Lewis County departments and elected officials submitted their preliminary 2021 budget requests this week as the county prepares to set next year’s budget and navigate the many impacts of COVID-19.
Preliminary budgets will be presented in an open meeting scheduled for Oct. 6. Departments and officials will also be given the opportunity to speak about their budget requests and justify any increases in all-day meetings on Oct. 8, 14, and 22.
In previous updates to county commissioners, Coroner Warren McLeod has spoken about his proposed increase for 2021. The $375,600 request would allow five deputy coroners currently characterized as “casual help” to become full-time employees. Budget Manager Becky Butler said it’s one of the most significant requests the county will have to address.
McLeod described employees in question as spread thin, on-call for 24 hours at a time on the weekend, with no benefits or regular days off.
“The job they do is far from casual,” McLeod said, noting the recent increase in investigations his office has to respond to. “They pay for their own cell phones, they buy their own uniforms most of the time. It comes to a point where some pay periods they pay us to do the work, and this is important work … the bulk of the investigations are done by the deputies.”
As casual help, the deputy coroners can only earn $15.50 per hour, plus a stipend for their on-call days, according to McLeod.
“There’s no doubt this is a big ask, financially,” McLeod said. “But we’re way behind the times.”
The county’s total annual budget normally falls around $127 million, but COVID-19 and other factors have led to significant shortfalls. The general fund, about $41 million largely funded by property and sales tax, is down about $600,000 compared to June 2019, according to Butler.
In a letter to elected officials and department directors sent last month, County Manager Erik Martin described how the pandemic has impacted the county.
“The stay at home order, intended to slow the spread of the virus, has had a direct and negative impact on the county in the form of reduced revenue, including sales and use tax, motor vehicle fuel tax, hotel/motel tax as well as reduced court fines and fees due to limitations on court proceedings,” the letter reads. “Counties and cities will be forced to make very difficult decisions over the next several months, and possibly years.”
On Tuesday, Butler told commissioners that another significant shortfall is the decrease in jail revenue this year, since neighboring counties have increased their capacity and no longer need Lewis County’s supplemental help.
But county officials also pointed to a decreasing rate of unemployment and slowly recovering sales tax revenue as signs of hope.
Meanwhile, Lewis County is also working on its quarterly budget adjustment for the 2020 budget.
Major amendments will include a $365,000 increase for election costs due to increased participation in the August primary and a $125,000 increase to cover indigent defense, family law, and guardianship court cases.
The expenditures are balanced by other revenue increases, such as an unexpected increase in timber revenue. The county was also able to use the Coronavirus Relief Fund to cover the salaries of employees “substantially dedicated” to responding to COVID-19.
A meeting to discuss relevant budget amendments will be held Sept. 28.