Chatham government FY2021 budget full of ‘choices’ in light of COVID-19

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/11/20

“Life is a matter of choices,” author and leadership guru John C. Maxwell wrote. “And every choice you make makes you.” So begins the Chatham County government’s spending plan for fiscal year 2020-2021, a year that promises to be lived in the midst of recession with a lot of uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and what will happen to the economy in response.

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Chatham government FY2021 budget full of ‘choices’ in light of COVID-19

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“Life is a matter of choices,” author and leadership guru John C. Maxwell wrote. “And every choice you make makes you.”

So begins the Chatham County government’s spending plan for fiscal year 2020-2021, a year that promises to be lived in the midst of recession with a lot of uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and what will happen to the economy in response.

“The full economic impacts of the global pandemic are not yet known because the situation continues to evolve,” LaMontagne wrote in a budget message to the Chatham County Board of Commissioners. “Data is unavailable and there is no precedent that gives us a reliable rule for recovery; yet we must recommend a budget that will guide us through the coming fiscal year.”

Here’s an in-depth look at several parts of that budget plan and how it will affect both the government and county residents in the coming fiscal year:

The county’s financial position

LaMontagne indicates that Chatham was in a good place financially before the pandemic hit — meaning that both a 5 percent spending increase can be recommended and a property tax rate increase won’t be necessary.

Building inspections are projected to rise from 19,440 in FY 2019 to 21,500 this year, and revenue from those inspections was at 98 percent of budget by the end of March — meaning there were still three months to meet and exceed the projected revenue. Environmental health fees were 13 percent higher than the year before at the end of March, and Register of Deeds excise tax collections were up by 9 percent. These positive financial improvements, LaMontagne wrote, means that growth in the county had “rebounded from the slow-down caused by the extreme stormy and wet weather” in the previous year.

Taking into account these improvements, as well as uncertainty from what COVID-19 will mean for the county’s economy, LaMontagne said the county was recommending a budget that is “cautious yet delivers critically needed services.”

Article 46 sales tax

The highly-contentious Article 46 sales tax that county voters approved by 646 votes in the March 2020 primary election is already coming in handy, LaMontagne said. Levying the tax will begin in October and is projected to bring in $1.6 million — the bulk of which will be used immediately for education purposes.

The county budget recommends approving Chatham County Schools’ request for an additional $968,111 for teacher supplements, the county’s contribution to teacher pay. Supplements are often touted as a way to recruit and retain teachers who might be swayed by higher pay in surrounding districts. The county’s portion will go toward meeting a mandated 1.74 percent increase in retirement contribution.

LaMontagne’s budget message said maintaining the current supplement level — which brings Chatham’s supplement pay budget to $7 million even — “is only made possible by appropriating a portion of the additional ¼ cent Article 46 levy that begins in October.” If the tax had not been passed, supplement pay would have decreased.

“The current model for funding the supplement as a percentage of teacher pay is difficult to sustain, due in large part to our inability to predict the state-directed teacher pay raises and mandated increases in retirement rates,” LaMontagne said in a recorded video presentation of the budget. “Without the just-in-time addition of the Article 46 revenue, which passed by referendum, we would have been unable to support the supplement as requested due to the economic downturn that has so deeply affected our budgets.”

The schools and county government have already discussed finding a more efficient way to distribute the supplement.

New employees

The county government plan supports six new positions: two new officers for the Chatham County Detention Center, three social workers for the Chatham County Department of Social Services and one licensed substance abuse counselor in the Chatham County Court Services department.

The two positions at the Detention Center fall far short of the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office’s initial request of 22 new full-time staff members and two part-time staff. Sheriff Mike Roberson said a large chunk of the positions would work in Animal Resources to help operate the new county Animal Shelter, but Animal Resources would receive no new positions in the budget proposal. The two detention center officers were requested and, should the budget pass, one will begin in July and the other in October.

“With detention, when we built the building, it was built for direct supervision, which means there’s an officer in each block with the inmates,” Roberson told the News + Record earlier this year. “We are not at the staffing level we can do that. We’re in this middle phase where we can do direct supervision in some blocks but not other blocks, which really makes it inefficient.”

The three new DSS positions are included, LaMontagne wrote, “to meet current demand and the increase that will result from the growth in unemployment.” The state government will pay half of the salaries for those positions. In the Human Services section of the budget, which includes DSS, it is stated that the positions are recommended “to address the high caseload demand in Child Protective Services.”

The new substance abuse counselor would work under the Chatham 360 program.

Other expanded expenses

Other than the public school system’s increase — mandated by the teacher supplement expense mentioned earlier and operating costs for the Chatham Grove Elementary School — and new employees, there are a few expanded expenses the county is taking on.

The Chatham County Council on Aging, which has been playing a significant role in the county’s response to COVID-19, is slated to get an additional $25,000 for general purposes and $35,000 for its Family Caregiver Respite program. LaMontagne’s budget message says the program “has enabled the Council to keep vulnerable elderly at home” — serving 63 families from April 2015 to June 2019, with just eight placing loved ones in a long-term care facility.

“Respite helps avoid the high cost of institutional care, and the risk of the spread of coronavirus in these facilities emphasizes the importance of the program,” LaMontagne wrote.

Additionally, $3,600 is suggested to be allocated as part of the county’s application with Visit NC Farms, a program that “helps local farmers attract visitors to the county,” LaMontagne wrote. The effort is a partnership between the Chatham County Cooperative Extension and the Pittsboro-Siler City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Finally, the budget recommends $50,000 for completing a “comprehensive pay study” for all of county government.

“Pay studies are typically done every 4-5 years to examine our job classifications and duties and use that to recommend appropriate pay levels and classifications,” LaMontagne wrote. “Doing a pay study in the coming year will provide us with valuable information and allows us time to formulate a fiscally responsible implementation strategy.”

One-time expenses also included in the budget are a new vehicle for the Health Department’s Clinical and Community Health Service division, a truck for the Cooperative Extension, bleachers for the Chatham County Agriculture & Conference Center and a feasibility study for Phase II of that center. All of those items combine to cost $160,000.

Their best shot

“It cannot be over-emphasized that the FY2021 Recommended Budget is the result of our best effort to predict what is not truly predictable,” LaMontagne wrote. “For this reason, departments have been advised to curtail spending in the first quarter beyond what is critical. If revenues fall short of expectations, expense will be delayed or even canceled.”

It echoes the message that he shared with the News + Record during an early April interview.

“When we’re having to be conservative, that means we have to look at, can we continue business as usual, continuation, from the previous year?” he said. “Maybe we don’t look at expansion this coming budget because we wouldn’t have the revenue to support it. So those are decisions we’ve got to make yet. We’re still looking at these revenue projections. And again, it’s a difficult crystal ball. It comes with really bad directions on how to use it right now.”

County residents are encouraged to provide input on the budget — which can be found online here — at a May 18 public hearing. Slated to start at 6 p.m., the meeting will be held at the Ag Center in Pittsboro, with more details on specifics yet to come. Work sessions will be held on May 21 and 22, with a possible third session on May 28. County officials hope to finalize the plan on June 15.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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