Where We’re Going: Polk County Municipal Managers Share Insights
Four city managers and the county manager have learned a lot from the coronavirus pandemic and will use that knowledge moving forward. They will share, as they’ve been doing, having relied on strong communication networks to help them through this crisis.
Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said Polk County managers are used to dealing with hurricanes but navigating the pandemic has presented more issues than anyone thought possible. He manages the largest city in Polk County, with more than 100,000 residents.
Mike Herr, Winter Haven’s city manager and a former Polk County manager, has been impressed by the dedication of his staff and others. “This virus has brought out the best in our people. We are committed that it will not destroy our fabric.”
Tony Delgado, Lakeland
Delgado said the first thing he learned is that no plan is perfect, “especially when the dynamics surrounding the challenge are constantly changing and the challenge is truly tied to administering within the unknown.”
“In most circumstances we are dealing with utility service restoration, opening road corridors or developing basic public safety and support initiatives,” he said. “This challenge has required more in-depth development of businesses and economic-related assistance.”
The city is working to help, such as quickly modifying regulatory processes to move toward re-establishing the city’s economic needs. Lakeland is examining financial options for its 2021 budget and implementing a hiring freeze to make up for losses in revenue.
Communication is essential, whether updating residents, managing organizational discussions on an expedited basis or gathering knowledge and information from many different sources.
“The process is vitally important,” especially when, unlike a hurricane, “everything we see (weather impact, infrastructure damage, etc.) seems normal.”
Mike Herr, Winter Haven
Herr said he’s grateful that employees have remained committed to serving during the pandemic, the City Commission has been supportive and concerned, and community partners have been involved.
The commission has “never placed unreasonable demands on us or caved to political pressure to take a course of action for their community that wasn’t wise to take.”
Moving forward, he’s learned that local governments must have “a working knowledge about the capabilities of our health care system like hospitals, clinics, etc.,” he said. “We must concentrate on working with our health care providers to expand economic development or job creation into our health care infrastructure so we are better prepared to attack another COVID outbreak and provide excellent health care in general to our citizens.”
He said he would suggest local leaders hold quarterly meetings with the CEOs of the county’s five hospitals “to find out about new health care initiatives that are on the horizon to advance the healthcare of our citizens.”
Bobby Green, Auburndale
Green said the fact that many of the city managers in Polk County and the county manager have at least a decade of service here. “We know and trust each other.”
That, he said, provides for a win-win situation, when leaders can work on issues collectively without thinking only about their own city or town. “We respect the other party. And we encourage our directors to hold hands with their partners in these other cities and the county. It works up and down the organization.”
Green describes this time as being in hurricane mode. “We probably are more prepared in terms of response.”
Danielle Judd, Fort Meade
No matter how much experience you have handling crises or how many emergency and contingency plans you put together, you “can’t always have a pat answer on how to do a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Judd said.
She also said appreciation for public and private “essential” personnel, especially those working on the front line, is critical. “We are coming together. It really brings forward the motto: service to others.”
There has been creativity, too:
- “Setting up the Zoom and go-to meetings do take time, and when folks are still learning what mute and unmute is, meetings can be a bit daunting.”
- Learning new ways to come together as a community to honor the 2020 high school graduating class. “It showed the tenacity of the human spirit.”
On a recent Florida League of Cities webinar, Judd said the city does want to “get back to normal as much as we can,” even though local restaurants are doing well as far as takeout/delivery. In addition:
- The city has been working with the individual who runs Fort Meade FL Happenings on Facebook to provide information on how residents can get certain services, when things will open and the like.
- The not-for-profit Help of Fort Meade, which has more than 1,100 followers on Facebook, is giving away food at the American Legion Hall every other week American Legion.
Bill Beasley, Polk County
Like Green, Beasley said it’s more important now than ever to talk with one another. “We have weekly conference calls, and we’re talking about the common thread among the community, what one jurisdiction is doing, what another jurisdiction is doing. … What we’re doing in Polk County is special.”
Residents don’t care about what goes on behind the scenes or whose seal is on a truck, he said. “The health of this county is directly tied to the health of our cities and municipalities. Whatever we can do to support them is good business.”
Like the cities, the county is having to adapt to holding public meetings. For instance, it will likely use the county building’s large atrium and lobby to accommodate expected large crowds when it discusses two upcoming land-use topics, he said. The county might even line people up outdoors if needed to ensure social distancing.