HANNIBAL | The coronavirus has prompted policy changes at both Hannibal City Hall and the Hannibal Board of Public Works.
During Tuesday night's meeting of the Hannibal City Council an emergency bill was approved that opens the door to the council conducting city business via electronic means or by phone.
During the March 17 meeting of the HBPW Board, Interim General Manager Mathew Munzlinger outlined for the utility's board members a handful of new policies that will affect customers.
Immediately halted is the disconnection of utilities for nonpayment. Munzlinger said that the new policy will remain in effect indefinitely.
“We are not going to put a date on it at this point because we don't know the length of the (coronavirus) outbreak,” he said. “Once the outbreak has passed we will make a public announcement indicating at what time those disconnects will resume.”
Also being halted temporarily is the assessment of late fees or penalties resulting from overdue accounts.
With the HBPW not collecting those penalties it will halt its 10 percent contribution of those additional fees to Douglass Community Services, which in turn used those funds to help people pay their late utility bills to the HBPW.
“Without collecting late fees we are not going to have the contribution, or it is going to be greatly diminished, over the next couple of months,” Munzlinger said, adding that in February the HBPW's contribution to DCS was a little more than $2,200.
“There are some other things that are going to come out of this,” Munzlinger said. “We have been working on a process to do online utility sign-ups. It is something that we had initially planned on doing around the first of the fiscal year (July 1), but because of this (coronavirus concerns) we are going to give it a trial run and work through some of the problems that maybe have not been worked out.
“This will allow people continued service, but not have to have the face-to-face interaction at this point and hopefully prevent the spread of the virus.”
Munzlinger added that different policies and procedures, which are intended to keep HBPW personnel safe, are in the works.
“It is a fluid situation and we are trying to adjust accordingly,” he said.
New coronavirus guidelines prompted the emergency measure that the city council approved at its March 17 meeting, according to City Attorney James Lemon.
“We kind of got surprised by some of the things that have happened in just the last couple of days regarding how many people we can have in a meeting,” he said. “Our concern is quite frankly that we are rapidly approaching the point where they might tell us we are not allowed to have a meeting, they being the state or the feds.”
City statutes, as they existed previously, limited the city council on the format its meetings could take.
“We took a look at the charter and realized the only way we could maybe do this would be if the council chambers were untenable,” Lemon said. “If we are not allowed to have people sit in this room (council chambers) together, obviously that makes it untenable. We have provided for the council to meet electronically or by phone so long as there is an actual biological or viral emergency, and so long as they have provided for the public to attend that.”
Councilman James Godert asked how the public would be able to join a meeting of the council if it were held electronically or by phone.
“I don't know,” said Mayor James Hark.
“We are working on that,” added City Manager Lisa Peck.
“It is my understanding that they have been exploring several options,” Lemon said. “There are some software options and possibly call-in number options.”
Lemon added that whatever form future council meetings might take during an emergency the city “must always comply with the open meetings laws.”