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Podcast: Town Leaders Managing in Times of Crisis

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Podcast featuring Buster Nicholsonmanager of Public Sector Outreach and
Anthony Mangeri, Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management; Town Manager in Delaware

The coronavirus pandemic has had major consequences for local town communities and municipalities. In this episode, Buster Nicholson interviews AMU emergency and disaster management professor Anthony Mangeri about his role as a town manager in Delaware. Learn about the short-term effects on the local economy as well as anticipated long-term effects that many affect town municipal revenues for years. Also learn about strategies to build and maintain public trust and keep citizens informed about the changing public health situation in the town.

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Read the Transcript:

Buster Nicholson: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Buster Nicholson. The show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing local communities from the perspective of local leadership positions. Today, my guest is Anthony Mangeri, who is a town manager in the great state of Delaware.

In addition, Anthony is on the faculty at American Military University. He’s taught graduate and undergraduate courses in consequence management, crisis planning, emergency management law, and leadership in the fire service.

For more than 10 years, Anthony served as New Jersey’s Hazard Mitigation Officer, and he has been a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician for more than 30 years. Anthony, welcome to spotlight on local leaders. And thank you for joining me.

Anthony Mangeri: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to have the discussion today.

Buster Nicholson: I’d like to dive right into some of the issues that were born out of COVID-19. Can you briefly cover the budget challenges you face as a result of state government mandating restrictions on local businesses, like hours of operations being limited, amount of patrons being allowed in at one time? Just, can you cover how that has affected your revenues?

Anthony Mangeri: Well, I’m glad that you connect budget, operations, and revenue altogether, because that’s really the impact is in those three primary areas. It’s important to understand that government’s job is a service industry and its job is to meet the needs of the constituency, whatever that becomes.

And a budget is a plan to do that. It’s not a mandate. It’s a plan or a strategy. And behind that budget is a bunch of strategic processes. When something like COVID-19 hits, and certainly any type of crisis, but especially one that lasts, at this point, seven months, it is overwhelming. It can be catastrophic to a municipal budget for a variety of reasons.

The first is, obviously, we have contracts in place that are already signed and executed. Those contracts are still obligations. Whether it is the vendor not able to deliver or it’s the town’s requirement within the contract.

Those contracts have to be evaluated, like any other business continuity strategy, to make sure that things are being done according to the contract and that the contract is still standing and still relevant.

The second part of that is to look at the budget as an overall strategy and to evaluate how the budget needs to be modified to address the crisis. Not every jurisdiction has the simple ability, or not every administrator I should say, has the simple ability to redirect funds within a budget.

There is a process to do that, because the difference between public sector and private sector is that public sector has to be transparent. They are required to communicate and interact in public view so that the public is aware of what’s going on.

Buster Nicholson: Sure. Which makes them less able to quickly respond to issues.

Anthony Mangeri: Correct, except for emergent authorities. And this is where if you’re waiting till the moment of a crisis to look at your emergency authorities, it’s too late. This is why emergency planning. For eons we’ve been saying this, this is why emergency preparedness and emergency planning is not simply a template or boiler plate exercise. It has to be a real discussion about what processes will you need to use in time of crisis, and how does your authorities and laws allow you to work in time of crisis.

Buster Nicholson: No, I agree with that. And you touched on the fact that your operational costs do not change, but your revenue may change. Obviously, you have occupancy taxes you would collect, meals taxes you would collect. I know that all those have been severely hit during the COVID-19 crisis. There’s going to be a possibly a short fall gap in there. You have obligations, but then you have a revenue gap. How would you address some of those issues?

[Podcast: Making a Difference as a Public Servant]

Anthony Mangeri: Well, operational requirement, operational costs do or can change. That’s part of this conversation about contracts. It is not just with vendors, but with your own personnel.

In Delaware, there are some local jurisdictions that have in their contracts, their labor contracts, that under a state of emergency, they will be compensated at a time and a half regular pay. The reason that that was put in place was obviously during a tornado or an earthquake, any type of crisis, severe weather, whatever, you want to make sure that your employees assemble and that they’re able to do their job. And there is a risk associated in a short-term, high-impact disaster.

This has been a very long-term impact. Can you imagine for seven months having to pay your staff time and a half, if it’s in their labor contract, because we’re under a state of emergency. I do want to point out that operational costs can change. And it’s one of the first things you have to look at when you start to assess impact on the community.

As far as the other issue of economics, government is, and sometimes I think people forget this, but government is tied to the economy of the community. We want to see the community flourish and develop and grow in reasonable time and reasonable parameters.

