The Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) recently issued guidance aimed to help New Jersey municipalities maintain their operations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Division, the guidance “aims to provide some answers, and some structure, to help each of New Jersey’s local units successfully maintain continuity of government during this time of heightened need, while keeping staff and residents safe.”
The DLGS Local Operational Guidance offers a series of recommendations regarding how municipalities can best maintain core operational activities within the strictures of Executive Order 107. Below are a few key takeaways:
Collecting tax and utility payments: DLGS emphasizes that some community members do not have bank accounts, may prefer to pay in cash, or may not be comfortable engaging in business and financial transactions online. Accordingly, it recommends the use of online payments, regular mail, and drop boxes. In cases where it is necessary to accept cash payments from the public, the guidance recommends that limited personnel, and conscientious social distancing and hygiene practices must be employed. With regard to acknowledging payment, mailing or e-mailing receipts is recommended.
Purchasing/Accounts Payable/Payroll and Benefits Processing: DLGS acknowledges that the level of technology available and its adoption by staff within the local unit may dictate whether continuation of these activities can be accomplished remotely or must be completed by on-site staff. If necessary, on-site staff activities should be accomplished using limited staff and observing social distancing. “Rotation of staff on different days or different shifts to address various aspects of these activities may be beneficial to accomplishing the requisite tasks without undue contact,” DLGS advises. “It is recommended that this method be employed in an office or space with glass partitions, if available, and that the hours for filing be limited.”
Communicating public information and connecting the public to municipal staff/resources: DLGS highlights that if the public doesn’t know how to reach public services, their availability is irrelevant. It recommends the following tools (among others): Reverse 9-1-1 calls; public marquees; forwarding office phones to private-phones; Provide easy-to-find, up-to-date listings on the local unit’s webpage/social media page specifying the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of the primary points of contact for each municipal function; and having a staff member answer the main number for the municipality and establish a list of functions and contact information for all on-site and remote-work staff so that the assigned call center staffer can email questions or issues from the public to the appropriate staff member to address the issue.
Transfer of titles: DLGS notes that because title searchers want to access on-site documents, some aspects of this work are “undoubtedly complicated or delayed by current operating conditions.” However, it also advises that there are some options available to ensure essential activities continue: requests for tax searches can be emailed and the municipal tax search officer can email information back; title searchers can be diverted to internet-based options on the county database; and on-site staff activities can be accomplished, if necessary, using limited staff observing social distancing.
Recording of vital statistics: DLGS advises that some steps can be taken to make the processes for recording vital statistics more adaptable to a remote-work or limited on-site staff environment: make downloadable and printable applications available on the municipal website; authorize e-filing and e-signature to the extent possible and consider video conferencing rather than in-person meeting in certain appropriate circumstances; accept applications and payments by regular mail and mail certificates back; and where necessary, conducting on-site staff activities using limited staff observing social distancing.
Construction and Land Use reviews: The DLGS guidance states that it is “imperative” that local governments avoid backlogs in building permits and land use applications in order to facilitate economic recovery. It further advises that inspections functions must continue, albeit with some modifications, and back-office activities can be maintained as follows: perform take-home or on-site rotating reviews of construction blueprints and land use applications; and arrange for telephone calls and email exchange to communicate review comments to applicants rather than performing these functions through in-person meetings.
For more information about the DLGS guidance or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.