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Couch: No county tax hike this year, probably none in next 2, after ARPA
Up to $15.5M to Bulloch possible from fed ‘rescue plan’
740 4080 edit Tom Couch
Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch

With a few exceptions, the Bulloch County government’s revenues and spending have remained on track despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new multi-million-dollar infusion of federal cash is expected from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

So, Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch says there will definitely be no county tax increase this calendar year and expresses “moderate to high confidence” for none in 2022 or 2023 either.

“Definitely not this year,” he reiterated in an email Thursday.  “I don’t foresee it in 2022 or 2023, but you never know what comes up. We could have an unfunded state or federal mandate.  There could be demands by county constitutional officers…, demands for service by citizens…, other unexpected events.”

“Constitutional officers” are independently elected county department heads, such as the sheriff, tax commissioner and court officials. Examples of potential added demands from their departments would be an urgent need for a new cell pod at the jail and more jailers or for more judges to handle the courts’ caseload.

One “demand for service by citizens,” increased maintenance of dirt roads, has been discussed  almost every time the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners meets in recent months.

But a sort of “no new taxes” promise for at least this year was something new that board Chairman Roy Thompson elicited from Couch at Tuesday morning’s regular meeting.


Budget on track

This followed Assistant County Manager Andy Welch’s presentation of an update on the county’s spending and revenues to this point in the year.

With the 2021 fiscal year, which will end June 30, now two-thirds, or 66.7%, complete, 96.8% of the county’s budgeted general fund revenues have already been collected. The original, projected total was a little over $40.5 million, and almost $39.1 million has been received.

But property taxes are due in December each year, anyway, and some other funding sources simply arrived earlier in the budget year.

County officials also projected revenues conservatively and budgeted accordingly, because the COVID-19 pandemic was already unfolding when the current fiscal year’s budget was developed in spring 2020, Welch noted.

Then the county received $2.3 million in federal money under the original Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security package, the CARES Act of 2020.  After the county justified what it received on the basis of public safety expenses, the public safety category of the general fund was already at 95.2% of projected revenue by Feb. 28.

The county also received Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for previous hurricane cleanup spending. So after $809,305 total revenue was originally budgeted in the general fund for public works, the actual revenue hit $1.47 million, or 182.8% of the projected full-year total, by Feb. 28, as seen in Welch’s charts.

Recreation is the only major category of the county budget that has garnered less than two-thirds of its projected general fund revenue. After Splash in the Boro Water Park was unable to open in 2020 and other fee-based Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks & Recreation programs were curtailed because of the pandemic, recreation revenue as of Feb. 28 was $736,354, or 44% of the projected $1,672,580.

“Some of their programming is still below what was expected because of COVID, and then some of that (revenue) will be coming in with their spring sports, so we anticipate that coming up  some,” Welch  said.

At the two-thirds point in the fiscal year, recreation expenditures are also behind schedule, at  52.3% of annual  budget, but still totaled $2.93 million by Feb.  28.  The county had to make a scheduled debt payment for the Splash facility from other sources, Couch noted.


Elections & deaths

Two relatively small county departments have spent more than budgeted for reasons pertinent to 2020-2021.

After an usually full election season, capped by Georgia’s unique Jan. 5 U.S.  Senate runoff, Bulloch County Elections and Registration office expenditures ran to $370,596 by Feb. 28, or 95% more than the agency’s full-year budget of $189,877.

Meanwhile, the coroner’s office’s spending, $112,237, has surpassed its budget by 61%, attributed to additional cases.

But with 66.7% of the fiscal year now past, general fund spending by the county government as a whole amounts to $25.8 million, or only 62% of the budgeted $41.6 million.

Couch asked Welch whether, if the CARES funding were taken out and the money the county had to pay on the Splash loan were put  back into the general fund, revenues and  expenditures would be running  close to what was originally budgeted.  Welch said, “Yes,” and Couch praised the county budgeting team for their work.

 “I think we made some pretty good assumptions about how COVID would affect us here,” he said.

But a projected sharp decline in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue, which goes into a separate fund for specific projects, never occurred, he noted.


‘Simple’ question

Thompson said everybody would want to know the answer to one “simple” question he had for Couch.

“Do you anticipate, in the coming year, any type of tax increase?” the chairman asked.

“No” was Couch’s short answer, and Thompson said it was the one he was looking for.

Couch then added that “unless something really peculiar happens,” the county should be in good financial shape for at least two or three years.

After mentioning the federal stimulus money, he said the county intends to use it conservatively and wait for guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department.


Big ARPA bucks

In a follow-up interview, Couch said the Bulloch County government could receive as much as $15.5 million under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. This was based on Congressional Research Service estimates from before the law’s final passage. The money to states and counties is supposed to arrive in two installments, the first within 60 days now and the second one year later, with local governments having through 2024 to spend what they receive.

Some of the county’s share could go into community relief programs, Couch said. But whether the county will actually receive that amount and whether it can spend that much in allowed categories depends on information yet to be issued by U.S. Treasury.

“I do want to wait on Treasury guidance,” Couch wrote Thursday. “In all of ARPA, the devil is in the details. We need to master the bill, and use any money wisely. I expect maybe some unexpected expenses that may not be covered. This bill is complex.”

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