Editorial: Coping with budget gaps
A quick scan of recent stories from around the state shows that Rowan County and the city of Salisbury have ample company as they grapple with projected budget shortfalls ó and in fact, they appear to be in better shape than some other governments.
Compared to Mecklenburg County’s $90 million budget shortfall, Rowan’s $1 million and Salisbury’s $1.7 million shortfalls appear painful, but relatively manageable.
Wake County officials are facing a $23 million shortfall, which has prompted the county manager there to feeze about 250 vacant position while also asking county departments to reduce expenses by 4 percent for the remainder of the fiscal year.
With counties and cities across the state facing declining revenues and dramatic belt-tightening as the economic downturn deepens, here are how some counties are dealing with the crisis, according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners:
– In Macon County, facing a $1.4 million shortfall, the county manager asked department heads to find ways to cut back without reducing services or eliminating positions. That staved off imminent cutbacks but more adjustments are expected to needed as the year progresses.
– Columbus County commissioners voted last month to ask all departments except schools to reduce spending by 5 percent for the remainder of the fiscal year. Two weeks later, they reduced that number to 2.5 percent but asked the county and city school systems and the community college to participate. According to County Manager Bill Clark, when some departments couldn’t do the 2.5 percent, other departments generously volunteered to make larger cuts so that critical services would not be affected.
– Lincoln and Pasquotank counties instituted mandatory furloughs for county employees. Pasquotank employees will be taking four unpaid days off ó one per month through April, a move that will save the county an estimated $100,000. Many Lincoln County employees will be taking one unpaid leave day every two weeks until the end of the June to help wipe out a $2.2 million deficit for the current year.
Here, city and county officials are considering or have implemented similar strategies. The county earlier enacted a hiring freeze and a 5 percent cut in departmental spending. In briefing commissioners on the rocky road ahead, County Manager Gary Page noted that the county at least has some options: Although it may be necessary to have employees take unpaid furlough days, it also has a healthy fund balance of $20 million.
Commissioners obviously should dip into the fund balance only as a last resort, since no one knows how much worse this downturn may get or how long it will last. But dipping into it should be an option, along with furloughs and further cuts. In talking about Salisbury’s situation and the reductions and project delays that may be necessary, City Manager David Treme said, “Nothing’s sacred.” While no one likes the idea of furloughs, staff reductions or reduced services, everything has to be on the table.