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This story was first published in the Friday, May 15 print edition of The Review.
Here’s an update to a familiar old phrase for this modern world: A man’s home is his COVID castle.
As the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak continues, however, life on Bainbridge Island is escaping from the harbor of our homes to another safe space, but a more mobile one. Our cars.
Gone for good, for the next few months, at least, are the large group gatherings we’ve come to cherish before the start of summer, including a most beloved rite of passage — the pomp and circumstance of high school graduation. Instead, like so many other things in these pandemic times, it will be a roll-and-go affair, with a parading column of cars.
As Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order continues, the governor said this week that a trained team of “contact tracers” is being formed to track down the spread of the coronavirus and “box in” COVID-19 that will help Washington move from Phase 1 to the next step, a phase that will see the return of sit-down meals in restaurants and other activities now verboten due to coronavirus concerns.
At Bainbridge Island City Hall, officials are also looking to the months ahead, but for different reasons. The city’s budget is taking a substantial hit, thanks to a COVID-caused downturn in revenues, and the outlook for the coming 2011-12 budget cycle remains murky.
Numbers still changing
There are 17,512 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington state as of Wednesday, May 13, according to the Washington State Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray.
That marked an increase of 182 cases over the previous 24 hours.
On the hunt
Inslee announced the start of a statewide contact tracing plan Tuesday that the governor said will allow more businesses to open and more people to be active in public while the COVID-19 threat continues.
State officials stressed the effort would be confidential, and that any information that is collected by local health departments will not be shared.
“Contact tracing is another tool in our toolbox for tackling COVID-19 in Washington,” Inslee said. “While we need to continue physical distancing, this will allow us to get a better handle on who gets sick and how the virus is spread, which is vital to re-opening our economy.”
How it will work: Public health authorities said that when someone in Washington tests positive for COVID-19, an interviewer will contact the person by phone and will ask who that person has been in close contact with. Professional interviewers will then reach out to those other people to let them know they have been exposed, and those people who are contacted will not be told the name of the person who may have exposed them to COVID-19.
Persons who are contacted will be asked about symptoms, recent exposure and demographic questions that include their age, address, gender and ethnicity.
People who are identified as “close contacts” will need to confine themselves at home for 14 days after their exposure and monitor themselves for fever, cough and shortness of breath for the duration of confinement.
During the press conference where Inslee announced the tracing plan, he said the tracing team — will include members of the Washington State National Guard — will be trained and available as needed by May 15.
New cases in Kitsap
Two new cases of COVID-19 have been discovered in Kitsap County, public health officials reported Tuesday.
Neither of the two new cases are on Bainbridge Island.
The total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county now totals 157, according to the Kitsap Public Health District.
The new cases include a Bremerton resident who tested positive for a coronavirus infection, and another resident in the Central Kitsap area who also had a confirmed positive test for the disease.
Through Tuesday, the Kitsap Public Health District said it had results from 4,639 tests, and of those tests, 3 percent have tested positive for COVID-19.
Of the 157 cases, 47 have been reported in Bremerton, 39 in South Kitsap, 32 in North Kitsap, 28 in Central Kitsap and 11 on Bainbridge Island.
No new cases were reported by the Kitsap Public Health District on Wednesday.
There have been two deaths from COVID-19 in Kitsap County since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Keeping the faith
They came. They parked. They prayed.
Bainbridge First Baptist Church held a “drive-in service” last Sunday for its congregation.
On a spectacularly sunny day, members of the church parked their vehicles in the lot along Madison Avenue for the service.
Pastor Daniel Wymer said the church abided by state guidelines for church gatherings.
“Secondly, we put the pieces in place to create a sight line for those in the cars and then loud enough audio for us while respecting our neighbors,” he said. “We also advised the vulnerable to stay home, and they did.”
“The most important aspect of the day was simply being together. The fact that people could see and hear was secondary,” he added.
The church is planning another drive-in service for Sunday, May 23.
Learning to fly
Words can help and heal, comfort and console.
Theresa Collier of Plum store in downtown Winslow said she wanted to do something that would life spirits in the community.
