May 21, 2020

A Commissioner’s Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Q&A with Kate Dean (EMPA ’15)

How are you – in your role as a County Commissioner and rural policy maker – responding to the coronavirus pandemic?  

It took a pandemic for County governments to finally get their day in the sun. People generally know what cities and states do, but Counties are seldom understood. Since Counties manage both Public Health and Emergency Management, we hold a large role in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. As a Commissioner in rural Jefferson County, my role is complex, especially given the quickly changing nature of this emergency. We have to keep basic, needed services going – the landfill, law enforcement, immunizations, courts, elections – while keeping the public and our 300 employees safe. We are managing a multi-jurisdictional effort with cities, hospital districts, economic development efforts, and emergency services, all while trying to keep up with changing orders from the Governor’s office. We are crafting a public health response that balances the best advice from our Health Officer, while mitigating an economic disaster in a rural County which, like so many others, already had low wages and high unemployment to begin with. Most importantly, it is also my job to frame messages to my constituents including: their safety being our biggest priority, the importance of us working together, and how this crisis – as challenging as it is – serves as an opportunity for us to recover in ways that will make us more resilient and equitable.  

Like most places, Jefferson County is facing major financial repercussions. How do we curb the impacts of this public health crisis? 

This crisis is showing all of the cracks in our societal façade.  Where structural funding for local governments was previously unsustainable at best, now, with an anticipated 15% to 40% decrease in revenues, we will struggle to provide basic services in a timely manner to the public.  And we know that the direct and indirect impacts of this crisis are disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations. To top it all off, rural areas recover from economic downturns much more slowly than urban ones, so we will be facing tough policy and financial decisions for years to come. 

As an example, the CARES Act funding from the federal government to local governments is largely unrestricted and Counties are authorized to prioritize and allocate based on local needs. This poses several different questions to consider: Should we fund immediate needs such as rental assistance or utility payment support? Or should we be using these funds to support on-going programs and “keep the lights on” with small grants or loans to businesses and non-profits? Or should we invest in laptops for every kid in the County to be able to participate in online schooling? Or are these dollars best used for long-term capital projects that will stimulate economic recovery, like installing high speed fiber for expanded broadband access and building a much-needed waste-water infrastructure to allow for business expansion and affordable housing? 

A disruption of this magnitude presents the challenge of many competing needs at once. Coupled with the unknowns of the virus and the uncertainties of how it will unfold, decision-making requires discipline and careful deliberation. Some of the questions I ask myself: 

What is the humanitarian response and what needs should be addressed first to minimize collective anxiety? What weakness in our system is being exposed? What resources and assets does our community contain that can be mobilized? What kinds of flexibility or innovation are needed to address this need in a new way? What investments or structural changes need to be made for long-term benefit? 

We are living a case study, one that will be examined for years to come. How will history judge our decisions?  What will hindsight point out that we inadvertently overlooked? These are the questions that keep me up at night.  

What are key learnings and takeaways you’ve discovered during this challenging time, and why are highly effective public service leaders so important right now? 

Across the US, governmental response to COVID-19 has become a partisan, polarized issue: 1) you either trust the scientific recommendations to protect public health and are willing to sacrifice some personal liberties OR 2) you assess the health risk as low and distrust government to come up with solutions. Many constituents think there is one right answer. Part of my job, as a leader, is to use the public process to explore the nuance of this situation. The question isn’t, “Should we re-open the economy or should we stay in lockdown?” Instead, the policy considerations are much more complicated: What mitigations – such as face masks – are feasible, that can become social norms and therefore reach enough compliance to be effective? How do we allow businesses to re-open without putting low-wage service workers (who are often without health insurance) at a much higher risk? Can we expect or require businesses to enforce the physical distancing of their customers? If we allow businesses to open, will that attract visitors from areas with higher disease prevalence? If so, how can we use policy to dis-incentivize visitors? 

Now more than ever, leaders need to be conveners, bringing together diverse constituents and framing complex questions. While much of the national conversation is divisive and binary, local government has the opportunity to work within their communities to craft response efforts that are inclusive, innovative and most effective to meet local needs.    

In the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, leaders must also be thinking about how COVID-19 provides an opportunity to re-think systems that don’t work for many people. I’m extremely fortunate to live and serve a beautiful, rural, coastal community. And, with that comes a tourism economy that pays low, seasonal wages but has high housing costs. How can we rebuild an economy that supports residents in a sustainable way? How can amenities that serve visitors be most beneficial to those of us who live here? This time calls for leaders with a vision to imagine and articulate a better future as we look to re-build.