Something like this kind of crisis where you’re shutting down whole portions of the economy, absolutely impacts its tax revenue, it impacts the ability of the municipality to generate revenue, to meet obligations.

Because the other part of this is individuals have, obviously, to redirect their household budgets and prioritize, especially when you see large sectors of the population laid off or lose their job, because that element of the economy is not open, restaurants and service industries, hospitality industries, for example.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And I believe that that is an untold story here, because you have restaurants that are 40%, 50% business that they were doing before the COVID-19. Well, obviously that’s 40% to 50% reduction in meals tax collected.

Anthony Mangeri: Absolutely. The other part of it is if the restaurant goes out of business and so does that revenue as a business gets removed from the town. Yet that business district still exist and still has demand for services or requests for services or urgency for services. It really becomes a dynamic situation that involves everyone as a whole.

In emergency management, crisis management we’ve talked for about a decade or two now about what is called whole communities. And this is an example where it absolutely takes the whole community to effectively both respond and recover from this crisis. And to be quite simple, or be quite candid, in COVID-19 we’re not in the recovery phase yet. We’re still migrating towards long-term recovery. My personal opinion is I think that there’s going to be issues in another year. And I’ll explain why very simply.

A lot of people who have a mortgage, they pay their taxes and such as part of what’s called escrow within the mortgage. So those taxes and expenses are generally paid a year ahead or six months to a year ahead. There’s a buffer.

So many municipalities just put if they’re on a July to June, they just put out their municipal budget and they’re billing for taxes for the fiscal year. Well, those taxes most likely will be paid, because there’s revenue in those escrow accounts to pay that, at least for a majority of people that have an escrowed account. Others are going to get the bill if they own their house and they’re going to have to pay it.

The problem is going to be when next year when you make that same billing, an individual had been unemployed for a period of time and that escrow or that payment, we see now that deficiencies in mortgage and rent payments are slowly increasing. People are more and more not able to pay that. I think there’s going to be a very substantial potential for delayed impact from this COVID-19 crisis in the long-term recovery.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, you’ve got commercial properties that are sitting empty. The revenue stream to a locality is higher from commercial property taxes. Well, they’re sitting empty. And then you got to wonder, when is that going to hit?

Anthony Mangeri: Also, development has impacted. Delaware, as you know, is a state that has large development tracks, developments slowly moving from the north, southward. If developers can’t get funding from the bank, if they can’t get lines of credit, unless you’re a huge developer, you need those things to start infrastructure, development projects, which lead to housing or industry or commercial development.

And those things all get kind of slowed down if revenue-ready cash is not available. And if the financial markets are sensitive because of COVID to lending money, then that impacts the ability of the developers to get those resources that are necessary to continue to grow or to improve a community. That becomes a big issue as well.

I’m concerned that we could have more of an issue down the road. And it depends on how the jurisdiction is laid out. Jurisdictions have multiple revenue streams just like businesses. If I’m a jurisdiction, for example, that has water and sewer utility, and I bill for water and sewer, and I bill for say electricity even, as long as everything’s humming along and I have industry in town, everything’s humming along fairly well.

But if I’m a jurisdiction that doesn’t have any of those, I’ve contracted or privatized water and sewer, I might have privatized electricity, I may have industry shutting down for periods of time, so they’re not using any of those resources.

Think of a large university and how much utility they use that all of a sudden they stop using if they’re closing down. That all impacts revenue in a variety of ways.

Buster Nicholson: That’s a really good point, because the commercial industry is going to use a lot more electricity, more water, more sewer. That’s shut down, and that’s going to basically roll into residential rates. I mean, you would have to make up that shortfall somewhere. And these are the tough decisions to make, especially in an atmosphere that can sometimes be political, obviously, because that’s the nature of the beast.

Anthony Mangeri: Absolutely. It’s always a balancing act. It’s a balancing act between revenue and the ability to generate resources, to meet the needs of the community and service delivery. A town manager and a town council can’t one day say, “We just don’t have the resources for a fire department. I’m sorry, we’re going to shut it down.” Fires are not going to stop.

Public safety issues are not going to go away simply because it’s a pandemic or because of something else. As a matter of fact, they’re exacerbated. The need for services for public safety and public health professionals becomes even greater.

And in many jurisdictions it’s volunteer managed, and everybody goes, “Well, volunteers don’t cost money.” Absolutely, they do. Volunteers still have the demand of equipment, the demand of even simple things like gasoline. Those firetrucks work on gasoline.