With her store closed since mid-March, she decided to put together on “online haiku slam,” where people could send in entries for an online poetry contest in recognition of National Poetry Month in April.
The contest culminated with 65 haiku poems. “Some were from people who had never written haiku poetry before,” Collier noted, and many had the theme of the COVID-19 pandemic and staying-at-home.
The contest was judged by present and past board members of the Northwest Haiku Society in Seattle, and all of the poems are currently hanging on Plum’s outside deck on Winslow Way.
Words alone couldn’t do the trick, so Collier also commissioned artist Gretchen Lund to paint a “wing mural” outside Plum on the deck the business shares with Moda Salon and Shift Boutique on Winslow Way.
“I also had seen wing murals in other cities and I believe Pegasus Coffee House has one painted inside,” Collier explained. “I thought it would be uplifting for our community to have a wing mural outside on our deck so that we can ‘Rise Above it All.’”
Lund is a Port Orchard artist (Instagram @gretchenlund) and a graduate of Olympic College in graphic design and illustration.
“This was my first-ever wall mural,” said Lund, who previously has done high-visibility window-mural installations on the windows of the Admiral Theatre and the Kitsap History Museum in Bremerton, as well as a design wrapped on the utility box cornering Kitsap Way and Marine Drive in Bremerton.
“Wing murals are great for promoting local businesses and artists, as well as beautifying the community,” Lund added. “I created a series of digital mockups before we came to the decision of the current design.”
The artist said the mural is a combination of mural paint and spray paint and was finished last week.
“It’s a wonderful symbol of resilience,” Collier said of the new mural. “We could all use some art and joy during these times.”
Mother’s Day spike
The ridership rebound on state ferries is continuing as once-empty boats are starting to fill up.
The increase over the first two weekends in May includes both passengers and vehicles, according to rider statistics provided by Washington State Ferries.
Justin Fujioka of WSF said the higher numbers were due in part to a spike over Mother’s Day weekend, especially on the Mukilteo-Clinton and Edmonds-Kingston routes.
The number of riders on all ferries totaled 65,976 from Friday, May 1 through Sunday, May 3.
During the same three-day span a week later, ridership increased to 113,921 — an increase of 47,945 riders.
Over Mother’s Day weekend, the high number for vehicles on WSF ferries was Friday, May 8, with 21,064 vehicles carried. (A week before, on May 1, ferries carried 16,984 vehicles.)
The largest numbers of passengers over Mother’s Day weekend was Saturday, May 9, with 19,786 riders catching a boat.
The total passenger count for the three-day span of Friday, May 8 through Sunday, May 10 was 52,928 — nearly double the amount of passengers carried systemwide May 1-May 3 (26,491).
On the Bainbridge Island-Seattle route, ridership jumped by 5,371 from the weekend of May 1-May 3 to May 8-May 10.
For the three-day span of Friday, May 1 through Sunday, May 3, Bainbridge ferries carried a total of 3,726 passengers and 4,861 vehicles, for a combined ridership of 8,587.
For the three-day span of Friday, May 8 through Sunday, May 10, boats to the island carried 6,766 passengers and 7,192 vehicles.
The biggest ridership jump came in the number of passengers; 2,560 on Saturday, May 9 and 2,368 on Sunday, May 10 — both double from the previous week.
Bainbridge saw an increase of 3,040 passengers from the weekend of May 1-May 3 to May 8-May 10, and a rise of 2,331 in the vehicle count.
No queen to hail
COVID-19’s cultural casualties continue to pile up.
The Scotch Broom Parade and Tiddlywink contest — Bainbridge’s quickest, quirkiest, and most impromptu annual event — won’t be held this year, John Jay of the Kiwanis Club of Bainbridge Island said this week.
According to island lore, the first parade to celebrate the yellow-topped weed was in 1965, when John Rudolph was contacted by a writer who was working on a state guide to community events, fairs and festivals.
As a gag, Rudolph waxed poetic a downtown Winslow festival that kicked off with a game of Tiddlywinks and a queen for the day was pulled from the crowd of onlookers and crowned.
