Amherst County supervisors have decided against raising taxes to raise more revenue in the upcoming fiscal year 2021 budget as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on residents and businesses.
A 2% pay raise is planned in the $43 million proposed budget, which takes effect in July. The 2020-21 budget is a decrease of half a million dollars, or 1%, from the current fiscal year, and meets the board’s highest priority of adjusting salaries among employees, particularly in public safety and law enforcement, that have lagged behind market averages for years, according to a draft budget document before the board of supervisors at a May 19 budget workshop.
To offset a projected shortage in revenue due to the effects of COVID-19, county departments and agencies cut just more than $742,000 in spending. A few capital improvement projects, including $400,000 for a major financial software upgrade for various departments and $200,000 for a master plan for the Madison Heights community, also were delayed and won’t be funded in the upcoming fiscal year.
“None of these projects go away because they’re all needed,” Amherst County Administrator Dean Rodgers said during the board’s May 11 work session.
Supervisor David Pugh said public safety and law enforcement have seen high turnover and he would like to ensure those employees are compensated adequately.
“The sheriff’s department and public safety is where we have a hard time retaining employees,” Supervisor Tom Martin said. “We’re not even close to competing with other localities, and they are leaving left and right.”
Supervisor Jimmy Ayers said all departments were asked to consider what they could go without spending on for the next 12 years to save money in a tough fiscal time for the county. The board was considering a 4-cent or 6-cent real estate tax increase but held back after the coronavirus’s effects gripped the local economy.
More than 1,000 county residents have been out of the work in the past few months, 7% of the county’s workforce, according to a draft budget document before supervisors at the May 19 work session.
“We are doing this because of the crisis we are in,” Ayers said of the more than $700,000 in cuts across departments. ““We are trying to do everything we can do for this budget to not increase taxes and keep spending at a minimum.”
Pugh said the fiscal conservatism of past boards has allowed the county to have spending policies and savings to brace for the current disaster. “It allowed us to purchase a lot of things without going into debt,” Pugh said, adding: “I’d rather not raise taxes.”
“I’ve got reservations about raising taxes given the situation we’re in,” Ayers said.
While the spending cuts are in place for now, the board acknowledges the county has to plan for the future and make sure expenses do not rise above revenue as projected by county officials in a few years.
“No questions asked, we’re going to have to do something next year,” Ayers said.
Chairwoman Claudia Tucker, the lone vote in a 4-1 measure at a May 11 work session not to raise taxes and move ahead with a 2% pay increase for employees, said no one on the board wants to raise taxes. However, she said, the county needs to plan ahead and she felt cuts were too deep in the aftermath of the Great Recession of just more than a decade ago.
“You also hear from these people who say, ‘Don’t cut my services,’” Tucker said in speaking about the many needs the county has to fund.
She added of the board’s belt-tightening in the upcoming plan: “It’s almost unlivable.”
“We will definitely be faced with some struggles next year,” Ayers said.
Amherst County is set to receive $2.7 million in federal aid to help cover unexpected costs related to the pandemic but the money comes with strict stipulations, according to a memo sent by Virginia Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne recently sent to local officials.
The federal aid only can be used to pay for one-time expenses directly tied to the public health emergency and the funds must be spent by Dec. 30.
Localities also are barred from using the money to make up mounting budget deficits caused by steep drops in local tax revenue, which has caused disappointment among local leaders and calls for Congress to change the requirement.
“Funds may not be used to fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute,” Layne wrote, citing requirements handed down by the federal government.
Rodgers said he is taking a cautious approach to the aid since the county may be required to return funds spent for purposes that may not ultimately qualify under federal requirements.
Still, Rodgers is eager to take advantage of the aid.
“Do we intend to pursue every penny that’s available to us? You betcha,” Rodgers said. “We feel obliged to do that for our taxpayers.”
News & Advance reporter Richard Chumney contributed.
Reach Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.