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Lessons learned: How the COVID-19 pandemic changed operations for Long Island's towns

Town residents could pay taxes at a drive-by

Town residents could pay taxes at a drive-by booth at Babylon Town Hall in Lindenhurst, as seen in May 2020. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

This story was reported by Vera Chinese, Carl MacGowan, Deborah S. Morris, Keldy Ortiz, Ted Phillips, Jean-Paul Salamanca, Nicholas Spangler and Dandan Zou. It was written by Spangler.

The federal government is easing mask requirements and the state is lifting capacity restrictions but changes that Long Island towns made to how they govern during the pandemic are likely here to stay, officials said.

Drop boxes for permit applications and tax payments, installed to reduce potential spread, will remain because they’re more convenient than waiting in line.

The pop-up vaccination clinics that some towns sponsored and staffed may close but expanded meal deliveries to seniors and free drive-in movies are so popular that some town supervisors say they may make them permanent.

One of the most widespread shifts — going from in-person meetings and hearings to virtual ones on platforms like Zoom — is also likely to endure in some fashion, officials said, perhaps as an option for residents to participate remotely.

That could be a boon for homebound residents or those in large East End towns who face long drive times to get to meetings, but some are skeptical of the virtual option, citing technological barriers and a loss of the give-and-take of old-fashioned meetings.

James Bouklas, president of the civic group We Are Smithtown, made that clear last spring when he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop rezoning of the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge to allow for apartments: "There are older residents who are active and involved in policy who are now being asked to forget everything they've done and figure out how to sign on to a conference call or use a computer with Zoom."

'Have a playbook'

Pandemic lesson number one for North Hempstead was: have a system in place to react swiftly, said Supervisor Judi Bosworth.

The town set up work groups to respond to the crisis, and Bosworth said it’s likely they will keep meeting.

"Hopefully, there won’t be other pandemics. Hopefully, there won’t be other major challenges to all of us, but we all know that things happen," she said. "We need to make sure that we have the entities established and set up so that we can go into action immediately."

The town added offerings that may become permanent services, such as virtual programs for seniors and recreational activities like drive-in movies.

Islip expanded its use of online services such as paying taxes and accepting applications to the building and planning departments, Supervisor Angie Carpenter said. The town mobilized staff to bring hot meals to seniors.

Staff and volunteers scheduled 2,000 vaccination appointments for residents, with a special emphasis on front-line workers and restaurant employees.

Officials learned they could accelerate the pace of government to respond to pressing problems, she said, citing the creation of outdoor-dining permits for restaurants reeling from lost indoor business. "It was remarkable to see how people kind of clicked into gear," Carpenter said.

She said officials also learned to give more consideration of crowds in public buildings. Social distancing requirements might stay in some form to ensure residents attending town programs don’t risk a virus infection.

"We’re going to have more recognition of occupancy levels," she said.

More outdoor events may be scheduled, too, officials said.

Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci said towns "now have a playbook to deal with a pandemic … Even our plans dealing with testing, social distancing and wearing masks and sanitizing, and a reopening plan, there’s an outline. We can continuously update this playbook and guidance as time moves on."

Some changes in place in Huntington: Visitors need an appointment to get into town hall and tax payments and senior meals get drive-through service. The town started a Pen Pal program for seniors and bought a generator to power town hall through outages.

The town made good use of an online reporting system that allows service requests from any department and reporting of code violations, livestreamed meetings on TV and a metered-parking payment app.

Virtual and real windows

Brookhaven government may never look the same after the pandemic, Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said.

Fewer meetings are held in person and more services are offered online. Drop boxes for town residents, developers and attorneys to leave applications for permits and zoning changes are now fixtures.

"We have a different type of workflow now," Romaine said. "You’re going to see many more changes in the next three to four years because of the changes we made during this pandemic."

Brookhaven expanded online offerings over the past year.

Some town work must be done in person, though. When coronavirus concerns forced the town to shut down its senior centers and nutritional programs, Brookhaven began Meals-on-Wheels delivery of more than 500 hot meals a day to seniors, Romaine said.

