Managing through trying times… City Manager Estes working through daily challenges 

Published 3:32 pm Monday, April 20, 2020

In the position of a city manager, there are many times that difficult choices and decisions are required, but for many city managers currently, there has never been a time like the country is facing and those decisions often come in a flurry.
Elizabethton City Manager Daniel Estes was asked how he has been challenged in ways that maybe he hasn’t ever been in his time as a city manager.
“This has been a particularly challenging time for many in city government,” Estes said. “We were in the thick of drafting the 2020-2021 budget when COVID-19 appeared, and we dropped everything to plan for our COVID-19 response.
“We’ve adjusted nearly everything that the city does: closed city hall to drive-thru only service, closed the library, the Mill St. rec center, playgrounds, and picnic pavilions, increased the use of hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, staggered some work schedules, and have some working remotely, all to limit exposure of our staff and the general public to this virus.
“We have also had to adjust how City Council carries out its business by quickly moving meetings to an online video Livestream format.”
Estes went on to say that for the most part that people have generally been following the CDC guidelines and the Governor’s executive orders on social distancing which shows that people have been resilient and have tried to take the COVID-19 situation in stride.
One of the first things that Estes along with the Elizabethton City Council did in response to the emergency surrounding COVID-19 was to delay disconnects and waive late fees to help families that were impacted by the pandemic.
Estes was asked if there had been many requests in regards to help since that decision was announced.

“So far, we have not seen a significant change in delinquent utility accounts. I think the full economic impact will lag the impact from the virus itself, but the federal stimulus money being distributed now should help cushion the financial blow,” Estes stated.

During a recent city council meeting, Estes informed the Council that because the city was in the middle of a budget year and monies had already been allocated that the city was currently fine in their current budget.

However, depending on the length that the pandemic affects local businesses and how far the economy might dip will certainly have adverse effects on the city’s long-term financial situation.

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“Although this budget year may be manageable, the longer-term impact on the city’s finances are not clear since no one knows how far the economy will fall and for how long,” Estes said. “We are hoping for the best but planning for lean times.

“A significant part of the general fund budget is paid for by sales tax collections which will take a hit. We have already halted all city capital projects that can be stopped, including the annual street paving program.

“And the preliminary budget we have drafted for the 2020-2021 year starting in July is a bare-bones budget,” continued Estes. “This is all being done to make sure essential city services are provided.  If the economy recovers quickly, and the city’s revenues recover with it, we may be able to add some things back mid-year.”

With many city businesses either having to cut back on hours or close altogether, Estes was asked if any businesses had reached out to the city for help.

“The city has tried to work with local businesses as we all adjust to social distancing and closure of non-essential businesses,” Estes commented. “For instance, since dining areas in all restaurants are closed, downtown restaurants wanted to have convenient order pickup but don’t have traditional parking lots or drive-thru windows.

“Main Street Director Courtney Washburn heard of this problem and wanted to help these restaurants get what business they could during these hard times. She spoke to city staff who quickly worked out a plan to designate a few on-street parking spaces in front of each restaurant for curbside pickup.”

While social distancing and even quarantine have been new to many since COVID-19 broke out, Estes and his family have been no stranger in how to handle social distancing.

The father of twins, Estes and his wife have dealt with trying to protect one of their daughters who has been going through some medical challenges.

“One of our twin daughters has had some significant medical problems since birth, so much so that my wife has stayed home to care for her and our other two daughters instead of going back to work after maternity,” said Estes. “The odd thing is the last seventeen months have, in a way, prepared us well for COVID-19.

“We have already been doing many of the things everyone is now doing like limiting unnecessary travel, staying at home more often, and using grocery pickup.  We are pros at self-isolation!

“In all seriousness, I have been more vigilant about washing my hands, using hand sanitizer, and generally trying to not get sick, hoping I do not bring an illness home to our girls,” Estes continued. “We also made plans in case I caught the virus – how I could self-isolate at home, still get some work done remotely, but keep them from catching it from me.

“These are things we’ve done at home to increase our safety while I still go to city hall every day.  The city has people who are able to work from home already doing so. But in my position, I can’t expect people to come into work if I’m not willing to do the same.”

Estes said that with trying times that internal strengths that might not have previously exhibited come to the forefront and he believes that everyone associated with the City of Elizabethton has dug deep for inner strength to take care of the business at hand.

“Difficult, trying times have an impact on people,” Estes remarked. “Some rise to the occasion while others can struggle.

“I am proud that city staff have risen to the occasion and have displayed grace under pressure. This virus has forced us to adapt and adjust repeatedly.

“Sometimes it has been like the Red Queen told Alice, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”  Although not stated by anyone explicitly, I have seen city staff display a heightened sense of purpose and a renewed dedication to the important responsibilities that the city government has to the community.”

As for the time being that the state of Tennessee is still under Governor Bill Lee’s Stay at Home initiative, Estes wanted to encourage local businesses and residents that brighter days are on the horizon.

“I know this has been a difficult, frustrating, and even scary time for us all,” Estes said. “I am under no illusion that it has been anything else.

“Yet it has been encouraging to see the American spirit and Tennessee Volunteer spirit shine through during these trying times. Every evening the news shows the continuing tragedy of death from this virus.

“But time and again we see courage, dedication, ingenuity, and just plain grit on display: from healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, and truck drivers, to manufacturers large and small dumping their traditional product lines to make masks, gowns, ventilators, and hand sanitizer,” continued Estes. “There will come a time when we can all rejoice that we have defeated COVID-19 – “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,”