But when someone showed up on Bainbridge hoping to see the celebration of Scotch broom — a weed now considered invasive and a danger to grazing and farming, but was previously prized as an ornamental plant in landscaping — locals decided they better put on a parade, after all.
The parade, never advertised or announced in advance, is a word-of-mouth undertaking and is usually dependent on when Scotch broom starts to flower in late spring.
It always starts, as once promised, with a Tiddlywink contest between a Kiwanis member and someone from the Bainbridge chamber of commerce outside the Town & Country Market, followed by a queen randomly pulled from the sidewalk nearby, crowned with a ring of Scotch broom, and paraded through town before the puzzled looks of tourists.
Other Kiwanis events that have been already canceled include the Fourth of July miniature golf course in Waterfront Park, and the summertime All Comers Track Meets. (The Kiwanis’ Shredfest has been postponed.)
No cruise this year
One of the biggest fundraisers for the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum has been called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The museum’s annual Cruise Around Bainbridge Island on the historic Virginia V has been cancelled, officials said.
The sailing around the island, on the last remaining steam-powered ferry from the famous “Mosquito Fleet,” had been scheduled for July 19.
Help for parents
In response to the challenges and impact of COVID-19, Raising Resilience is continuing to offer a free biweekly online program to support the emotional well-being of local families.
Parents, grandparents, caregivers and educators are invited to a virtual Connections Cafe, hosted online by April Avey Trabucco, executive director of Raising Resilience, and board members from the nonprofit. The program features local guest speakers who share their expertise and answer parents’ questions — from how to motivate students to do schoolwork while working full-time from home to tackling rising anxiety and depression in youth and ourselves.
Takeaways — including tips on how to adapt to the “new reality,” motivate students, practice self-care and keep families healthy — can be found on the organization’s website at RaisingResilience.org.
The next Connections Cafe is planned for noon Tuesday, May 19. The topic is “Validating Your Child’s Need for Independence” and will be led by Courtney Oliver and Helen Burke from Bainbridge Youth Services. What are counselors hearing about the state of independence in kids’ lives during COVID-19? The conversation will include an overview and practical tips from Oliver, the director of youth services at BYS, and Burke, who is a counseling intern.
Another Connections Cafe is planned for noon Tuesday, June 9.
That session, “Positive Parenting Tips,” will be hosted by Peggy Koivu,a Positive Parenting instructor, retired teacher and co-founder of the Odyssey Options program.
It will include advice for caregivers and educators of children who are preschool through middle school age, and help answer questions such as
“How can I calm my kids, and myself, down?” “What do I do when they refuse to do anything?” and “Is there anything I can do to help with our feelings of anxiety?”
Koivu will explore effective parenting tools endorsed by Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline program, which can help parents communicate more effectively with kids, as well as how to work together as a family to be more positive and encouraging during these challenging times.
Connections Cafe events are being held on the Zoom app, and organizers note they are free of charge but require registration. (More information can be found at RaisingResilience.org or via social media.)
For history’s sake
The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum is continuing to collect items that mark the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bainbridge Island.
The museum put out a call in April for islanders to donate photographs, personal items and other things related to the coronavirus outbreak to the museum’s collection.
Director of Exhibits & Engagement Merilee Mostov said items are still being sought.
• Your homemade yard/business signs;
• Your homemade face masks;
• Your original poetry, essay, or diary entries (old school, printed out or digital versions are welcome);
• Your photos of people you know practicing social distancing or wearing face masks;
• Your photos of how you hacked your home to accommodate working and schooling from home; and
• Your photos of what you are secretly or not secretly stockpiling. Meat? Toilet Paper? Flour?
People who have things to donate to the museum’s collection can email Mostov at email@example.com.
Thanks to you
She wasn’t the grand marshal.
But Deidre Raben was still the center of attention last week.
Students and families from Carden Country School descended on Grow Avenue last Friday for a parade in her honor put together by her students’ parents.
Raben in the third- and fourth-grade teacher at the private school on Island Center Road; the school has about a dozen children in third and fourth grade.
