Many cities, counties cutting key services as COVID-19 pandemic causes budget crunches

SANFORD, N.C. (WTVD) -- With a new fiscal year on the horizon, city councils and county commissions across North Carolina are warning taxpayers about potential cuts to the services they rely upon.

And unlike what's happening in Washington, local governments lack the luxury of the Federal Reserve to create cash and make up for the sizable losses that keep mounting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think it's going to be tough if the economy doesn't turn around quickly," Lee County Manager John Crumpton told the ABC11 I-Team. "Everyone is in this planning mode; everyone is trying to figure out how to pay for things."

With a population of slightly more than 60,000 people, Lee County is home to several manufacturing plants. Its proximity to Raleigh and Fayetteville, moreover, make the county an affordable option for commuters to Research Triangle Park and Fort Bragg.

As state officials instituted lockdowns to fight the spread of the virus, however, the shopping, the eating out and much of the labor stopped, drying up the critical well of sales tax revenue that pays for things such as the sheriff's office, the court system, the health department and planning and zoning.

According to Crumpton, sales and property tax revenues account for 80 percent of the county budget -- and losses this year could be in the millions.

"We actually pulled out our playbook, the things that we did in (the Great Recession) and started implementing things like the reduction in head count, reduction in spending," Crumpton said. "We laid off 83 part-time employees and basically everything had to be run by full-time employees and then sent everyone home that we could send home."

There are several services that counties must always provide, including the courts, the sheriff, the jail, the health department and social services, among others. What's not in the mandate - and thus on the chopping block -- are things such as senior programming, parks and recreation, and libraries.

"We're not offering any athletics right now," Crumpton said. "We're offering some day-camp things for the summer but at a fraction of what we would normally do. We have drastically cut our pool hours so we can concentrate on cleaning."

Those added budget lines, too, are frequently what residents cite as critical to their high quality of life.

"That's the balancing act that all local governments across the state and country are trying to provide right now," Wayne County Manager Craig Honeycutt said. "How do you still provide the services that your citizens require and what is statutorily required and balance that vs. the cost?"

Wayne County is projecting a 10-12 percent decline in sales taxes worth up to $3 million. Honeycutt said recouping that would amount to a 3.5 cent tax increase -- and that's not something officials want to pursue.

"You have people who are unemployed, you have people who are out of work, you have businesses that are shutting down because they can't open," he said. "So, what do you do?"

Besides staff cuts and hiring freezes, Wayne County EMS made the tough call to end non-emergency transportation services.

"We really have taken a hard line this year. It really is a ripple effect for everybody, and everybody is affected by budget cuts," Honeycutt said.
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