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Bertie tightens purse strings

WINDSOR – After years of watching its fund balance slowly erode, it appears that Bertie County local government’s finances are taking an upward turn.

County Manager Juan Vaughan II shared his FY 2021-22 budget proposal with the board of commissioners here Tuesday at their regularly scheduled meeting. That financial spreadsheet calls for reduced spending, the same property tax rate, a slight raise for county employees, and a promise to continue an effort to rebuild the fund balance.

Vaughan proposed no increase in the ad valorem tax rate, remaining at 86.5 cents (per $100 of property value).

The proposed funding for the General Fund for FY 2021-2022 is $24,146,930 which is a decrease of $608,604 or 2.5% below the original budget ordinance for the current year, which is $24,755,534. The proposed General Fund budget does not include a fund balance appropriation.

Vaughan pointed out there was “some light at the end of the tunnel” pertaining to the county’s General Fund Balance, which had been heavily relied upon to balance the bottom line over the past several years. He noted that the appropriated fund balance for fiscal year ending June 30, 2017 was originally budgeted at $1.27 million, but that amount increased to $1.85 million by the end of the year. The same scenarios occurred in subsequent years: $1.59 million in the original budget for 2018, then increased to $2.02 million; $1.9 million in the 2019 original budget, which was later increased to $2.37 million; and $1.72 million as originally budgeted in 2020, but increased to $1.9 million.

“We didn’t appropriate any fund balance for the current fiscal year [2020-21]; we are hoping to have some surplus to add back to the fund balance as of June 30,” Vaughan noted. “For 2022, there is also no fund balance appropriated in the recommended budget.”

The North Carolina Local Government Commission (LGC) advises units of local government to maintain the fund balance available for appropriation at 8% or higher of total expenditures. Bertie County adopted a minimum fund balance policy for the General Fund, which instructs management to maintain the fund balance available for appropriation at 10% or higher of total expenditures.

However, as a result of appropriating fund balance to balance the budget for a number of years in addition to not receiving timely reimbursement from a number of sources for capital projects, Bertie County’s fund balance available for appropriation as calculated by the LGC has fallen below the 8 percent and 10 percent of the General Fund expenditures as recommended by the LGC and the Bertie Commissioners

Vaughan’s proposed new budget comes on the heels of the current budget year that is three percent ($736,370) under FY 2019-20. Over the past two years the county’s expenditures have been reduced by a combined $1,344,974.

“We want to maintain that by keeping a close eye on our expenditures,” Vaughan stressed. “Just because it’s budgeted doesn’t mean we have to spend it all.”

Vaughan said despite the tight purse strings on the proposed budget, he is recommending a one percent cost of living increase for all employees of Bertie County local government.

Meanwhile, the county continues to implement a hiring freeze by not filling vacant positions. Those current vacancies (11 total) are in the Sheriff’s Office, Non-Emergency Medical Transport, and Administration.

“We will not fill a position that does not have an immediate need,” Vaughan remarked.

The proposed FY 2021-2022 budget plan includes the usual General Fund appropriation of $30,000 to each of the 12 fire departments in Bertie County. In the upcoming fiscal year, the commissioners plan to look further into the alternative funding options suggested in the fire study recently conducted.

Other traditionally funded special appropriations include $3,027,671 in current expense funding to Bertie County Public Schools as well as $375,000 in the Schools Capital Outlay Fund; and $1,147,006 to the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail.

The main sources of revenue for the proposed budget will come, as usual, from ad valorem taxes, motor vehicle taxes, and the county’s share of state sales tax. Bertie also has $2 million of annual revenue coming in by being the host site of a regional landfill.

Other than the school system and the jail, the lion’s share of taxpayer money goes to fund the Sheriff’s Office ($2.94 million), Emergency Medical Services ($2.58 million), and the Department of Social Services ($1.34 million). Another $2.6 million is earmarked to satisfy the county’s annual debt service payments.

In an effort to balance the Enterprise Fund budget, the commissioners have already approved an increase to the monthly fees charged to residential and commercial customers of the county’s Rural Water District. Those increases take effect on July 1.

“I want to thank my staff, and all the department heads for the sacrifices they made to tighten the purse strings for this budget,” Vaughan said.

Commission Chair Tammy Lee made reference to the multiple hits the county’s fund balance has had over the past several years.

“These were capital projects we had to do,” she said. “That’s left our Fund Balance a little on the low side, but Mr. Vaughan has been tasked to build that back up and I thank him and his staff for the hard work they have done.”

“I’m so pleased to see a budget presented to us that does not call for the use of fund balance,” said Commissioner Ron Wesson. “The budget we started with this year would have been another one in excess had we not earlier this year decided to cut out five percent of expenditures. Now it looks like we might have a surplus, that’s great.

“It’s great to see a one percent increase across the board for our staff, but I feel they deserve a heck of a lot more,” Wesson continued. “If we can find that money in the budget then we should do that.”

Commissioner Ron Roberson agreed with Wesson, calling for more than a one percent raise for county employees.

Following a scheduled budget workshop by the commissioners on Thursday of this week, county citizens will have an opportunity to express their opinions about Vaughan’s proposal during a public hearing at 6 p.m. on June 14. The board must adopt the budget by June 30.

Vaughan also updated the commissioners about federal recovery funds through the American Rescue Plan. Bertie’s share is $3.6 million, of which they have currently received one-half ($1.8 million).

“We have been studying for the past few weeks what are the eligible uses of this money,” Vaughan said. “We will look at this a little deeper, but some of the eligible expenses include payroll for our employees dedicated for COVID-19 response, supplies, equipment and some infrastructure.”

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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