SNOW HILL – Despite concerns about the financial impact of coronavirus, a motion to move forward with a flat budget failed with a split vote by the Worcester County Commissioners.
As staff presented the county’s proposed $221 million budget for fiscal year 2021 on Tuesday — a budget featuring a shortfall of $11 million — Commissioner Chip Bertino was quick to voice his worries over the unknown impact of coronavirus. His motion to have staff instead prepare a flat budget, with no increases other than the increased maintenance of effort funding due to the school system, failed with three votes in favor and four opposed.
“I think this is going to have a far-reaching impact on us,” Bertino said. “I’d much rather be prepared and be overly conservative than to work on something we might not be able to fulfill.”
As Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins presented the budget, which as proposed includes revenues of $209,931,786 and expenditures of $221,258,000, he acknowledged that coronavirus would have a significant impact on the county financially.
“You need to let the smoke clear and future out what’s going to happen in the next 30 days,” he said.
Bertino said that considering the uncertainty he thought the county should plan on a flat budget and made a motion to that effect.
When Commissioner Bud Church asked what county staff thought of that proposal, Higgins said there would be benefits at the state and federal level. He added that the county could end up with a flat budget but he’d rather wait before making that determination.
“This is kind of a needs based budget,” he said.
Commissioners Josh Nordstrom and Diana Purnell said they agreed with Higgins and didn’t think the county needed to lock itself into a flat budget now.
Commissioner Ted Elder, however, disagreed.
“Your best plans are made beforehand and not afterwards in trying to correct shortfalls and things after it’s too late,” he said.
Bertino said the budget Higgins proposed included more than needs.
“There are a lot of wants in this budget and we’re still $11 million over,” he said. “This is not a bare bones budget.”
Higgins said a flat budget would mean no pay increases for county employees when the school system had already negotiated raises with its workforce.
“We usually couple that recommendation to our own staff,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting pointed out that as proposed the budget included an increase in revenues and said that could likely cover salary increases.
Higgins asked if the commissioners could make the flat budget a goal and not a mandate.
“I think it’s already a goal,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said.
“We’ve asked you for the past several years to present a balanced budget…,” he said. “I’d much rather err on the side of caution and reduce the expectations of ourselves, of county government, and our taxpayers as opposed to going full ahead like nothing’s happening. That’s what this current budget as presented does. It doesn’t even take into account what we’re facing now.”
Mitrecic said that in his 18 years of working on budgets, he’d learned to budget to needs rather than a number.
“To hem our staff into a number today isn’t a very good idea,” he said, adding that significant cuts had been made last year. “Those needs are all still there. None of those needs went away.”
Bertino’s motion for a flat budget failed, with three votes in support and four — Church, Purnell, Mitrecic and Nordstrom — in opposition.