“A time of uncertainty.”
The phrase was used as Amherst County’s board of supervisors on May 5 resumed talks on deliberating the fiscal year 2021 budget in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to delaying the budget process in March to assess the massive tide of negative effects from COVID-19 on the local economy, supervisors were heavily discussing a potential 6-cent tax increase to stimulate money to handle the county’s long-term needs over the next six years.
A 3% pay raise for county employees, bringing salaries to market average for many workers and starting public safety and law enforcement personnel at $40,000 to make those positions more competitive also were on the drawing board before the coronavirus hit.
Now the board is looking for places to cut and has put off hiring a few new positions, delaying some one-time expenditures and putting off some capital improvement expenses, mainly a planned software upgrade and a master plan for the Madison Heights community, to offset the economic blow.
“What for the next 12 months can we live without?” Supervisor Jimmy Ayers said during the May 5 session. “We need to start striking ... If we can avoid anything as far as a tax increase, I think we need to do it. We need to do as much as we can for our staff. We have to save wherever we can right now.”
During the work session, Stacey Wilkes, director of finance, went over some county projections that have been altered in the past few months because of the virus. She is projecting a 1% reduction loss in real estate taxes, along with other shortages in tax collections, that will yield an estimated $42.2 million in county revenue beginning July 1, roughly $725,000 less than originally projected.
“We’re very fortunate in we don’t depend on meals taxes and sales taxes like other localities do,” Wilkes said in explaining economic effects on the county.
The board had considered a 4-cent tax increase or a 6-cent increase to generate more revenue. However, because of the negative economic effects of COVID-19 supervisors eventually voted 4-1, with Chairwoman Claudia Tucker opposed, to move forward without a tax increase including a 2% pay raise for employees. The county also generated just more than $742,000 in cuts across departments and constitutional offices to help balance the overall fiscal plan.
“To me there’s a level of government service we have to provide,” Supervisor Tom Martin said.
Tucker, the current longest-serving member of the board, said she recalled the county tightening its belt and not investing in needs following the Great Recession just more than decade ago. “I saw how that worked out,” Tucker said. “It is my opinion we look at this long term.”
Supervisors also looked at figures showing a large spike in unemployment claims, in excess of 1,400, among Amherst County residents within the past two months. Supervisor David Pugh said he feels public safety workers should be a priority, but he feels the county needs to reign in spending and safeguard its reserves during the crisis.
“I’m here because of the people and lot of a people are going through a hard time right now,” Pugh said. “I don’t see how you look at this and don’t see we’re in trouble.”
County Administrator Dean Rodgers said the county needs to fix its ability to save for the future, a major factor driving the discussions for a tax increase.
“My biggest concern is we’re going to run out of money in three years because we’re not setting money aside for the future,” Rodgers said.
Tucker stressed the need for planning ahead and making sure the county is left better off than when the current board found it.
“I’ve got a hard time picking winners and losers in our employees,” she said of weighing budget cuts. “I can’t do that.”
Martin said department heads should be asked to look at what areas can be cut in the interest of preserving the pay raise for employees. “We’re going to have to use a meat cleaver,” he said of considering the cuts needed to balance.
Ayers said the board wants to save pay raises but needs departments to look for ways to reduce spending.
“We want to give you the raises,” Martin said. “We also have citizens to represent. They’re going to have a hard time to pay the tax rate.”
Reach Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.