Amherst Town Council has approved a fiscal year 2021 budget that balances using about $250,000 from town reserves, a measure driven by the economic downturn from the coronavirus.

A planned 2.12% raise for employees budget and a step increase of 2% for employees who have met their yearly performance goals also was eliminated because of budget cuts related to COVID-19.

Vice Mayor Rachel Carton referred to the the $2.6 million budget that takes effect July 1 as “greatly slashed but doable.”

“The town is in a good place,” Carton said during council’s June 12 meeting. “So we’ll be able to function, just on a skinnier budget.”

The general fund of $1,094,098 had a deficit that was covered by reserves, while funds for water and sewer, garbage collection and the Industrial Development Authority make up the remainder of the budget.

“This budget is based on the most pessimistic projections that really, I think, anyone around here is doing,” Town Manager Sara Carter said. “I would like us to be rather under-projecting our revenue rather than over-projecting our revenue.”

Carter said the new budget factors about a 40% projected decrease in areas of meals and beverage taxes and business license revenue.

“I don’t think it will be that bad,” Carter said of the forecast. “But I also didn’t want to build a budget on something and then find out it became worse.”

The town continues a practice in place for years of keeping real estate and personal property taxes at zero, and Carter said the town was well-positioned to use its reserves during the crisis.

“We’re fine in terms of where we are in our overall savings, and I’m hopeful that we will not need nearly that much as the year goes on,” Carter said, referring to reserve money.

The budget passed on a 3-1 vote, with Councilwoman Janice Wheaton opposed and Councilman Kenneth Bunch absent. Wheaton did not state during the meeting why she opposed it. When asked afterward, Wheaton replied to The New Era-Progress: “I cast my vote based on information that I am or not given,” and did not elaborate further.

Carter wrote in a June 4 memo to council when the planning stages for the fiscal year ‘21 budget process began the economy was booming and growth in sales and development were built into the projections.

“Should the economy improve faster, these estimates will be low and additional expenditures can be considered,” Carter said in the memo.

If revenue is greater than anticipated, Carter said she would recommend adding in the 2.12% pay raise for staff in January.

The fiscal year 2021 budget makes no recommended increases to tax or utility rates for any customers, which continues council’s direction to hold utility rates constant and has been achieved for the last two budget cycles, according to Carter.

The budget also maintains a long-term commitment to the town’s public utility system, anticipates completion of a major sewer sliplining project and continues an upgrade to the town’s water treatment plan.

“Neither of these projects are yet reflected in the budget, as they will be completed during the year and accounted for in coming years with debt payments,” Carter said in the memo. “Both of these projects have significant grant money associated with them and have been programmed into the budget for several years with increasing reserves in the water and sewer funds.”

Also during the June 10 meeting, council voted 3-1, with Wheaton opposed and Bunch absent, to support Mayor Dwayne Tuggle seeking a vacancy on the Virginia Planning District Commission’s board of directors.

Carton said the state board works closely with businesses and Tuggle’s potential involvement could further enhance the town’s opportunities to bring more business to Amherst.

“It is a huge networking opportunity,” Carton said.

Wheaton, who was expelled in July 2019 by a 4-1 council vote after a series of conflicts and several months later won the seat back in a special election, did not state during the meeting why she opposed Tuggle seeking the state board post.

Council members recently questioned Wheaton on her routine ‘no’ votes, saying she is voting against matters they believe are in the town’s best interests, such as an ongoing sewer line project, for example. Tuggle, visibly frustrated from Wheaton’s opposition, asked to her to explain why.

“You made it clear you’re here to do what’s right for this community,” Tuggle said to Wheaton. “So here’s a chance for us to work about getting businesses in this community, making connections from all around the state to work on getting businesses and more things in this community. So why is that a no vote?”

“I’ll say no comment at this time,” Wheaton said.

“I just wanted to make that known,” Tuggle said in voicing frustration with Wheaton’s vote. “I think that does not look out for the community...”

Wheaton said she feels she does a good job representing town residents before Tuggle moved on to the next agenda item, ending the tense exchange.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.

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