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Ahoskie plays ‘wait-and-see’ with new budget

AHOSKIE – With the start of a new fiscal year for local government entities less than seven weeks away, managers are facing difficult challenges of building an annual budget without knowing what the future may hold in these times of COVID-19.

One such local administrator – Ahoskie Town Manager Kerry McDuffie – said he’s feeling that pressure….one involving an uncertain financial future.

“This is the hardest budget I’ve ever attempted to write,” said the veteran municipal manager. “No one has figured out what our local, state and national economic picture will look like whenever COVID-19 finally decides to loosen its stranglehold on us. Right now one of the only things we are assured of is we’re going to take a hit on what we receive by way of state sales tax. Everybody is in that same boat.”

There are estimates of municipalities and counties seeing as much as 20-to-40 percent reduction in state sales tax. That’s due to lagging retail sales caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

McDuffie said he has chosen to base the town’s FY 2020-21 revenue the exact same as the current year budget.

“We’re going to work off the basis of existing revenue and make cuts in spending,” he stated.

McDuffie presented his ideas to the Ahoskie Town Council at their regularly scheduled meeting earlier this week.

“I told them at this point that it’s a waiting game, waiting to see if the economy recovers and the timing of that recovery,” McDuffie stated.

The manager also informed the Town Council members that he is recommending the FY 2020-2021 budget include a hiring freeze, with the exception of one police officer.

“We were looking at giving our employees a 2.3 percent cost of living salary adjustment,” McDuffie noted. “I’m going to include that in the new budget, but recommend not to implement that raise until we see how the economy recovers.”

That wait-and-see approach will also be in place for another planned addition to the new budget.

“At our last meeting, the Council agreed to slightly increase the operating budget of the town’s library by allowing it to be open for four hours on Saturdays,” McDuffie said. “The additional funds for that purpose will be included in the new budget, but will not be expended until we get a better feel on how the economy is recovering.”

Another item impacting the FY 2020-2021 budget is medical insurance premiums for town employees and retirees. McDuffie said those premiums, paid 100 percent by the town for its 56 workers/retirees, were projected to increase from $881 to $1,129 monthly under the town’s current insurance provider.

“We found a new provider – MedCost – through the North Carolina League of Municipalities with a lower monthly rate over what our current provider was asking,” McDuffie stated.

He said MedCost’s monthly premiums are $950 per employee/retiree.

“Yes, that’s higher than what we’re paying now, but much lower – $179 per month lower – than what our current provider wanted us to pay beginning July 1,” McDuffie stressed.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing on the FY 2020-21 budget at their next regularly scheduled meeting on June 9. Unless the Council members decide to approve an interim budget, the new one is required to be in place by July 1.

“We’re just going to hunker down for now and watch the bottom line very closely,” McDuffie concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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