Welcome to the modern world. For the longest time, people had a choice. They could take care of business face-to-face and pay cash for their bills instead of going on the Internet. Not anymore.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses and governments everywhere are doing everything they can to limit human contact. Even right here in the Gila Valley.
Most communities in the area were already moving to more online services, but some were further along than others.
In Safford, City Manager Horatio Skeete said employees have been hearing for years from people who complained they couldn’t visit town hall because they work the same hours the town hall was open.
As a result, the city had already implemented online bill pay. Now they’ve updated the city’s website to make it easier to navigate and are looking at other services they can offer online.
For now, there are some things that have to be handled in person. For example, people who are working with the city’s building department, Skeete said.
“We’ll try to talk you through your business on the phone, but if we can’t somebody will come and meet you,” he said.
Skeete expects to see many changes in the coming months.
“We kind of had it halfway there. This has forced us to go all of the way,” Skeete said. “This may be a sea change for a lot of governments to do things electronically.”
Sean Lewis, who has been Pima’s town manager for the last three years, said the town’s IT people have been consistently toward moving everything online.
“I think more people are getting used to these things,” Lewis said. “Our website has gone from 25 hits a month to several hundred. In the same breath, though, I think this has been eye-opening for all of our schools across the state.”
There are a lot of schools who aren’t able to offer online schooling and are resorting to delivering homework packets, he said.
Lewis said the town still has to meet with people in their homes and at town hall on occasion, but they’ve hired a janitor who comes in to sanitize after every meeting.
Thatcher Town Manager Heath Brown said there are still a few things his staff has to meet in person to handle despite town hall being shut down, but it’s usually by appointment only. Overall, though, he said the town was set up pretty well before the pandemic. Building permits can be issued electronically and bills paid online, as well.
In the coming months, he said he hopes residents will be able to sign up for sports leagues online, too.
Willcox City Manager Caleb Blaschke said the city’s website just went live a month ago and the city is working to offer more services online, in addition to bill pay. He came to realize the need after standing in line for three hours one day last summer to sign up his child for swim lessons at the city pool.
In the near future, he hopes people will be able to purchase business licenses and special event permits online.
“We don’t have a lot of people who use the bill pay, but I see this as an opportunity for people to start using it now,” Blaschke said. “This is going to give them an opportunity. Hopefully they’ll try and test the waters a little bit.”
Clifton Town Manager Rudy Perez said Clifton also offers online bill pay, but he, too, believes the pandemic has made it clear more online services are needed.
“This is an opportunity for local governments to get themselves in a better situation should something like this happen again,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Internet training was offered at the library and the town is in the process of pursuing a grant to expand that program, Perez said. He hopes residents will take advantage of it, particularly senior citizens.
“We have a significant elderly population and many of them are intimidated by technology and some of them may not even have the Internet, or devices and computers,” Perez said.
One thing is for sure, technology will soon become far more common place in Clifton.
“This is going to be the new normal,” Perez said. “There isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it if we have the resources.”