AMHERST — Amherst County officials are advertising a fiscal year 2021 budget that contains no tax increases, proposes a 2% pay raise for employees and has tightened spending to offset the negative economic effects of the novel coronavirus.
Supervisors will hold a public hearing June 2 at 7 p.m. at the Amherst County administration building, 153 Washington St., Amherst.
The county’s board of supervisors was heavily leaning toward potential real estate tax increases of 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, 4 cents or 6 cents to generate more revenue in planning for future challenges. They recently changed course when the coronavirus pandemic crippled the local economy in the past few months. Until COVID-19 hit, the county was achieving a decline in its unemployment rate in recent years, dropping from 6.7% in 2012 to 3.3% in February, according to county officials.
The crisis led to 1,059 county residents, or 7% of the county’s workforce, out of work and filing for unemployment benefits as of May 15, according to County Administrator Dean Rodgers’ written budget summary to the supervisors.
“In many ways, this is a wait-and-see budget because we will be looking at revenues in particular as they come in throughout the year to determine whether our estimates are too low or too high,” Rodgers told supervisors Tuesday of planning for the virus’s effects on county finances and making later adjustments as needed.
The $43 million proposed budget that takes effect July 1 is a decrease of about $500,000, or 1%, according to Rodgers’ summary.
Priorities in the budget are maintaining level funding for Amherst County Public Schools at $13.9 million, planning for inflation costs, compensating employees with a pay increase and adjusting salaries to give many employees more pay to make their jobs more competitive, particularly in the areas of public safety and law enforcement, Rodgers said.
Fiscal challenges from COVID-19 led supervisors to pursue a 2% raise rather than a 3% pay hike. The county also held back on adding personnel to some departments and delayed several major capital improvement projects to make ends meet, along with more than $700,000 in sweeping cuts across all county departments and offices.
“Everybody participated in this budget at one point or another,” Rodgers said of the cuts in response to COVID-19.
During a work session Tuesday, Rodgers reviewed revenues and budgets in the past five years in explaining the need to plan ahead while factoring in inflation’s costs on running the county government, which was driving the tax increase talks prior to COVID-19.
“For the most part, revenues have always stayed ahead of expenses in one degree or another. … Inflation is always rising the cost of everything we do, yet our revenues stay roughly the same,” Rodgers said. “For the most part, our revenues increase 1.5% a year while expenses increase 2%. Eventually expenses will overtake revenues.”
While the challenges from the virus are many, he said county staff anticipates finances may be “back to normal” in early 2021.
The county has taken other steps to raise revenue in some areas during the crisis, such as increasing building fees for the first time in a decade, and is set to consider other tax changes pertaining to business activity in the county, as well as cigarette and meal taxes, later this year.
For several years county salaries have lagged behind market average, leading to critical positions going unfilled and some departments experiencing nearly 100% turnover, according to Rodgers.
“County government has, in some ways, become a training ground for the staff of surrounding localities as we hire new people, train them and then lose them to localities that pay more for jobs with similar or fewer responsibilities,” he said in a written budget presentation.
To stop the “hemorrhaging” of staff, the proposed budget increases salaries for emergency medical service crews and the Amherst County Sheriff’s Department employees at $40,000 and brings 34 of 90 positions in the rest of county government up to market average. “This salary challenges preceded COVID-19 and will exist after the economy settles out,” Rodgers added.
Chairwoman Claudia Tucker said she encourages county residents to dig into the document and bring forward any questions or concerns.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.