Faced with a potential shortfall of $4 million in revenue for each month coronavirus shutdowns continue, the county commissioners are scouring next year’s budget for ways to cut costs and are considering whether services and staff should be reduced.
The Board of Commissioners met for more than five hours on Thursday, spending the bulk of two meetings in budget talks, discussing what is mandated to be funded and what is not.
Director of Management and Budget Ted Zaleski told the commissioners during a Tuesday work session that the county could lose $4 million of expected revenue per month for the duration of the shutdowns. He said total revenue could be more than $15 million under what was budgeted for fiscal year 2020 if closures continue through June.
With no way of knowing how the coronavirus might affect the new fiscal year, which beings July 1, Zaleski strongly recommended the commissioners consider approving a 2021 budget that is less than the current operating budget of approximately $418 million.
“There are no easy moves left to make," Zaleski said Thursday. "If there were, we would have taken them by now. The choices we have now all come with meaningful consequences.”
The commissioners and budget staff reviewed more than 130 items in the budget, seeming to find little wiggle room. Zaleski said it would be difficult to pare the budget without affecting services.
“In order to make any significant cuts, we’re talking about people,” said Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1. “We may need to discuss, perhaps, I don’t know, layoffs.”
Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, raised the idea of voluntary early retirement. Staff on the cusp of retiring could have the option to leave early, then the county could hire younger replacements and pay them less, he said. Zaleski noted the county would be losing valuable, experienced staff if they encouraged people to retire early.
Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, suggested a hiring freeze for six months. Zaleski deemed that a short-term solution.
After proposing to go back on the decision to extend Carroll Transit hours, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, suggested eliminating public transportation from the county budget entirely. Neither idea gained any ground with the other commissioners.
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, asked budget staff to look into the police training academy and find whether it would save the county money to send recruits elsewhere to be trained. Zaleski said he can explore that, but noted outsourcing training could mean less slots would be available and positions may go unfilled for longer.
Cuts to ag preservation, economic development
The commissioners met with a few county department heads to find ways to reduce expenses in fiscal year 2021 and beyond.
Jack Lyburn, director of economic development, said he would be comfortable reducing his department’s infrastructure and investment funding from $1.25 million to $850,000, based on its history of payments to the Industrial Development Authority of Carroll County.
Funding that is not spent is transferred to the IDA. In the past four years, the Department of Economic Development has given $630,000, $820,000, $450,000, and $1.1 million to the IDA, according to Zaleski.
Rothstein made a motion to reduce infrastructure and investment ongoing funding by $400,000, which will improve the overall budget’s bottom line. The board unanimously supported the motion.
The commissioners disagreed over whether to reduce funding to agricultural land preservation. They voted 3-2 to decrease funding from $3 million to $2.5 million per year, ongoing. Frazier and Bouchat stood opposed.
“In this county, agriculture preservation is incredibly important and I do not want to do anything that would challenge the continued effort moving forward,” Wantz said. Since 1980, the county has been moving toward a goal of preserving 100,000 acres of farmland. More than 73,000 acres have been preserved.
Tom Devilbiss, the director of land and resource management, said the agricultural land preservation program is purely discretionary. It’s well-liked by the community and heavily used, but the commissioners are not obligated to fund it, he said.