JEFFERSON — Calling it “a team effort,” Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier presented the proposed 2021 operational and capital budget to the county’s board of supervisors Tuesday evening.
“The county continues to examine various revenue streams to maintain its day-to-day operations,” Wehmeier said, adding that, while maintaining the property tax freeze, the county may capture up to an additional $508,900 in net new construction levy at a 1.8% increase. This is one of the higher construction growth rates in recent years, he said.
The new growth results in the proposed countywide levy increasing from $27,883,356 to $28,385,256, with the tax rate decreasing 2.02%, going from $3.80 per $1,000 of equalized valuation to $3.73.
Wehmeier said the county’s team of board members and staff have done an admirable job developing a proposed 2020 budget that looks at emerging and urgent needs of the county, while also positioning the county for the future.
“The programs and visions of the county impact the greater ecosystem of our communities, down to the individuals receiving services in a very diverse operation,” Wehmeier said. “The county will continue to be asked to be a leader in solving growing complex problems. This budget process will help to provide the resources to be prepared for the task that is at hand.”
Wehmeier indicated that, although the COVID-19 battle, which has been fought in the county and world since March, has taken its toll here, it has not crushed the county financially.
“As this budget was prepared, there were several themes and principles it was built upon,” Wehmeier said. “The first term used quite often has been a ‘budget in transition.’ This is based on two primary focal points. The first is based on the county operations internally that carry out the vision of the county.”
Wehmeier said the county faces several external impacts. This includes the unknowns of where the economy heads, what the future of the local economy looks like, on-going problem-solving for housing, broadband, shared services and transportation and on-going efforts in response to COVID-19.
“COVID-19 has impacted all our departments and programs to various degrees,” he said, “with some departments being impacted more than others ... This budget in transition requires us to look at foundational aspects of fiscal and budget policy.”
Wehmeier said sustainability of the county is paramount.
“The recommendations that are being made are based on not just 2021, but as we look to future budget years, to ensure that we do not create a larger fiscal deficit,” he said.
Additional recommendations use one-time revenue streams to augment programs and project needs, with the county assuming these are one-time expenses.
“This budget will be resilient, with the goal of positioning the county to quickly recover with a plan as the economy recovers,” Wehmeier said. “Finally, comes flexibility. Government often gets the reputation for being inflexible. Fiscal year 2021 needs to provide flexibility as we position resources until things ‘normalize’ and/or adjustments are made to the new norm and updated visions by the board.”
The administrator said there will be cases in which the county will need to look at how it manages programs it provides.
“We have asked and will continue to ask staff and the board to look at issues differently, versus the status quo,” Wehmeier said. “We need to ensure we are in a position to pivot, to provide the services needed to Jefferson County that may emerge.”
Addressing COVID-19 and its impact on public health as it relates to the county, Wehmeier said, as the county moves into 2021, one of the large unknowns is the on-going response to COVID and the direct and indirect impacts of the virus.
“From a public health perspective, our team members have worked hard to meet all the growing demands that have been placed on them,” he said. “This includes education, data analysis, contact tracing, disease investigation and community/business outreach.”
He said this has caused the county to add additional staff through limited term employees or contracts to help build the capacity to support its efforts.
“A significant portion of these expenditures, well over $1 million, will be repaid to the county through CARES dollars reimbursement,” Wehmeier said.
On Oct. 1, the county was informed it should expect to receive an additional $436,800 through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Enhancing Detection cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control. Wehmeier said he is not aware of any additional funds that may be received for 2021 for on-going COVID efforts, the future of testing, and to assist in vaccine planning and distribution.
“As such, the county will be setting aside $110,000 for 2021 via a one-time allocation for the health department to assist in capacity needs,” he said. “In addition, the county will plan to look at carryover funds to assist in additional capacity demands.”
One of the largest unknowns for 2021, according to Wehmeier, relates to the economy and revenue streams that address COVID-19 responses. Several indicators have an uncertainty to them, he said.
Sales tax is a prime example.
“Since COVID impacts, we have seen months of reductions of anywhere from 10 to 30%,” he said. “But in other months, we have seen significant jumps. One month appears to be a correlation related to the stimulus check distribution. The revenue streams have been projected conservatively, with appropriations being aligned accordingly.”
The budget, as currently presented, includes a 1% cost-of-living adjustment to employee compensation and the suspension of step increases for all but sworn deputies.
“Our intent is to monitor the budget and make adjustments throughout the year as deemed appropriate,” he said. “As it relates to compensation, this may include restoring pay steps, a mid-year lift and staffing adjustments to accommodate operational and capacity needs.”
Wehmeier said, as of Tuesday, there were still many unknowns related to the impacts of the 2020-2021 state budget and what the state biennium budget may look like, as well as the impact to various services.
“This budget is in a position to be flexible to respond to the economy and how the state budget is developed,” he said, “but not overly reliant on unknown decisions.”
The budget is scheduled for a public hearing Oct. 27 and is traditionally approved by the board in November.