Leanne Ehrich, a parent of a Carden student, said the efforts of the teaching staff during the COVID-19 crisis has been truly remarkable.
“The teachers are working overtime behind the scenes to make distance learning ‘the next best thing to being there’ and are really succeeding,” Ehrich said. “Each school day morning at 8:15 sharp, each class has their Zoom meeting with each other and their teacher. All the subjects are covered; math, spelling, language, science, social studies, etc.”
The parade of vehicles in Raben’s honor included balloons, signs, and plenty of smiles and waves from grateful kids and their parents.
“Our little school has really gone above and beyond during the quarantine and have no doubts that next fall, come what may, our kids will be ready to begin the next grade up,” she added. “We haven’t missed one, single day of school. Not one. We are so thankful to these teachers!”
Rolling with it
Plans for the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 are rolling along.
Instead of the traditional commencement at Bainbridge High’s Memorial Stadium, graduating seniors from BHS and Eagle Harbor High will join in a caravan of cars from Ordway Elementary to the front of Bainbridge High, where students will step out of their vehicles at a drop-off spot near the school’s flagpole, receive their degree and pose for a photo, then get rolling once again for a parade through downtown Winslow.
The commencement program itself will be a prerecorded affair — with speeches, performances, and the reading of the Class Roll (with photos of the graduates) — in the afternoon following the parade on Saturday, June 13.
Nearly 350 seniors are expected to graduate this year.
Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen announced the plans for this year’s graduation celebration in an email to the Class of 2020 and their families late last week.
Bang-Knudsen said uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak has made it difficult to plan for a graduation and commencement ceremonies where local residents would be able to gather in large groups.
The superintendent said many have asked why the graduation date can’t be pushed to later in the summer.
“While this is a good idea in theory, there are too many variables for it to be a viable option,” Bang-Knudsen wrote in his announcement.
“There are members of the Class of 2020 who will be moving, heading off to military academies, military service, employment opportunities, and colleges at various dates throughout the summer, making it extremely difficult to find a date that would work for everyone.”
Another “big unknown,” he said, is when gatherings of more people will be allowed. Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-step plan that allows large gatherings will only take effect in July, following the successful completion of the first three phases.
“In addition, in Phase 4, social distancing must remain in place. Our stadium and field do not provide enough space for social distancing for graduates and their families,” Bang-Knudsen explained.
Plans for a commencement celebration are not yet set.
While Bang-Knudsen said there was a strong interest in the event, many questions still remain.
“At this point, we cannot yet establish a firm date for this commencement celebration, and we are interested to hear from graduates and families to find a date that would work best for the most members of the Class of 2020 to attend,” he said.
“There are still many uncertainties with Governor Inslee’s health guidelines and phased recovery plan. In our estimation, the earliest that we could host a large group gathering of students and parents would be early fall,” Bang-Knudsen added.
A survey has been launched to ask students and parents to choose from three possibilities for a large group celebration: late August or early September, winter break, or June 2021.
“When we decide on the best date for the celebration, we will create a small committee of staff, students and parents to help plan the event,” Bang-Knudsen added. “The planning for this commencement celebration will include student choice and voice — we want this celebration to be driven by the desires of the Class of 2020, and will work to make the event happen as soon as we are able to finalize a date.”
Bainbridge’s chief of public schools also acknowledged the heartache caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that students have been grieving for their senior year in high school.
“While this year’s graduation plans look different from in years past, it does not diminish the joy and care we have for you,” Bang-Knudsen said in his message to students and parents.
“I am hopeful that when you look back on your final days of high school, you will be filled with fond memories and the knowledge that you are a member of the Class of 2020 — the class that demonstrated tremendous resilience and spirit.”
Yearbook students at Eagle Harbor and Bainbridge high schools are trying to clear daunting hurdles as they put together the 2020 annuals for their schools.
Sophia Griggs, a student of Eagle Harbor High and one of the chief editors of the EHHS yearbook, said the shutdown of schools in March was a big setback.
“This has definitely been a challenging time with getting the yearbook together,” Griggs said. “We have a lack of images that we would have been photographed during the past few months. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
The daily disconnect with other students who might help has also been a problem.
