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Carroll County revenue higher than expected, but COVID-19 impact ‘probably still ahead,’ officials say

Although Carroll County’s 2020 revenues are shaping up to be higher than previously expected, county officials warn the full fiscal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic likely lie ahead.

Instead of meeting over eggs and coffee, the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual commissioners and business meeting Tuesday morning. Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, painted a broad picture of the county’s finances. He also expressed hope that the Board of County Commissioners can soon begin to form an “exit strategy” to get the county back to normal, perhaps by allowing businesses to set their own policies on face coverings.

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“My colleagues and I are going to have to make tough decisions in the future," Bouchat said to about 25 members of the local business community. “The pains that you feel in business we need to feel and understand as well.”

The commissioners thought it was possible the county could see as much as a $15 million drop in revenue in fiscal year 2020 if COVID-19 shutdowns continued, Bouchat said, but the last piece of the county’s fourth quarter distribution indicates revenue is projected to be $3 million over budget — though final numbers are not complete.

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This is largely driven by income tax revenues coming in higher than expected, at $4.7 million over budget, Bouchat said, quoting numbers from Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget for the county. Bouchat said that $4.7 million is largely due to a $5.9 million increase by reconciling estimated tax earnings with actual distribution totals from the state. So that increase is reflective of what occurred in prior years, not in recent months.

Zaleski said in an email that he provided those figures to Bouchat. Zaleski clarified that the $15 million loss estimate, offered to the commissioners in April, was based on information from the state revenue office and “some assumptions that seemed reasonable with the information that was available at the time we told the Commissioners that we could see that kind of impact,” he wrote.

However, both Zaleski and Bouchat said they feel the county is not out of trouble yet. Bouchat warned that the state faces financial uncertainty, and said he fears the state will try to balance its budget shortfalls on the backs of counties.

“Federal relief and the unemployment subsidies certainly helped — for now,” Zaleski wrote. “We believe there are big questions of timing and the Federal subsidies probably won’t continue. The impact is probably still ahead of us.”

The No. 1 expense for any business, including county government, is human resources, Bouchat said. If the county’s financial state became especially troubling, he said, the commissioners would need to consider reducing county employees or cut back on providing “non-essential” services. The commissioner emphasized he was not suggesting that will occur.

Looking toward a future return to normalcy, Bouchat said he feels it is critical for business owners to be able to make decisions about wearing masks in their businesses. He suggested a doctor’s office would want masks to be mandatory, whereas a jewelry store might prefer to see its customers' faces for security reasons and opt to install plastic shields indoors instead.

“I want to precipitate policies as a commissioner that lead to a thriving economy in our county,” Bouchat said.

Asked when the county would move toward implementing such an “exit strategy,” Bouchat said that date would be driven by health department data.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, reminded residents of the Carroll Rebound program, which offers coronavirus relief funding to local businesses, farms and nonprofits. The county has spent a little over half of the $4 million allocated for this program, and Rothstein encouraged applicants to apply for grant funding. Applications can be submitted online via carrollbiz.org until 5 p.m. Sept. 30.

The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the COVID-19 impact on the county budget with Zaleski at their 9 a.m. Thursday meeting, which can be viewed through the county website.

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