Has there ever been a tougher year to be a mayor in small-town America?
Aside from the normal stresses and headaches that come with governing a local municipality, 2020 and the COVID-19 virus has placed the additional weights of a global health pandemic and governor-mandated lockdowns that have crippled local businesses and schools.
For an office that many would consider an honor and a dream to be elected to, 2020 has provided nothing short of a nightmare.
The mayors of two East County towns — Elma’s Jim Sorensen and Montesano’s Vini Samuel — find themselves in that very situation as they continue their work heading into an “uncertain” 2021.
But it is not all doom and gloom according to Samuel and Sorensen, as there are silver linings to the 2020 cloud and brighter days ahead in 2021.
The good news for the 2021 Elma budget is that COVID hasn’t hit the bottom line as much as one would expect on the heels of a nine-month pandemic that has no end in sight. The bad news is, the bottom line did still take a hit.
“COVID hasn’t hit us as bad as you might think,” Sorensen said, adding that though the city will have to pull from its reserve funds in its 2021 budget, it’s not an amount the city can’t handle.
“Looking forward into next year, our biggest thing on the budget is the abatement of the theater and because of that, we’re probably going to have to dip into our reserves for the first time since I’ve been here.”
Sorensen said that the $500,000 line item is “a significant amount to our small budget,” but he is thankful that the city has been able to “build up a really nice reserve” over the previous four years to offset the cost.
Sorensen’s office has worked to assist local businesses in any way it can during the pandemic, including helping to get a pull-up lane at Shujacks Bar and Grill and helping local eateries create outdoor dining spaces.
The mayor’s office has also assisted in helping three local businesses acquire $10,000 each in COVID relief funds and hopes to work with local businesses in the near future as Congress is currently trying to hammer out a deal for a new stimulus package.
“We are willing to work with any businesses that are having trouble and reaches out to us,” he said.
While COVID has made his job much harder, particularly for a mayor that prefers an in-person, face-to-face approach rather than conducting business via online meeting, Sorensen is hopeful Elma will have its kids back in school and businesses fully open by the spring.
“We are going to get things back to the way they were and that’s how I’m approaching it, is that we are going to get back to that normalcy,” he said. “I think it’s very important for communities to have that time to get together for events, such as the tree lighting that we had to cancel at our visitor’s information center, getting our fair back up and running is important for our community as well. Again, just getting people back together and getting people to be able to spend time together and be face-to-face together instead of on social media is important to me.”
For Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel and her staff, planning ahead has been key to dealing with the impacts of a global pandemic on her small town.
“I’m pretty sure my assessment is the same as everyone else’s: This has not been the funnest year,” she said before explaining how her office and the city as a whole pivoted at the beginning of the pandemic to take a broad approach to its potential impacts.
“Back in March, I think most of the department heads spent exclusive time running scenarios for what our situation was going to be for the next 18 months. … Our expectation was 2020 wasn’t going to be the worst, it was going to be 2021 and around mid-year we’d know the significant impacts.”
In terms of the recently-ratified 2021 city budget, the mayor is hopeful that planning will pay off if and when those impacts are felt.
“We did a variety of things to soften and get ready, ideally, for no bigger a hit than we planned,” she said. “If it goes as we planned, we should do fine. We planned for a bad year. … If we take the hit that we are planning for, then we’ll be fine.”
The City of Montesano budget for 2021 shows revenues of $3.86 million with expenditures at $3.71 million, giving Monte an excess of $151,206.
Samuel explained that a projected loss of approximately 10% in sales tax revenue is one of many budgetary concerns she’s had to consider. In addition, the city recently negotiated contracts with public works, police and clerks unions.
Though it’s been a rough year, Samuel said there were plenty of positives to point out.
“One of the things that shocked me was our sales tax revenue (in 2020) performed as budgeted (at the same level or higher than in 2019),” Samuel explained. “Part of that is that people were spending the money they were receiving for unemployment. Another piece of that is this is the first year that tax revenue that was collected for online sales actually went to the jurisdiction and not to where the sale happened.”
But arguably the biggest piece of Monte’s ability to keep its economy afloat in such times is how its citizens pulled together in a show of pride and support.
“This community has been exceptional about supporting their local businesses. It’s been a two-way street, both filled with gratitude because most of our businesses are really small businesses and they have always supported the various community things that Montesano has. And I just am so pleased to see how the citizens have paid that back and it’s a beautiful thing to see,” Samuel said. “For a couple of months there, everybody was eating out more than they have ever eaten out in the years before. I think it was a concentrated effort to keep local businesses in play.”
Samuel stated that governing in a global pandemic comes with a great deal of uncertainty, but having a strong team around you helps to, hopefully, put your city on the right track.
“The toll on the mayors, and I think I can speak for all of them, is that you don’t know if you are making the right decision,” she said. “There is no certainty in anything you are doing. As you make a decision, the landscape changes once again.
“I have a fantastic (city) council. They did a great job analyzing everything with me. They carried a lot of the load and we just passed our budget and it is a solid budget. We have plans for where our shortfalls might be and I think Monte is fine. … Everybody worked really hard and I think we’re OK. Our budget is OK. Our income is OK. We weathered a lot and we’re going into 2021 in a good place.”