“It is very tricky to get others to send in photos depicting our school year because everyone is busy within their own lives,” Griggs said.
“But we are making the best of it. We will use what we have and create a wonderfully different yearbook for 2019-2020,” she added.
At Bainbridge High, one of the yearbook members said the yearbook staff is still hoping there will be a student annual: “The book was almost complete before the virus shutdown, but most of the spring sports and activities were, of course, unable to be covered in the book. Our publisher has what we were able to put together, but their publishing plant is closed due to the virus, so we don’t know if we will get our book by the end of the year or not.”
It’s a surprise
School principals at Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary and Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary are looking for ways to give a fond farewell to students at the end of this historic school year.
In school newsletters sent earlier this week to families of Wilkes and Blakely students, Wilkes Principal Amii Pratt and Blakely Principal Reese Ande wrote that “special surprises are in the works” for the graduating fourth-graders at both schools.
The pair said they hope to plan something for all students around June 15 that would give students a safe way to return to their schools to gather their belongings and “safely say hello to staff.”
“We envision a car parade through our parking lots with all staff socially distanced along our sidewalks with signs, greeting students … and a few special end-of-year goodies for students from our staff.”
Restaurants that open their doors during Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan for reopening Washington will need to need to limit capacity of dining areas — including outdoor seating areas — to 50 percent.
That’s one of a set of rules announced by the governor Monday.
Another restriction: Restaurants must keep a 30-day log of all customers who use dine-in table facilities, and the log must include telephone/email contact information for customers in the event that contact tracing must be done to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Phase 2 restrictions cover everything from dine-in restaurants, to taverns, to food trucks, cafes and public houses.
“No restaurant or tavern may operate indoor or sit-down services until they can meet and maintain all requirements, including providing materials, schedules and equipment required to comply,” states the two-page guidance letter signed by Inslee Monday.
The rules include a ban on “all buffets, salad bars, salsa bars, and any other communal food source shared by people from different dining parties.”
Also prohibited: bar-style seating of any kind. Businesses must close off bar seating to prohibit patrons from using those areas.
Restaurants, taverns and similar establishments must also make hand sanitizer available at the door for all staff and patrons.
Establishments must also screen employees for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 at start of their shifts.
The recommendations include restricting the size of groups that are dining in; all parties and tables must have no more than five customers.
Tables must be placed 6 feet away from other tables, unless there is a physical barrier or wall separating booths or tables, according to Inslee’s letter.
The letter also strongly suggests that customers wear a cloth face covering “anytime they are not seated at the table (while being seated or leaving, or while going to the restroom).”
In-person dining establishments must also offer single-use menus.
The restrictions also require that any condiments left on tables — ketchup, mustard, soy sauce — must be single-use or sanitized after each use.
Restaurants will also need a plan, and follow it, to make sure customers and workers are maintaining proper physical distancing in lobbies, waiting areas, and payment counters.
The guidance letter also says that restaurants and taverns must minimize the number of staff serving any table, and strongly recommends that one staff person take a table’s order, serve all food and beverages, take payments, and perform other duties, such as setting out utensils.
The restrictions also call for a minimum 6-foot separation “between all employees (and customers) in all interactions at all times.”
When strict physical distancing is not feasible for a specific task, the recommendation letter adds, “other prevention measures are required, such as use of barriers, minimize staff or customers in narrow or enclosed areas, stagger breaks, and work shift starts.”
Other rules require the use of personal protective equipment such as gloves, goggles, face shields and face masks; frequent hand washing; and frequent cleaning and sanitizing.
Meat, the challenge
With the COVID-19 outbreak closing meat-packing plants in the Midwest, the threat of meat shortages came to Bainbridge Island in the past week.
Like previous shortages in the past months — toilet paper, hand sanitizer, rice, flour — customers are being asked to avoiding the temptation of hoarding for another day.
At the Safeway grocery on High School Road, signs have been posted notifying customers that purchases of meat will be limited to two packages per family.
