On Tuesday, the Marion City Council held its first regular meeting for April but because of the coronavirus pandemic the highly irregular meeting was spread out over multiple locations.
In order to protect the safety of city officials and the public, Mayor Steve Little, Mayor Pro Tem Juanita Doggett and City Manager Bob Boyette conducted the meeting at the City Hall. Councilmembers Billy Martin, Don Ramsey, Ann Harkey and Woody Ayers participated in the meeting too but from remote locations at their homes. Public Works Director Brant Sikes and Finance Officer Julie Scherer took part in the meeting from remote locations.
The public and the local news media were able to listen to the meeting electronically at the Marion Community Building, where Planning Director Heather Cotton and Police Lt. Rusty Jenkins were present. No more than 10 people could be at the Community Building, according to the COVID-19 restrictions.
But no members of the public attended the meeting. A McDowell News reporter and Van McKinney from radio station WBRM were present at the Community Building.
After approving the consent agenda, council members approved a list of street closures for downtown events in 2020. Some of these events may be postponed or cancelled depending on the coronavirus situation.
The list of downtown street closings approved by council are:
• Memorial Day Weekend Car Show — May 23
• Liver Mush Festival — June 6
• Brews, Blues and BBQ — June 20
• Marion Cruise-In — June 20
• Independence Day celebration, parade and fireworks — July 4
• Marion Cruise-In — July 18
• National Night Out — August 4
• Marion Cruise-In — August 15
• Blue Ridge Honey Fest — August 22
• WNC Bigfoot Festival — September 18 and 19
• Mountain Glory Festival — October 10
• Boos and Brews 5K — October 17
• Halloween Car Show — October 31
• Dia de Muertos festival — November 7
• Marion Christmas parade — November 22
• Christmas Fest — December 18
• New Year’s Eve celebration — December 31
Boyette said Marion would have had more than 200 events, including those held indoors as well as outdoors, but many of them have been put on hold due to COVID-19. But those events will be back, he added.
“I still think that is quite remarkable,” said Little.
In another COVID-19 related matter, the City Council approved having the Families First Coronavirus Response Act apply to all city employees, including police officers and firefighters. This means all the city employees could get paid sick leave and paid family or medical leave, if any of them are sick because of the coronavirus.
Boyette also gave an update about the COVID-19 situation and the city of Marion.
“A lot has changed and developed in the last three weeks,” he said.
As of Tuesday, McDowell County has seen 161 people tested. Of those, 13 came back positive and 115 came back negative. The remaining 33 tests are still pending.
Across the state, North Carolina had 3,221 positive cases as of Tuesday with 48 people dying of COVID-19.
“It appears social distancing is working in North Carolina,” said Boyette, adding that North Carolina is faring better than other states.
Council agreed to extend the closure of city facilities through April 30. Marion residents can still pay their water and sewer bills or taxes at the City Hall’s drive through.
“We’re still providing just about every service,” said Boyette. “It’s just being done in a different way. We’re fortunate to have a drive through to protect the public and our staff.”
As of now, a total of 12 people work full-time at the City Hall. Some of them may have to work remotely or the staff at City Hall may be split up for different days, according to the city manager.
“Things are different but the work is getting done,” said Boyette. “We certainly appreciate the public’s patience during this time and the public is being patient.”
In a related matter, council approved designating Boyette and Scherer as the agents from the city who will apply for federal disaster relief due to COVID-19.
Council members also took action on matters that are totally unrelated to the coronavirus.
First, city officials agreed to seek a state grant that will pay for the replacement of a sewer line over the Catawba River near Crane Resistoflex. This line has existed since the early 2000s.
Council voted to seek more funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the repairs being made underneath the Marion Community Building’s park. Public Works Director Brant Sikes reported that the work on the park is nearing completion just in time for the spring and summer seasons. He said the new playground equipment should be installed soon and he is working about having an asphalt company do the new basketball courts. After all this time, the city of Marion will soon be able to complete this long-awaited project.
Boyette informed council that uncertainty is now the word for the proposed 2020-2021 city budget. He said he and Scherer have talked with the department heads and let them know that this will be a “very tight” budget year.
City officials also talked about a request from McDowell High. This request was for the city to hang banners commemorating the high school seniors, particularly the MHS athletes whose seasons were cut short due to the COVID-19 situation. These colorful banners could be hung from poles in the downtown, according to the high school’s request.
Boyette said the city looked into fulfilling this request but found the cost of the pole brackets for the banners to be as much as $5,000. After a discussion, council members agreed that the city would provide the labor if the high school or some other organization could provide the materials. Downtown businesses might want to hang the banners on their buildings or in their storefront windows, Boyette said.
Little said he approved of whatever can be done to boost the morale of local residents during this time.
At the conclusion of the meeting, members of the City Council voiced their appreciation for how the local community has come together during this unprecedented and stressful time.
“I’m just so proud to be from Marion,” said Councilman Billy Martin.
Councilman Don Ramsey said he wanted to thank all those who are helping each other out through this crisis.
Councilwoman Ann Harkey said she wanted to thank a McDowell News reporter and Van McKinney from WBRM for “putting their lives on the line” as they get the story and keep local people informed.
Councilman Woody Ayers thanked the local media for their coverage too. Tuesday was also his birthday and council members wished him well.
Mayor Pro Tem Juanita Doggett wanted the public to know that Coley’s Graphics has created “Marion Strong” products and a percentage of the sales will go to the COVID-19 small business relief fund.
Little concluded the meeting by saying he will wear a face mask when he goes out in public and encouraged the council members to do the same.
“People look up to us to set an example,” he said. “They see us at the grocery store or the pharmacy. If it keeps people healthy, then it’s worth it.”