Amherst County proposes a 2019-2020 fiscal year budget with a 3 percent pay raise for county employees and no tax increases.
However, County Administrator Dean Rodgers told the board of supervisors at a March 26 budget workshop he already plans to recommend a real estate tax rate increase next year when a county wide property reassessment takes effect due to county revenue not keeping pace with rising costs of running county government and a need for salary adjustments.
The county did not have enough tax revenue this year to bring 40 county positions in line with the market average in pay for those jobs, an expense of $438,000, according to Rodgers. Workers in those positions are underpaid and it would take the equivalent of a 2-cent tax increase per $100 of assessed real estate to find revenue to pay for it without more growth in the county’s tax base, he said.
“I don’t know how we solve that without asking for a tax increase,” Rodgers said.
The county adopted its most recent 5-cent real estate tax hike in 2016, raising it to 61 cents.
The county’s proposed $44.2 million budget is $1.1 million less, a decrease of 2.5 percent, from the county’s amended total in the current fiscal year. The board voted 4-1, with Chairman Jimmy Ayers opposed, at a March 19 meeting to change the county’s insurance carrier to save money and balance the budget despite protests of more than a dozen employees who publicly opposed the measure they said would negatively affect their coverage.
The savings helped the county secure the 3 percent cost-of-living pay increase, a percentage point higher than raises implemented in the current fiscal year, while also covering roughly $134,000 in recurring costs for several positions. Those include a new full-time position in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, an added network specialist for the information technology department and making a human resource specialist position full time.
The board voted 3-2 last week to not pay a line item of $35,000 for extending services of a benefit consultant, which the county paid for while bidding out its insurance coverage. Ayers and board members David Pugh and Kenneth Campbell favored not adding that expenditure to the budget while board members Claudia Tucker and Jennifer Moore supported it.
Rodgers said the consultant would help the county in its transition to a new health insurance carrier, Piedmont Community Health Plan, a Lynchburg company backed by Centra. Some employees expressed angst over the change, he said, and he wants to ensure it goes smoothly.
“The more [help] we have to do that, the more comfortable I will feel,” Rodgers said.
Pugh said he feels that money can go to other needs.
After much debate, supervisors also voted unanimously to remove a $300,000 line item from the upcoming capital improvement spending program for replacing the county’s Bright and Associates software that serves more than a handful of county departments and offices, including finance, human resources, treasurer, commissioner of the revenue and Amherst County Public Schools. The replacement project targeted spending of $600,000 over a two-year period.
The software’s removal drops the draft CIP from $1.4 million to $1.1 million.
Matt Woernle, who works in the county’s IT department, addressed supervisors as a county resident and not in his capacity as an employee during a public comments session. He raised a concern with spending $300,000 for the software upgrade.
“If we were a rich county, I’d be all for it,” Woernle said, later adding: “We need to purchase software that fits within our means.”
Joanne Carden, the county’s treasurer, said the current software takes care of her office’s needs when Ayers asked her about its effectiveness during the workshop.
Rodgers said the software upgrade has been a priority for the past three years. The current software doesn’t connect departments and agencies, duplicates workloads, creates inefficiencies and is outdated, he said.
Stacey Wilkes, finance director, said the county is four generations behind in the software. “There will be a lot of work if it we don’t do it in a timely manner,” she said of replacing it.
Ayers said the county needs to get its priorities in order and invest in its employees. He added workers were “slapped” with the insurance switch.
“Our priorities are the people who serve our citizens,” Ayers said.
With less than 1 percent of a revenue increase, he said the county will “meet our crossroads” and the board needs to be extremely careful with spending. Rodgers noted salary adjustments are a recurring cost while the software upgrade is a capital investment.
“This is not a matter of software versus people,” he said. “We’re talking about two different pots of money.”
Supervisors also briefly discussed the need for the IT specialist. Jackie Viar, director of information technology, said with technology use increasing her department is stretched without the added position.
“I can’t do any more in technology,” Viar said. “We are at a standstill until that position is funded.”
“Let’s not be penny-wise and a dollar short,” Tucker said of keeping the position.
Rachel Carton, an Amherst Town Council member and county employee, addressed the board as a citizen. She said she would like to see the board implement a pay raise plan and the county has “hemorrhaged” 43 workers recently, which she feels doesn’t reflect well. Workers come to the county, resources are invested to train them and they leave for better opportunities elsewhere, she said.
“It makes us look really bad,” Carton said, adding: “I don’t like my [taxpayer] dollars spent that way.”
A lot of workers are unsettled by the insurance switch and she would love the county retain its quality staff, Carton said.
“The heartbeat of your government is your employees,” she said.
A noticeable change in this year’s budget talks is supervisors spent little time discussing the schools’ contribution. The county is set to contribute $13.9 million to the school system, which is level funding, and no additional county funding was requested. The schools’ budget proposal of $49 million, a $2 million increase, is driven largely by a sharp uptick in student enrollment and more state money. State employees are set to receive a 5 percent pay hike.
“This year is kind of an anomaly when we can make additions without more money from the board of supervisors,” Amherst County Schools Superintendent Rob Arnold said during his March 19 budget presentation to supervisors.
He said while the enrollment surge is a positive development for the school system, the costs of doing business goes up as well and the division may request more money from the county in upcoming years to meet the demands. The top factor in quality schools are teachers, and the school system is in fierce competition with other divisions in attracting them, Arnold said.
“We have to have and we have to retain the very best,” Arnold said.
Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the budget during its 7 p.m. meeting April 16 at the county administration building, 153 Washington St. in Amherst.