Support for nonprofits
The coronavirus pandemic has changed Washington and the world in dramatic ways since February, and Bainbridge Island, as well.
Officials with the Bainbridge Community Foundation said they’ve made COVID-19 preparedness and support a “top priority” for the grants the nonprofit will award this year.
The foundation noted it extended its application deadline for two weeks so those who applied for grants “could re-examine their needs in a potential time of crisis.”
The foundation said requests made this year by nonprofits in the community include supporting nutritious meals for children while school is out, free employment support for those with low incomes, tuition assistance for childcare, free cultural performances, and affordable patient care.
Some nonprofits have asked for basic operating support to keep staff employed and bills current while they have been deeply affected by the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.
People who want to support local nonprofits can go to www.BainbridgeGives.org between May 15 and June 15. The foundation said the website allows visitors to choose the nonprofit they want to support and make a tax-deductible gift of $10 to $10,000 or more, with the foundation paying all credit card transaction fees and 100 percent of the donation going directly to the grant request.
For more information, go to www.bainbridgecf.org or contact Debbie Kuffel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help for Helpline House
Helpline House is getting a $5,000 emergency grant from Liberty Mutual/Safeco Insurance to help the community at large.
The gift was made possible by Carol Thornburgh of Thornburgh Insurance Agency, who applied for the emergency grant as an independent agent partner of Liberty Mutual/Safeco.
In its announcement of the award, the insurance company said Thornburgh has been a longtime supporter of Helpline House and applied for the grant on the nonprofit’s behalf: “Helpline House has certainly been impacted by the pandemic and has been a vital source of support to many community members suffering financially from sudden unemployment.”
Liberty Mutual/Safeco added that Thornburgh was honored to support the work of Helpline House: “The ability to utilize the resources available during this crisis to give this grant money to an organization that has consistently helped our community members during the most difficult periods makes this award very meaningful.”
Rolfes tapped for committee
A Special Committee on Economic Recovery has been established in the Washington State Senate to make a recommendation on the Legislature’s next steps in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A familiar face will be on the committee.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island Democrat, has been named to serve on the bipartisan body.
Members of the committee, which will hold its first meeting in June, were announced late last week.
The group is expected to develop recommendations on legislation that will help the state recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and the advice is expected to be delivered in advance of the 2021 Legislative Session — or a special session later this year, if state lawmakers are called back to Olympia.
“There is no playbook for a crisis of this magnitude, but we must find a viable path forward to recovery for workers, businesses and households,” Rolfes said.
“People want us to look forward and find solutions that will get our state back on track — and that’s exactly what this group will try to do. I’m looking forward to getting to work to help develop effective and innovative approaches to an unprecedented challenge.”
The senate committee will have seven members; four Democrats and three Republicans.
The work of the committee will include holding sessions to hear from experts in a variety of fields, and the group will also examine what other states are doing to recover from the outbreak, as well as finding ways to rejuvenate Washington’s economy and boost communities across the state.
Still very high
Despite a drop from the week before, the claims for unemployment benefits in Washington state have stayed at record levels according to the most recent statistics announced by state officials.
According to the state Employment Security Department, there were 100,762 new claims and 1,086,031 total claims for unemployment benefits the week of April 26 through May 2.
Initial claims for regular unemployment during that one-week span were 100,762, compared to 137,605 from the week before.
New claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance also dropped; to 59,234 from the previous week.
Total claims fell to 1,086,031 from 1,455,908 the week of April 26-May 2.
Officials said a total of 1,428,775 initial claims have been filed since the week ending March 7 when the COVID-19 job losses began.
So far, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits is 810,538; officials said 545,178 individuals who have filed an initial claim have been paid.
“Since the COVID-19 crisis began in early March, Employment Security has sent $2.14 billion into the pockets of more than half a million Washingtonians,” said Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine. “This makes an enormous difference to those individuals and their families, and we are humbled to be able to provide these services in such a critical time.”
Not everyone who has filed has received unemployment benefits, however, LeVine added.
“There are approximately 57,000 who are waiting because there are issues with their claims we are working to resolve,” she said.
