By Cindy Jackson
September 10, 2020
It’s that time of year when many State and local authorities are knee-deep in the budgeting process. Nassau County is no different with a fiscal year which runs from October 1 thru September 30th.
Almost needless to say, COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on every single personal checking account, every business (be it large or small) and each and every government entity. Nassau County is no exception.
In addition to helping the Nassau County community cope with the harsh realities of the pandemic vis a vis the creation of new programs and the rules and regulations associated with such — i.e. CARES funding for instance – (for both individuals and small businesses) — there is also the huge and daunting task of budgeting for the future made all the more difficult when the future is oh so uncertain.
Enter Nassau County Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Megan Diehl.
Diehl appeared before the Commissioners at a special meeting on September 9th, 2020.
First and foremost, Ms. Diehl reminded the Commissioners of the deadlines required by State statute which includes the mailing of TRIM (Truth in Millage) notices, which has already occurred. A public hearing must be held (scheduled for September 14th, 2020) and within 15 days of that public hearing, the BOCC must adopt a final millage and budget. The date for the final budget hearing is scheduled for September 28, 2020.
If those deadlines are not met, Nassau County risks being labeled an “offender,” which could involve the loss of state revenues. As Ms. Diehl later explained via email, “There’s no hard and fast dollar amount at stake. Depending on the level of noncompliance the penalty could range from re-advertisement and having to re-hold public hearings to escrow or withholding of shared revenues.” She went on to say, “to my knowledge Nassau County has not had an infraction; and certainly not in my tenure here. We have been 100% compliant with TRIM.”
During her presentation, OMB Director Diehl referenced national statistics, noting that local numbers, unemployment specifically, have been difficult to track but at the national level, the unemployment rate is expected to be at 9%, citing a Bloomberg Economics Study. That study also noted that there is a 40% chance of another recession occurring in the next 12 months.
Her summary was not all doom and gloom, however, as she announced, “We did get some good news from the Department of Revenue.” Updated revenue estimates, provided in August 2020, show that Nassau County should see an increase of about $1.3 million across all three ad valorem taxing funds, the bulk of which will go to the General Fund with $1.03 million, $128,000 to the Municipal Service Fund (from communication services taxes and state revenue sharing) and an additional $134,000 to the Transportation Fund, from a updated gas tax estimate.
The additional $1.03 million forecasted to come in has not been allocated. Ms. Diehl outlined several options – having it remain in contingency, allocate it to emergency services or allocate to the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan).
Ms. Diehl recommended that it be allocated to emergency reserves. The BOCC voted unanimously 5-0, to do just that.
Throughout the presentation, Diehl noted that COVID is a three to five-year issue and its impacts will be felt well into the future. One particularly telling slide showed a chart that illustrated the collection of the one-cent surtax and even through 2025, the County will not be collecting the same amount as was collected in 2019.
Existing commitments are many and included among some of the “big ticket” items are:
• The maintenance of SR200, once completed, which will result in an $800,000 – $1 million on an annual basis;
• Operations and Maintenance Costs (O&M) for new parks including Tributary, William Burgess and the West Side Regional Park
• Fire and Rescue staffing plan which sees an increase in nine positions each year to keep pace with national standards
• Staffing for the new Tributary fire station (estimated to cost about $1.8 million and budgeted for FY23)
• Other increases in fixed costs
As Ms. Diehl noted, “you just can’t stop building a road in the middle of building a road.” And in that vein, also stated, “it’s great to build a fire station but it’s not so great if it sits empty.” Those comments helped to underscore what an incredibly complex process developing a budget is and the impact of COVID-19 well into the future.
Proposed solutions and cost -cutting measures to be employed by the County are:
• Frozen positions
• Reduced contractor costs
• Continuous line item review
Diehl explained the County has saved an estimated $140,000 having hired in-house engineers which has also provided more control over projects.
“Taco [Pope] and I continue to work hard to make sure we properly account for capital improvement projects. We all want parks and better roads and it all costs money on an ongoing basis and we must account for that.” Consequently, the BOCC agreed to review the CIP on a more regular basis as opposed to removing any project already approved for inclusion.
Before the meeting adjourned, Diehl complimented the constitutional officers for their assistance and participation in helping to identify cost savings within their departments. Specifically referenced were the Property Appraiser’s Office realizing savings in health insurance costs and the Sheriff’s Office, expecting, among other things, lower food costs.
To view the special budget presentation in its entirety, go to https://www.nassauclerk.com/watch-meetings/ or download the presentation here.