Question: How do you, as a City Manager provide programs and services for 115,000 people and 2,800 businesses with your City Hall doors closed, a constituency under State lockdown, and employees at home? That is the question that faced Alma Martinez, the City Manager of the City of El Monte on March 17, 2020 when the City declared a State of Emergency and she had exactly 7 months on the job.
Luckily, the first response was developed with the leadership of the Mayor and the City Council: we needed to retool our municipal services and find a new way to deliver services and information to our residents remotely. With this in mind the City partnered with a local consulting firm to launch a Virtual City Hall, to continue providing vital services to the community using a customized web-based portal. The program provides real-time service for residents and businesses; and allows them to schedule meetings, access to City services and chat with City staff. Since the initial launch of our Virtual City Hall, the City has enhanced its platform with additional applications to include: Virtual Job Fairs, COVID-19 test site locators, and Emergency Alert functions, to name a few.
To complement our new Virtual City Hall, the City needed to drive its social media presence; which until this point had been essentially non-existent. In the ensuing months, the City was able to increase its social media presence from a couple hundred followers to 10,000 followers on Facebook! To this point, the City had no real Twitter and Instagram presence, and now we have nearly 7,000 followers in six months. This has been a game changer for our City as we have really utilized these tools to reach out to our community to relay important public health messages, announce giveaway opportunities, promote our Virtual City Hall and share any announcements that we would otherwise promote with paper flyers in our lobby spaces.
In parallel with retooling the residents’ experience with City Hall, we had to focus on the overwhelming daily news of the pandemic, and perhaps loss of jobs and wages, and we wanted to work to prevent homelessness. In early May, the City El Monte launched its own Rental Assistance Program, where almost 1,000 residents applied for 400 grants of $1,200 paid directly to the landlord of the property. In total, $450,000 in rent vouchers was distributed. Shortly thereafter, the City started a Rapid Rehousing Program, with a total of $220,000, to provide $1,200 grants to assist homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, individuals and families in our community.
In addition to our focus on families trying to maintain their housing, we were sensitive to the fact that some of our residents are in fact homeless. Project Roomkey is a collaborative effort by the State, County and the City of El Monte to secure hotel and motel rooms for vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. It provides a way for people who don’t have a home to stay inside to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Project Roomkey aims to not only protect high-risk individuals, but to also prevent the spread of the deadly virus in our communities and protect the capacity of our hospitals and healthcare system. The City of El Monte currently has 133 rooms as part of this program.
To further assist homeless residents in our community, the City coordinated with non-profits in our region to provide services such as showers, hygiene kits, and food. Operation Hope, a non-profit organization, provides showers once a week for homeless persons and meals for the first 50 people who show up for services. El Monte is one of only 20 locations in Los Angeles County which offers these important services and to date nearly 1,000 people have been assisted.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors citizens were identified as those most at risk if infection with the virus. City management also recognized that our elder residents are the most vulnerable in terms of food insecurity, especially since they were under orders to stay home. With this in mind, we knew that we had to redesign our Elderly Nutrition Program from an on-site lunch program at the Senior Center to a meal pick up model. Since the COVID emergency, we have provided more than 30,000 meals for the elders in our community. As the temperature increased to triple digits in the summer, traditional places where people could go to escape, such as shopping centers, were closed to the public. As a result, the El Monte Air Conditioning Program was set up to provide portable air conditioners for seniors and other groups most at risk.
Of course not all of our residents are seniors, so one of our very first challenges was to try to provide food for our families who were facing lay-offs and loss of wages. Since the first week of the emergency, the City has organized and participated in the Food Pantry program. We have partnered with various non-profits, such as the LA Regional Food Bank, and our faith-based community, to provide more than 8,000 participants with food and other essentials. We were also able to provide $50 gift cards for a local market (Northgate) to help our residents during the first weeks of the pandemic; more than 300 cards were delivered to our families.
For the first three months of the pandemic, we provided drive up, grab and go hot meals for the residents of our community. Local restaurants were our vendors for the hot meals which helped them to stay afloat during the first few months of closures. We served more the 3,000 hot meals during our drive through hot meal program.
The Great Plates program is a food delivery model which goes beyond the other food distributions program we have initiated. This program, funded by the County of Los Angeles, has allowed us to partner with local restaurants to deliver hot meals to our residents, especially those who may not qualify for other meal programs (non-seniors). Not only does this program provide food for our residents, it helps to keep our local restaurants in business and their staff employed as they weather the restaurant closures due to COVID-19. We have delivered more than 6,000 meals with this successful program.
In addition to providing people with life’s essentials, the City has also taken a lead in providing items to help protect people from the virus. This included partnering with Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis to establish a testing site at the San Gabriel Airport, providing testing at local convalescent homes, distributing more than 80,000 free masks and hand sanitizers and hosting an Emergency Preparation Seminar in August.
Of course, none of these City programs could have been implemented and maintained unless local essential workers stay safe and have the tools necessary to manage and implement the programs. With all schools in Los Angeles County still closed, the City recently set up an after school programs at five parks. Now children from seven to 12 years old can have homework assistance and group recreation every weekday afternoon in a safe environment. El Monte is also looking to provide childcare services for City employees. The ongoing event that has brought the most fun to the community is the Movies on Main series; a monthly outdoor drive-in movie experience for families to enjoy a family-friendly film. For many of them, this will be their first experience going to a drive-in movie. As a “thank-you” to essential workers such as supermarket and nursing home employees, the City recently partnered with the non-profit group Our Saviour Center, to do a give-away of Michael Kors purses, clothing and other items.
El Monte City employees faced another layer of challenges. With Los Angeles County mostly shut down for months, City revenues plummeted in a way not seen since the great recession. So at the same time residents and businesses needed their government most, many cities found themselves unable to meet that demand. With union contracts already in place, City employees were not obligated to come to the table. “Fortunately, everyone shared the common goal of serving the public, without interruption, the best way possible,” said Martinez.
The Mayor, City Council, City executive team, Police officers’ unions, and City employee unions all agreed to temporary furloughs and/or benefits with a total savings of nearly $1.6 million. This included the City Manager and all employees deferring raises for two years and removing incentive pay for educational degrees. Most employees, including the executive team, agreed to furlough days. The City Council and City Manager also agreed to suspend their car allowances. In return for the concessions listed above, the possibility of layoffs were significantly reduced. There were other cost savings measures put in place that did not include any concessions. For example, the Police Department agreed go change their minimum staffing structure, which is projected to save the City over $1 million in overtime wages.
“It has been an extremely stressful time for many of our residents and businesses,” said Mayor Andre Quintero. “We had to band together quickly to identify the multitude of ways the pandemic could affect El Monte, and what solutions needed to be in place to address them.” Quintero continued, “It has been a tough road for many, but we are already pulling through stronger than ever.”