Many jurisdictions, support the volunteers by providing the gas or even if they don’t, the fire service has more calls for service, for EMS, or EMS has more calls for service. That increases operating costs, and they have to recoup that or manage that in some way so that they could provide service, because service has to be provided no matter what.

At the end of the day, I can mitigate major or minor ideas of service. The lawn might get mowed every two weeks instead of every one week or reshuffle, re-shift public works people, but I can’t do that always with public safety, especially if I have an increase in services, that has to happen.

And so that becomes important. And it’s very important to keep in mind that transparency and accountability is a mainstay for local government. That starts with being very honest about what you’re doing, open public meetings, informing and communicating with the public. And that includes the budget, letting people know what’s going on.

Buster Nicholson: That’s a good segue into my next question about communication being open. Sometimes uncertainty can threaten community trust in local leaders and you’ve got the COVID-19 and it seems like there’s a lot of information. It’s been confusing. What’s open? What’s closed? When does it open back up? How long before we resume “normal,” activities?

How can a local leader communicate effectively when engaging the public like, “Hey, look a year down the road, this could get worse.” What are some methodologies, some soft skills that you would employ to get that message across?

Anthony Mangeri: Safety and security is always paramount. Both safety and security of staff and your team and safety and security of and welfare of the community are always paramount. The importance of communication is to keep the public engaged and to make them aware.

I use the phrase often “inform, educate, engage, and empower.” And the reason I do that is because much of what we do is to inform the public of what government is doing to address their needs. There’s an old expression, and when I teach crisis communications, I talk about it quite a bit, that mother nature deplores a void. If you fail to provide information then other sources less credible may fill that void. So, you very much need to keep the public informed and you need to keep the public engaged.

Where I think things can get difficult, and only difficult because we’re all problem solvers, is when we move from educate and empower and engage, that’s where we start to form differences of opinion. We all have different life experiences. We all have different backgrounds. We all view things and problems from different sources.

Many times that’s a very positive thing, very powerful. But sometimes in a crisis, for example, it can lead to a huge amount of discussions on what to do, and in the interim, things are still evolving in a crisis. Sometimes there has to be definitive action to mitigate the crisis getting worse, and you can only use the best available data.

But the difference between government and private sector is government should inform the public why they’re making the decisions that they’re making, when it’s timely and reasonable to do so. If there’s a house fire, I don’t want to sit and explain for 20 minutes why the firefighters are making entry with water hoses and what size hose they have. That’s not a committee decision.

That’s do what you got to do and rescue the people inside. It’s urgent and it’s timely. But there are other times when we could step back and say, “All right, let’s talk about this and how we want our community to address this crisis.”

A great example that I’m seeing and some have seen is the issue of parks and playgrounds and recreation in this COVID environment. There’s a liability and there’s a risk depending on the capabilities that a town has to be able to sanitize, clean and maintain that park and playground equipment.

There could be as long debate about whether or not it’s reasonable to just simply post it, let parents make decisions, or do we not post it, keep it closed, and mitigate liability and risk to the community for spread. All of this is about spread and management of spread and infection.

Buster Nicholson: In the soft skills that one needs, I mean, as far as communication and discourse and keeping that sense of trust in the local government, and there’s a lot of avenues that can be used to get those messages out.

Anthony Mangeri: It is clearly about trust. Trust is absolutely the ability to interact with the community is all based on trust. It’s the capital of a municipality community. The idea that a community would work behind the scenes in an “us and them” mentality really is not very helpful. I’ve often seen this role as town manager to build a “we,” a holistic community.

And we don’t always have to agree. We simply have to be able to discuss things in a civil manner and evaluate the options and make the best decisions that can be made. And that’s council’s job. That’s not the town manager’s job to make those decisions. Town manager’s job is to provide the data to be fair, to confirm validated data, not opinionated data, so that everyone can make an informed decision.

But trust, trust, transparency, openness, verified information, sharing that verified information, is the capital that that government has to work with.

The soft skills that are so essential I’ve always, always said to public safety leadership when I lecture, “Empathy trumps everything.” It’s something to remember that empathy trumps everything. Not fake empathy. It’s who you have to be.

But you have to understand what the person’s feeling, sensing, experiencing. You have to understand and be aware of their experience so that you can help them reach the point or that we can work together to reach a point, whatever that is. So, empathy is everything.

Diplomacy, obviously, in the way you communicate. There is no doubt that many times in many places, people want to say things and they just the old expression “bite your tongue.” Well, when you’re a community leader, unfortunately you don’t always have that option, but you need to be diplomatic in how you’re expressing yourself and how you’re expressing the community.

