By Carol Vaughn —
Accomack County’s Board of Supervisors began work on the fiscal year 2022 budget this week, after receiving a presentation from County Administrator Mike Mason of his proposed budget.
Mason thanked “the county’s team of hardworking men and women who have overcome the operational challenges the last difficult year has presented,” saying, “I am amazed by their resilience, adaptability and drive to deliver the services our customers depend on.”
The proposed $64.4 million budget includes nearly $4 million in capital expenditures — including $1.3 million for closure of a cell at the northern landfill and money toward constructing a new cell — and $56.6 million in the operating budget, along with $3.8 million for debt service.
No tax or fee increases are proposed.
Still, Mason said the budget as proposed “does not enable us” to be “an adaptable government, one that finds efficient ways to implement the services we need today and those that residents will demand tomorrow.”
Without more revenue, the proposed budget “focuses our county departments at best on maintaining and in some cases regressing,” Mason said.
“Quite frankly, as presented, it is a budget that will likely create a larger problem to solve” in the next few years, Mason said, noting things like capital maintenance and replacement and operational needs including for more full-time positions will not go away.
Mason said the budget “is now becoming structurally imbalanced,” largely due to the fact that the tax rate has not been increased since 2016.
Accomack County ranks 13th out of 19 peer counties for real estate tax rate, which is the same ranking as last year, according to Mason, who noted neighboring Northampton County’s rate if $0.835 per $100 of assessed value and Worcester County, Md., has a rate of $0.845, compared to Accomack’s rate, $0.61.
The “structurally imbalanced” budget situation does not stem from the COVID-19 pandemic, as county revenues remained relatively stable except during Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order and revenue growth is projected for 2022, Mason said.
“I certainly understand the board’s position to keep resident taxes at a minimum, especially during a pandemic, so I have delivered such a budget tonight, but nevertheless, this position produces a depleted budget, which is starved of resources needed to move us forward, void of additional staff, lacking dedicated funding to maintain our equipment and our infrastructure, (and) missing significant opportunities to prepare and advance our most important asset — our employees,” Mason said.
The county has an unassigned fund balance of around $2.3 million, which can be used for one-time initiatives, and available operating funds of around $937,000, compared to requests from departments and agencies for $18.5 million in additional funding.
Just over 41% of local tax dollars go to the public school district, which according to a longstanding formula would receive an additional $468,000 from the county next year.
The budget as proposed includes a 2% pay raise for county employees or targeted salary increases for public safety employees starting Aug. 1, which was removed from this year’s budget because of the pandemic.
No new positions are proposed, but one vacant position is proposed to be transferred to the Building and Zoning Department for dangerous building enforcement, which Mason said “is becoming a major issue.”
Mason detailed around $1.5 million in needed maintenance, repairs, and equipment replacement, including $652,000 for roofs, including for the General District Court building, and generators and $245,400 for 911 Center equipment replacement and maintenance.
The proposed budget all but eliminates the planned contribution to the rainy day fund, which puts an indefinite hold on the board’s goal of increasing the balance to 16.7% of revenues by 2024.
The contribution to the fund would have been around $900,000 to keep on track.
“Really, we can’t do that and maintain our assets — our maintenance on our buildings, infrastructure, and equipment — at the moment. It really comes down to one or the other,” Mason said, adding, “…This money that would normally go perhaps to being put away for a rainy day is now being put away for the rain that’s coming now and the maintaining of all our different assets in the county.”
“It’s much better…to hear that than it would be that you have to draw out of the rainy day fund to keep our operations going,” said Supervisor Robert Crockett, adding, “I know it’s bad that we can’t contribute, but we have been going through a pandemic.”
“We ARE in a rainy day. …We’re in a situation where we may need to use part of that…That’s what it was set up for,” said Supervisor Donald L. Hart Jr.
Mason told the board the county is “in desperate need for some more FTEs (full-time employees) in multiple departments,” noting the budget does not include funding for any.
“There’s considerable stress on internal service departments such as IT (information technology), HR (human resources), and finance,” he said.
Mason’s presentation included two options for potential sources of additional revenue — a cigarette tax and a meals tax.
A cigarette tax, which recent state legislation allows the county to impose now, could in a conservative estimate generate $422,000 a year, and perhaps more, taking into account Accomack’s location on the Maryland state line, which makes it a destination for cigarette sales.
Still, money would be required up front to implement the tax, either by hiring additional staff and finding them office space or by forming or finding a regional board to administer the tax, similar to what happens in Northern Virginia.
It likely would be no sooner than early 2022 before the tax could be implemented.
The county by state law is allowed to impose a food and beverage tax of up to 6%, but the tax applies only to businesses outside incorporated towns.
Northampton County has a meals tax, as do most Accomack County towns, including Chincoteague.
The estimated revenue would be $300,000, at a 5% rate, according to Mason.
The board was scheduled to receive department and agency presentations Thursday, Feb. 10, and will continue budget discussions at the regular meeting Wednesday, Feb. 17, when the school board will present its budget request.