Romaine, who said he had never participated in virtual gatherings until a year ago, said he discovered the virtues of meeting constituents and staff online. He spends less time traveling, and participants are less likely to back out because of scheduling conflicts, he said.

"It’s not as good as in person, but it can happen a lot faster, a lot quicker, and people don’t have to travel from wherever," Romaine said.

Romaine singled out for praise staff in the town’s call center. Working from home, they handled complaints from residents, answered questions and took calls from homeowners during winter storms.

In Babylon, long lines of residents on tax payment days, or of contractors picking up or dropping off bid material, are a thing of the past, replaced by tax payment booths set up outside and an online bidding process.

The town invested in employee wellness, Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said, signing a one-year contract worth about $100,000 with Radish Health of Manhattan for an online health portal, in addition to testing and contact tracing for COVID-19. Officials have said they expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse that money.

"A number of employees have taken advantage of the medical and counseling services that were made available," Schaffer said. "We’ve been able to reduce absenteeism as a result of employees checking in the morning and going over their conditions."

In Smithtown, tasks that used to require an in-person visit can now be done by visiting a vestibule drop-box or logging onto the town website, spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said.

For instance, residents can visit a drive-through in the town hall parking to pay their taxes.

At least in the near-term, changes intended to ensure the safety of thousands of participants in town recreation programs last year will stay in this summer place, she said.

That means online Mommy and Me classes, and low-risk in-person activities like horseback and trail riding instruction. Some activities will be held on town beaches; a playground program once held indoors at area schools will take place in town parks. Young participants in some of the town’s summer camp will be divided into pods, using color-coded backpacks.

Oyster Bay had launched a chat function on the town’s website so that residents could get answers about accessing town services, said Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino.

"People could ask their questions and get immediate answers," he said.

Town spokesman Brian Nevin said the public information officers handled the inquiries and, in some cases, would take a caller’s name and number and have someone from a specific department return the call.

The chat service handled more than 1,000 inquiries but has been discontinued as more in-person service has resumed, Nevin said.

The town also began accepting credit card payments over the phone or online for building permit applications. That option will remain, Saladino said.

One seemingly retro innovation: Oyster Bay set up outdoor walk-up windows for residents to drop off paperwork.

Zoom not going away

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said the pandemic exposed two weaknesses in its operations: a lack of available access to virtual platforms and problems with government operations dispersed across town buildings.

Southold caught up in setting up Zoom access, but Russell said he didn't want the technology to stop people from witnessing government in action.

"Zoom should enhance the ability of the public to attend public meetings, but it shouldn't replace the ability for people to appear in hearings in person and it shouldn't replace the responsibility of discretionary boards from appearing in person," he said.

Town officials also reevaluated administrative services. The town lacked a central building where visitors could be efficiently screened for COVID-19, and access was slow for peripheral buildings, some of which don’t have a regular staff presence.

As a result, "We decided to put all our administrative services under one roof, so we are able to create some kind of gatekeeper position," Russell said."

In Southampton, virtual meetings will likely continue as well, making it easier for residents to participate in public meetings and volunteer for advisory committees, said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman.

The logistics are sometimes superior, he said: documents can be more easily shared and presented in a virtual meeting.

"It's so much more convenient for people, so that's not going away," he said.

Town board meetings were previously streamed live, but those watching could not participate in real time. Officials are considering hosting hybrid meetings that would be held in-person but allow for participation from those at home.

In Riverhead, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said that when the pandemic struck, town officials limited visitors to meet social distance requirements.

They worked by phone, email and drop box to collect tax payments, mail and building plans.

Revenue from application fees, government aid and justice court revenues dropped by $1.8 million, she said, and that meant "cutting all nonessential spending, placing promotions on hold and limiting new hires" while maintaining services.

Glen Cove Mayor Timothy Tenke said has made its open-streets program for restaurants permanent, so residents can enjoy outside dining and struggling restaurants get a lifeline.

Tenke said the city is closing certain downtown streets on weekends, during evenings from May through October, bringing many out for face-to-face rendezvous.

"It gives the opportunity to our residents to enjoy the downtown without traffic," Tenke said.

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