And most importantly, whether you’re a councilperson or you’re a town manager or town administrator—and those roles are all very different—you absolutely have to understand that you are speaking in the role of the town, of the community. You don’t get the ability to spread your opinion. You have to focus on what is the policies and decisions of the community. And I think that becomes very important.

Buster Nicholson: And that’s great. And then, yeah, the diplomacy is a really good point. I’ve worked in a small town myself, and I understand the challenges of daily reactions to a myriad of issues. The type of job as a town manager, you’re required to wear many hats, obviously. But what life experience have prepared you for such a role to enact that diplomacy? And you did mention earlier in the conversation we’re all kind of a product of our past and how we approach things.

If we can get a little bit onto that side of it, what has helped you to deal with reaction, proaction, diplomacy with staff, council, mayor, residents? Just I want your thoughts on some of those aspects of the job.

Anthony Mangeri: I can’t help but give a nod to my kindergarten teacher and say, honestly, that everything I needed, I learned in kindergarten. The reality is that learning how to interact, learning how to be civil, learning the simplest things of negotiating for something and influence and creativity and those analytical skills to process problems. Not to yell out, to start to build some ability to listen, to be an objective listener, to hear, not just listen, but to hear, what’s being said and to process a problem, they all become critical. You could also say the parenting skills.

I think the biggest thing that has influenced me is, honestly, working in public safety has provided me, even as a volunteer and in my vocation, it created all of those skillsets. You are constantly problem solving. You are constantly working in community engagement and interaction. You are constantly, constantly evaluating the environment around you to make effective change or to effectively implement something.

The other part is team. And when you work in public safety, whether you’re a firefighter, law enforcement, EMS, emergency management, any of the realms of public safety, it is always a team approach. And I think emergency management has taught me that more than anything.

Emergency managers by general nature of the business don’t own anything. They facilitate other entities in managing and deploying resources to meet a crisis. And that’s a general term, because there are jurisdictions that own some assets in emergency management, but they’ve aggregated together public safety or other agencies together, or treated a unique resource for a crisis such as a regional Hazmat team. Overall, that emergency management role teaches you very much how to facilitate, how to be a team, how to network and they’re all critical skills.

The other part of it, I think that is very, very important is education. There’s an old expression, and I know I teach, but there’s an old expression that “education makes you a better person and certificates and certifications make you money.”

There’s one thing I look at when I see somebody, when I look at education and selecting candidates for a position. Education doesn’t tell me that you absolutely know how to do the job. It tells me you have an acclimation towards it. It also tells me you know how to problem solve and learn, and those things become very valuable.

So, I have to admit my degree has helped me in understanding how to learn, how to research, how to find the data that I need to make an informed decision and the decision process itself. They’re the three things rather that I think absolutely define how to build the skillset for this kind of position.

Buster Nicholson: Yeah. And having that education, the skills are transferable, the processes. It is important what you learn, but it’s really important to learn how to learn, to learn how you learn, to know yourself. And I think that’s critical because if you are actually listening, you can take any information process it, synthesize it and correctly apply it to a situation, even though it isn’t exact, because nothing happens exactly the same, but you can take those and draw from them and kind of critically put together some of your past experiences and come out with a better outcome, I think, when you’re facing any issue.

Anthony Mangeri: Absolutely. And just to give you an example of that transference. Law enforcement officers, especially in the era of community policing back in the day, learn about Peelian principles, the principles of Sir Robert Peel, that make community policing.

Well, I wrote an article about five years ago that applied those same principles to emergency management, and they’re all focused on community interface and community integration to address a problem. That’s the overarching thing of Sir Robert Peel’s statements, at least in my view.

That’s really what it’s about is engaging and involving the community, that all of us together address the problems of the community, not each of us as individuals. It is not, it absolutely is not an “us and them” kind of approach. It is an integrated approach to meet the needs of the community, whether it’s economic, whether it’s crisis, whatever it is that has to stay as a fundamental tenet of doing business is that it’s a “we.”

Buster Nicholson: Well, Anthony, I want to thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your perspective on these issues. And for joining me today, for the episode.

Anthony Mangeri: You are very, very welcome. I think it’s just great opportunity to have these discussions so that local leaders, especially in small towns, hear from others what is going on and how they can effectively address their concerns and that they’re not alone in having concerns. I appreciate the time. Thank you.

Buster Nicholson: Okay. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. You can learn more about these topics by signing up for the newsletter. Remember to be well and stay safe.

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