A second round of federal relief money in the amount of $2.7 million to help Amherst officials offset coronavirus-related expenses is now plugged into the county’s budget, following a recent vote by the county’s board of supervisors.
While $1,779,166 of the overall $5,514,828 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability (CARES) Act money has been spent through Aug. 31, supervisors have the ability to shift money around as they are considering a range of uses.
“Until we obligate it, you can continue to move it around,” County Administrator Dean Rodgers told supervisors during a Sept. 1 meeting.
The board held a public hearing that day on appropriating the $2,754,414. The hearing was required because the federal money received exceeds 1% of the county’s operating and maintenance budget, according to Rodgers.
Through Aug. 31, the county has spent $500,000 combined in grants for small businesses and nonprofits $190,633 of CARES money in a contribution to the Town of Amherst, , $5,311 for duct cleaning in county buildings, $29,097 in miscellaneous COVID-19 expenses while accumulating $1,054,124 in savings through putting money toward public safety employees’ salaries, according to figures presented to supervisors.
The remaining balance of $3,735,000 is mapped out in a variety of uses and must be used by Dec. 30. The total includes $1,086,638 in savings from offsetting the public safety salaries, a term the county refers as the “salary switch,” which is not under the end-of-year deadline.
Supervisors recently set aside $500,000 of CARES money for a contract to improve broadband service and could potentially spend more, pending results of an upcoming study for countywide expansion that is expected in October. The board also is considering $300,000 to build restrooms at four county parks and on Sept. 1 approved another $60,000 to come from a fund set aside for the recreation and parks department to complete that work.
Stacey Wilkes, director of finance, told supervisors personal protective equipment still must be purchased until the pandemic is over. She said she has seven CARES “pots” to keep up with as the county tracks the spending.
Aside from the federal aid, the board is considering two potential tax measures to create an estimated $1.5 million in recurring revenue in future years, a 2% increase in the meals tax and a 27-cent tax on cigarettes. The board is expected to hold public hearings on those plans this fall.
The possible meals tax hike of 2% of gross receipts is projected to bring $500,000 a year. Supervisor David Pugh has said he considers that measure a tough sell for his vote with the pandemic hurting the restaurant industry.
Wilkes said she projects the county could raise the cigarette tax higher, to about 37 cents, and equal the same estimated $1.5 million mark without implementing the meals tax, which Supervisor Tom Martin inquired about.
“We won’t know until people start paying it,” Wilkes said of the cigarette tax.
The county has the ability to take cigarettes up to 40 cents per pack. The city of Lynchburg taxes 35 cents a pack, Rodgers said.
Rodgers and Wilkes told supervisors the county’s revenues the past several months have not been negatively affected as much as anticipated when the pandemic hit.
The board may consider restoring some areas of the capital improvement plan (CIP) that was drastically cut in the current budget to brace for COVID-19 effects. One project in particular, an estimated $400,000 per year over a 3-year period to overhaul financial accounting software, is much needed, Wilkes said.
The pandemic causing many employees to work from home brought many deficiencies with the current software to light, Wilkes said. She struggled to get payroll out for two weeks because of the current paper-driven system and she can’t perform that task while at home, she said.
“We have issues closing the books,” Wilkes said.
The software overhaul request has been delayed the past two budget cycles. Tucker said she would like $1 million or more generated from a cigarette tax, if approved, to go toward the CIP.
“We can’t keep on going on like this,” Tucker said of the current financial software issues. “We need to bite the bullet and give our people the tools they need to do their jobs.”
Rodgers recommends the potential $1.5 million from the potential meals tax hike and cigarette tax to fund the CIP in future years since it doesn’t have a source of recurring revenue.
“If we did that would solve the biggest problem I believe we have, planning for the future,” Rodgers said.
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