City declares emergency, limits activities

Next week, Alders will consider whether or not to give Fitchburg’s mayor the power to spend up to $250,000 on emergencies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The budget amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority of the Common Council is up for discussion at the Tuesday, March 24, meeting.

Mayor Aaron Richardson declared a state of emergencyfor the city Monday. The council is also expected to vote March 24 whether to ratify that declaration, which gave city administrator Patrick Marsh the right to limit non-essential city activities to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

The revised financial procedures up for vote Tuesday make the mayor the highest level of administrative authorization.

“It is the Mayor’s intention to encourage all items that can, to wait until after the emergency,” a memo from the city administrator, finance director and attorney states. “He also does not intend to approve any policy items without Council approval.”

The emergency declaration also encourages residents to abide by the state and county mandates, which at the time of publication, was to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people. That number has since been dropped to a limit of 10 people by Gov. Tony Evers after the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the number.

It also also urges landlords to exercise compassion and discretion with tenants who struggle to make rent payments as a result of their health or employment being impacted by COVID-19. Individual municipalities cannot prevent landlords from evicting tenants, as all law regarding renting was put into state hands with legislation passed in 2011.

The emergency funds budget amendment would allow administrators to enact requests already made, including additional hours for staff to process and mail absentee ballots, IT consultant services and faster internet services for city employees who are working from home.

“While the current expectation is that the full $250,000 will not be needed, it is prudent to proceed with authorization of a higher amount to allow a significant cushion to quickly address unexpected needs,” the memo reads.

With the budget amendment, a revised purchasing process for emergencies would take effect, changing who needs to sign off on purchases. Currently, all purchases require approval by the council, but for emergency items, the mayor or the acting mayor would be the only one required to sign off on the item for it to be initially purchased.

If the item is not within the current operating budget, the council would need to pass a budget amendment for the purchase at a later date.

The memo states city staff have done their best to identify urgent needs in all departments, but it acknowledged that unanticipated expenses could arise.

“In the event of an emergency that requires immediate action, we expect staff (in consultation with the Mayor and City Administrator) to make the appropriate decisions to address the immediate situation using their best professional judgement,” the document reads.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.