Town council has taken its first steps to assist residents and businesses in response to the economic pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last night, town council approved free use of its on-demand transit system temporarily, and provided a four-month penalty holiday on town utility bills.

The three per cent late payment penalty for unpaid Town of Cochrane utility bills has been waived from Mar. 24 through July 24. The town currently collects an average of $8,000 per month in utility penalties and will lose $32,000 in revenue.

Town corporate services general manager Katherine Van Keimpema says temporarily suspending utility penalties is an immediate measure the town can take to provide relief.

"For those who still want to pay on a regular schedule they will be able to, and for those who cannot, there will be no penalty."

Residents and businesses can also opt-out of the automatic payment program on both utilities and taxes without penalty.

She says the town has time to examine property tax levies. Tax notices are issued in May, and payment isn't due until June 30.

"We do have time to gather information, if need, to make thoughtful and impactful decisions around the 2020 property tax levy, and how best to support our residents and businesses while continuing to provide essential services."

Administration will be bringing forward options and recommendations for council's consideration.

But first, they are seeking further details on relief programs announced by the federal and provincial governments, and want to find out how other municipalities are responding.

The town is watching costs and, for one, has suspended the hiring of temporary summer staff.

"We're really focusing on our finances because there is a significant impact financially to this," interim CAO Drew Hyndman told council.

Councillor Marni Fedeyko questioned how much benefit residents would receive from the elimination of utility bill penalties. She said some families currently have little or no income, and deferring utility bills still leaves them with a debt to clear at a later date.

Instead, she proposed providing free or reduce utility rates.

The town collects about $1.25 million per month to provide utilities.

While Councillor Morgan Nagel said he appreciates the desperate situation being faced by some, he believes it would be premature to take this action.

"I think we should definitely keep the possibility of completely waiving fees on the table, but I think we should save it for the future because if the world's on a three-to-six-month quarantine we are definitely going to need reserves later this summer and I think we should not start blowing reserves on week two of the quarantine."

Free fares to ride COLT was left open-ended for now.

The move will cost the town an estimated $600 per week in revenue.

COLT ridership has dropped 65 per cent on weekdays and 76 per cent on Saturdays since Mar. 14, explained Riley Welden, general manager of community and development services.

Last week, an average of 57 people used the bus on weekdays, down from 163. On Saturday, 12 people used the bus, down from 51.

In response to this steep decline, only two buses are operating at a time, and extra buses aren't being added at peak hours. That change is estimated to reduce operating costs by $15,000 per month.

"This adjustment is only temporary to deal with COVID-19, and we'll continue to assess the situation and adjust as needed," said Welden.

Two councillors were opposed to offering free fares for completely different reasons.

Councillor Susan Flowers was concerned providing free fare may increase ridership to the point of negatively impacting those who currently depend upon the service to get to work.

Councillor Nagel was concerned it goes against everything the town has been trying to achieve by closing town facilities.

Council did briefly discuss the idea of temporarily suspending the service.