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Source: Whangarei District Council

​During COVID-19 Lockdown, Levels Four and Three, a tonne of work was going on out of view of the public – much of it to keep the work that had to continue on-stream – things like water supply, resource consents, planning, applications, dog control and more.

Some work had to stop – the Libraries and customer services had to close to the public, building and resource consent inspections and siteworks were postponed.

At the same time the lockdown generated a raft of new work to help the community manage during the lockdown itself, then setting up ways to prepare and assist the community as the economic impact of the virus rolls out in the months, if not years, to come.

A new Annual Plan, reducing the proposed rates increase for this year, developing a relief package, and helping people manage their bills with Council was developed and put out for public consultation.

We have also submitted many applications for project funding from government.

While this was happening, some staff could not work from home or come in to do their usual work so they were deployed very quickly into other parts of the Council and community.

One of the key new jobs was to get all the people who were campervanning across Northland at the time, into several locations in the middle of Whangārei, where they would have access to power, water, toilets, washing facilities, and the ability to cluster, in their bubbles, beside each other while maintaining the required physical distancing. At any one time there were about 45 vans gathered.

A workforce was set up very quickly coordinating all the different agencies involved, Council contractor Armourguard, the Police and the District Health Board.

One of the staff reported:

“Between 8am and 10am every morning Council staff would monitor physical distancing while allowing freedom campers to access the building’s electricity, and use the shower facilities.

Many of the campers were tourists who were inadvertently stuck in New Zealand, so we would try to make them feel safe and supported.”

The scheme worked so well Whangārei even made the news in the UK, with one of the many couples staying at the sites talking about how well they had been looked after.

Library staff who did not have office-bound work to complete turned their hands to 3D printing of face shield frames for the DHB, helping with Civil Defence welfare support and putting out water shortage notices across our District, and at fast food outlets and supermarkets, once they could do so under the lock-down rules.

The Community Development team supported essential services and connected with Response Coordinators and Welfare Networks helping people across the region as part of the Civil Defence effort; and developed a new community funding mechanism that will help us along the Recovery Pathway going forward.

The Call Centre and Customer Services team were quickly appointed to take calls for the regional 0800 Civil Defence line.  The number was set up within 48 hours notice, and the line was open from 7am – 7pm, 7 days a week.

Customer Services manager Lesley Ashcroft said the team had to quickly upskill and become familiar with the details of agencies/welfare providers/community groups across Northland.

“We enlisted help from the Building team’s Contact Centre and then when they needed to focus on their audit, two Customer Services Reps were redeployed to help with the seven-day roster.

“People calling this line were sometimes very distressed and suffering significantly and it was a team effort to help each other through some moments.”

With crowd limits brought in prior to lockdown, several high-profile events at Council venues were cancelled. The team was redeployed to assist Freedom Campers, Business Support, and to do landscaping and ground maintenance at the cemeteries, while others from throughout the organisation helped with burials and other duties.

Two staff turned their homes into mail rooms to receive all physical mail – scan it and send it on to the right departments.

Comments from around the organisation have included:

“It has been amazing to see everyone come together and step-up during this time. No one has complained and have really just got on with things to ensure Council could continue to operate.”

“I’m really proud of my department and how they have responded to this all, trying to do their best to ensure our assets continued to be safe for everyone.”

“We have engaged with 76 Whangārei businesses (to date), working with the wider Northland Inc team of 11 supporting, a total 571 businesses in the last 6 weeks.”

“Our revenue team took 400 calls from people wanting to discuss payment options for rates and other invoices. Many customers needed to pause or reduce payments and penalties have been waived. Changes to long-term car parking fees introduced just the week before Lockdown, also generated 160 calls.”

By Friday last week many of Council’s usual operations were back to normal, or heading that way.

On Monday 18 May we had 431 through the doors, mainly to make rates payments, but also lots of general enquiries about recycling bins, and other BAU type stuff.

The Library Click and Collect service was going well with more than 1700 items on the request list and manageable queues, and more than 3,000 returned items processed and shelved on Tuesday.

Libraries Manager Paula Urlich said in general, customers have been really accepting of the new safety controls.

“It’s also been great to have some of the Library team helping Customer Services with queue management over this time too.”