“Getting those Washingtonians their benefits is our agency’s top priority. We are doubling down on activities already underway to reach our goal of getting all of those claims in adjudication resolved or paid by June 15,” LeVine said, and she noted that the agency will be posting more information on the department’s website in the coming days.
Budget takes a hit
The COVID-19 pandemic will may result in a huge hit to the city’s budget, Bainbridge Island officials said Tuesday.
In a briefing on the expected economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on city revenues, City Manager Morgan Smith told the council that the city’s most current forecast estimates that general fund revenues — the pot of money that pays for police, planning and most city services — will decline by $4.5 million this year.
There is a bright side, however, Smith said.
Because of budgeting policies set following the Great Recession, the city has a stout reserve and available fund balance (the accumulation of revenues minus expenditures) that will help the city bridge most of the budget gap.
“This is really a success story for the community,” Smith said.
The city’s financial footing has been built to withstand shocks, though “nobody has been planning for circumstances like what we have today,” she added.
“This is work that we have been doing for more than five years to be ready for a downturn, and that leaves us with more latitude for making choices,” Smith said.
“Where we need to start is the last economic downturn,” Smith told the council. “In this community, in this city organization, that had a really devastating impact. And coming out of that, what the community conveyed, and what council reinforced and what city staff have implemented in the time since then, is that we did not want to be in that position again — that we wanted to have a city that made financial planning and forecasting and a long range perspective a priority.”
“We wanted Bainbridge Island to build a boat that was more seaworthy, and maybe even more seaworthy than what other boats might be,” Smith explained.
That effort has taken at least three two-year budget cycles.
Bainbridge Island isn’t facing the same financial challenges that other cities are currently are, Smith said, for a number of reasons.
“Not every city is the same,” she added. “It is without a doubt the case that all cities, all businesses, all households are experiencing really important and significant impacts to their economic plans.”
In Bainbridge’s case, the city does not have a high reliance on hotel/motel taxes, and what revenue it does get there, it uses for grants to promote tourism, Smith said.
Likewise, the city’s sales tax base is different, as well.
Bainbridge also doesn’t take in user fees like cities that also finance parks and recreation departments do.
Public safety costs are lower than other cities, as the fire department is a separate agency and not an internal component of city hall spending. Public safety costs aren’t something, Smith noted, that can easily be ramped up and down: “It’s not a dial you can easily turn.”
And though personnel costs are typically 70 percent of the general fund, Bainbridge currently has a high level of staff vacancies, some of which have been left unfilled intentionally over the past several months.
Another upside, Smith said: “Our debt levels are very low, in other cities that may be very different.”
In general, Smith said city’s primary revenue sources are typically stable and less vulnerable to downturns.
Bainbridge is currently forecasting a 15 to 20 percent decrease in general fund revenues for 2020.
“Our revenues are very uncertain but definitely less than we had planned,” Smith said.
Forecasting into the future — for the budget years of 2021 and 2022 — is much different.
But having an ample available fund balance gives the city time to make thoughtful decisions, Smith said, as opposed to running into a wall at top speed.
“We know that our insight into the remainder of this year right now is nearly zero. We’re into the fog bank at this point. But we will know a lot more in two months, three months, six months.”
Offsetting the revenue loss of $4.5 million are costs savings through staff vacancies that total $1.3 million, plus additional cost savings through other decisions that are pegged at $1.4 million.
That leaves a gap of $1.8 million.
Bainbridge, however, will end the year with a fund balance of $12.7 million, which includes reserves of roughly $8 million and the additional fund balance of $4.7 million.
The estimated gap of $1.8 million amounts to about 15 percent of the available reserves and fund balance, Smith said.
Industries experiencing the highest number of initial claims during April 26-May 2 were healthcare and social assistance businesses (10,272 initial claims, down 789 initial claims, or 7 percent, from the previous week); retail trade: (8,489 initial claims, a decline of 1,908 initial claims, or 19 percent, from the previous week); and accommodation and food services businesses (8,435 initial claims, a drop of 1,614 initial claims, or 16 percent, from the previous week).