By Brandon Martin
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall presented the nearly $168 million proposed budget for year (FY) 2021-22 to the Henry County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
The proposal, which is an increase of 7.3 percent, will require the transfer of $1.3 million from the county’s fund balance to offset fiscal year expenditures.
“Your unassigned fund balance will increase,” Hall said. “We project it will increase by $5.5 million. Even though we are going to ask you to tap into reserves to help us balance, all that means is we are not going to lose money on our fund balance as we move forward. We just probably won’t show that much growth while we are taking some money out to meet operations.”
With rising costs, Hall said he felt the move was necessary.
“We have never done that before and I don’t like doing it now,” Hall said. “I think it is bad policy. Keep in mind, when we started balancing it, we were $2.5 million in the hole. So, staff went back and took out about $1 million just for cuts within the budget. We really didn’t feel like we could go any deeper, based on the two goals that you gave us to enhance our employees’ experience and the expenses that are connected to a couple of things.”
The first is the staffing and opening of the new jail.
“We are going to have to staff that significantly in the next fiscal year,” Hall said. “A lot of that money is compensation board money that we will get reimbursed for, but we have to spend it first. That requires us to have a significant outlay of funds at the outset.”
The Children’s Services Act also is driving the increase.
“This is the arm that takes care of foster care and special needs kids within the system,” Hall said. “Five years ago, our local share of that effort was about $365,000. We are projecting next year, our share will be about $908,000, which is two-and-a-half times what we spent five years ago.”
He added “those are two significant items that are causing us some heartburn this year.”
One bright spot, he said, is that the plan prevents additional taxes.
“We are not proposing a tax increase on real estate or personal property,” Hall said. “Those are the two significant revenue drivers that we have in our budget. We think we could justify one. We don’t think the time is right. We should hold on as long as we can before we put that burden on our taxpayers.”
The transfer from the fund balance also would help the county accomplish other goals.
Hall said county employees did not receive a raise last year and “only twice, I think, out of the last eight years have they received a raise of more than two percent.”
The county’s proposed budget would increase employee pay by about five percent for those who have been on the books for at least a year. Additionally, those with less than a year of service will generally receive about a 2.5 percent raise, but they will not receive a step increase.
Local effort to the school board will be $19.3 million. Of that amount, about $16.7 million will be for the operating budget. This was approximately $516,485 more than the school board requested at $16.3 million.
“In the past, schools received recordation tax flow-through,” Hall said. “It came from the Commonwealth to us. We flowed it right through to the school system which we do for a lot of things. The Commonwealth has stopped providing that recordation tax revenue to school boards so that left about a $60,000 hole that we did not replace because when a grant or allocation goes away, we really don’t replace that.”
Hall said the new one percent sales tax increase approved last year for school construction and debts is expected to bring in $5.2 million in new revenue. Half will be used for existing school debt and the rest will go to current and future construction and renovation needs.
While the county was able to find room in the budget for pay increases and rising school costs, Hall said some items had to be trimmed from the travel and education budgets.
“Rather than driving to Richmond, we can do it via Zoom,” Hall said. “We removed a significant amount of money from travel. We also supply some funds for folks to go back to school and get degrees and so forth. A lot of that can be done online now.”
During the planning stages, Hall said staff struggled to find funds for another of the board’s priorities.
“You asked us for the PIO (Public Information Officer)/Community Liaison position,” Hall said. “We had it in. We took it out. We had it in and then we took it out.”
Hall said he was concerned about allocating more money from reserves “than we have to take.”
While he felt the position was needed, Hall said “that was an expense we did not want to take out of fund balance.”
The description for the position included community liaison work to bolster “an anti-litter campaign” along with other outreach efforts, he said.
“We don’t have it in,” Hall said. “If you want it in and that is the recommendation you choose to make of us, we can hear that out tonight. Rather than going back through the books and that sort of thing, if you choose to direct us to put that back in, then I’d ask that you let us take whatever cost we occur between now and hiring, and take that out of contingency. We don’t know what that amount would be, but we will bring that to you.”
Joe Bryant, of the Collinsville District, said he valued having a public information officer on staff for the county.
“I see the importance of having that position of someone who can promote this area,” Bryant said. “The litter has been a devastating problem here in this area. As Mr. (Tommy) Slaughter brought up in our last board meeting. And it’s not only in his district. It’s in my district as well as everyone else’s district.”
Bryant complimented the county staff on creating “a good conservative budget” but he saw room to “pull this from our contingency fund this year and maybe next year try to find out where the funds are going to come from. But I think that would be a value to have as a county.”
Hall said he will present the Public Service Authority with a proposal to share funding for the position at their upcoming meeting.
“We have multiple shared positions,” he said. “It’s not new.”
Darrell Jones, the county’s finance director, said transferring money from the contingency fund to cover salary and benefits would “get you through the end of fiscal year 2022.”
The position could be continually funded in the future, based on the board’s approval, Jones added.
Hall said the position won’t begin before July 1.
“I know that when I mention hiring a person for that position and knowing that the budget was probably going to be a tough one this year, I still think we need to tell our story,” said Vice-Chairman Debra Buchanan, of the Horsepasture District. “Whether it is good or bad, I think the public needs to know. With staff working as hard as they are, you don’t have the time. Tim and Dale (Wagoner), you don’t have the time that it would take to do social media and to do the press releases and things that need to be done to let people know what is going on.”
Buchanan said the position will be even more valuable during the process of reversion.
“We are doing a good job on the internet, on the county website, but I think there is going to be more information that needs to come to the public’s attention during the tough times,” Buchanan said. “But then as we approach more good times, with Commonwealth Crossing, and continuing to add to that, I think we need to tell our story, good or bad.”
“Dale does a lot more of the social media than I do, but we both do it and it is very time consuming because the media have demands, and rightfully so. They want to get more content out,” Hall said.
Still, the added pressures weigh on the county and deputy administrators, according to Hall.
“It takes up a lot of time. It absolutely does,” he said. “There are many nights when I am doing that sort of thing at 8 or 9:30 at night. You just do it. That’s what we do around here. But it does take some time.”
Chairman Jim Adams agreed.
“I think we have a story to tell,” he said. “I think it takes almost twice as much energy to dispel a rumor than to be out in front of it and tell the factual side of the county’s position on things.”
Dr. J. David Martin, of the Iriswood District, made the motion to add a public information officer position to the budget beginning July 1, using contingency funds. The Henry County Public Service Authority will have the option of partially sharing the cost of the position.
Hall said that the county intends to focus more on recruiting talented applicants.
Remarking on past conversations with department heads, Hall said he routinely tells them “you need to tell us who in your department is going to step up. It may not be in their office. It may be where they can go to another office. We need to know who those folks are because it’s getting harder and harder to find candidates that want to work.”
He added that a “significant number” of long-time employees will be retiring in the near future.
“Those pillars of your organization are starting to move on, as they should. They’ve earned their time,” Hall said. “But we need to be cognizant of the fact that we need to be doing a better job at identifying them, hiring them, and keeping them. We are already behind when it comes to trying to hire people for certain jobs.”
For instance, Hall said the county has only received five applications so far for the position of Refuse Director.
“We are not in a position to pay folks what the private sector can pay,” Hall said. “Especially, when you weigh the joys sometimes of dealing with the public. That’s just an indication that we are behind on salaries. We used to make it up with a really robust benefits package, retirement especially, but the Commonwealth changed that and put several tiers in. It’s just not attractive as it used to be compared to everything else.”
A public hearing for the budget will be scheduled for April 27 at 6 p.m.