaTac City Council to help local private business pay for losses and costs of a potential and growing likelihood of a flu pandemic that has hit at least 22 million people in the U.S. so far?
That issue came before the SeaTac Council at Tuesday night’s (March 10) meeting when Councilmember Takele Gobena proposed such an ordinance but later withdrew it because he said his intention was to consider the ordinance at the regular next meeting of the Council, on March 24.
But the measure still attracted a long discussion by Councilmembers before it was sent to a committee for further discussion and potential advice from proponents of how to pay for such a study of an international pandemic.
More city research
Some Councilmembers took issue with a request for the city to pay for research on the potential effects on SeaTac residents.
Councilmember Takele Gobena said there is a lot of fear in the city about the corononavirus disease. He wants the city “to look into, really, what the impact” is on SeaTac residents an how to create “a packet of information for small and medium businesses and the residents who are struggling” with concerns about the covid-19 coronavirus.
It is important research, Gobena said, to find resources for support for the community and small businesses as well. Gobena has submitted a SeaTac Council “CIR” or Council Information Request, in SeaTac city-speak, to do more research on the virus’ impact on SeaTac citizens.
“The idea behind this is to do outreach,” Gobena said to make assessments of the impact on the community, and putting information about reliable city, county, state and federal resources and making this information available to small businesses and citizens of SeaTac. Other information may have been selected for people not in the local community.
Noble but expensive
Councilmember Clyde Hill said of Gobena’s request that “while I think it’s noble that we try to help out everybody, those who might be suffering economically, I think this is trying to set a precedent well beyond our means as a small city of 30,000 folks.”
Hill referred to Gobena’s Council Information Request, and said that “providing information is one thing,” but “to start shelling out buckets of money to select folks … this could be a big effort and it could be a big drain on the city before we even know what is available.”
“No, I am not in support of spending huge hours” researching the virus as Gobena has proposed.
Councilmember Peter Kwon, in Washington D.C. attending a conference, said there were already plans for a federal money package to “assist the U.S. economy, cities and individuals, who are affected.” He added that “there is definitely assistance coming from the federal government so cities should not have to step up to bear the brunt of this expense.”
Councilmember Joel Wachtel agreed the cost of such a project would be too expensive and Councilmember Pam Fernald noted that the information was largely already available. City Manager Cole also said that the information is largely available already, just not packaged as Gobena was suggesting.
Wachtel said he was in favor of continuing to have Cole handle the issue for the city.
Councilmember Senayet Negusse said “there is a lot going on right now, some coordinated, some not so I do think we should pause.” She suggested doing general things, such as those with a restaurant, having fewer tables spaced further apart to decrease the potential of aerial transmission of the virus. She also noted that websites have suggestions and information for employers.
Gobena said he is hearing the Council saying that “we don’t want to take precedence” but the virus is “a crisis” and affects all people and “we need to face a new thing with new ideas.”
He said nothing in his suggestion is for a lot of money to be spent, that his request “is calling for assessment first” and maybe that evaluation will show no additional financing is needed. Gobena asked the Council if any of them had talked with any community members. The size of the city doesn’t matter, he said, but if there is a need, then it should be met.
“If this is not our job … I wonder what’s our job?” Gobena asked the Council. He said people are saying the state, county and federal governments are working on the issue.
“But we are city of SeaTac councilmembers, we are the closest … to the people of SeaTac.” A coffee shop owner in SeaTac is going to look to the City Council and not the federal government. Gobena said there is no reason why the city can’t help people get the information they need.
Fernald said the city could provide some “refreshing what is out there” for the current situation so that business owners that “may be fearing from angst” and haven’t heard the information that Councilmember Negusse offered up city can point them to the necessary guidance, “not give them the guidance.”
Cole said the city staff has a good handle on the situation.
City to pay rent, utilities?
Hill, speaking toward Gobena on the Council dais, “this is where I got a little emotional. It’s not been more than four years ago that this city was not looking very financially well and the Council before me and this Council now has worked hard to prepare ourselves for these economic downturns and what I’m afraid of is the first economic downturn where we need to protect what we’ve built and from what I hear, the folks around me, they are feeling tax overburden.
“If we are just shelling out our tax moneys and turning around and taxing more,” Hill said. “I don’t think this is going to go over well with my constituents, but, again, I think it is a noble idea. I took it at face value as it was written. As it was written, I wasn’t in favor of it.”
He said he was amenable to “some adjustments in the proposal.”
Councilmember Joel Wachtel said he has problems with the same part of the Negusse proposed use of city funds to assist private businesses facing financial problems. He said that the state has been hit hard by the potential flu but it doesn’t reach the level of a pandemic problem.
“It may happen in the future, but we don’t know,” said Wachtel. “I still have s concern about deciding we’re going to to help a certain segment of people within our community with funding because that is a very dangerous rabbit hole to go down. I would want it vetted very, very significantly and that would require committees and discussion and a lot eyeballs on it.”
Councilmember Peter Kwon, by telephone from Washington D.C., said the proposed Council Information Request was received at 5 p.m. (SeaTac time) that day, just before the Council meeting.
“It is premature because we don’t have any corononavirus cases in SeaTac so it seems like we are jumping the gun here,” said Kwon. He said there was time for for further discussion and for Council committees to discuss the ideas around the issue of providing taxpayer funds to help potential flu impacts.
Willing to revise
Then Gobena said he had expected the Council to take up the issue on March 24 not Tuesday night so he withdrew the proposal and agreed it could be discussed at a Council committee session in the next weeks.
“I hear your concerns and am willing to revise and get your feedback and reduce or add what needs to be added,” said Gobena. Kwon moved to have the issue before the Council Administration and Finance Committee.
City Manager Carl Cole advised the Council on steps the city is taking about the corononavirus disease. He said there have been no “cases that have given us concern.” He said the city was focusing on the information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because it is coalescing the information circulating “and those are the guidelines we are following.”
“Right now we feel we are riding the storm pretty well. We haven’t heard anything in the city at all,” referring to the general city population,” Cole said. “It is a day-by-day assessment, sometimes an hour by hour assessment … and we have cancelled all the unnecessary meetings, as well.”
“Hopefully, we’ll weather the storm and in a couple of months, we will be looking back on it and wait for sun.”
Cole said the SeaTac city staff has begun “cleaning protocols in our facilities — high touch areas, doorknobs, banisters, railings, that sort of thing are cleaned three times a day, sometimes more (like at) the community center.” Cleaning products have been distributed in City Hall for people who think additional cleaning of surfaces is necessary. He said the city has ordered “a couple of pretty cool electrostatic devices, they project the cleaners with an electric charge to the surfaces at allows them to stick” in a more effective way than wiping.
He also said that some employees, not normally allowed to work from home, can do so now, including some with pregnancy in their family.