Chesterfield County’s Board of Supervisors is on track to approve its fiscal 2021 budget in two weeks despite being in the middle of a global pandemic and a local state of emergency.
The supervisors’ meeting Wednesday night — which was streamed on YouTube and broadcast on local cable television, with socially distanced board members and a limit on in-person public comment — packed a hefty agenda. Online forms were available prior to the meeting for residents to submit questions.
In an effort to alleviate the growing impact of COVID-19 on hotels and residents, the board decided to pause any late fees or interest on unpaid lodging taxes and utility bills, a moratorium that will continue until 30 days after the state of emergency ends.
The board also passed an amendment that will provide real estate tax relief to Chesterfield residents age 65 and older, as well as residents who have disabilities. With this change, the tax relief program allows residents who make $28,000 or less to receive 100% tax relief.
In addition, the supervisors also adopted an ordinance allowing them to continue conducting government business electronically while providing public access to its meetings.
Next Wednesday, the county will reveal its revised budget, which County Administrator Joe Casey said is in the $720 million range, a nearly $50 million decrease from the initial proposal.
As for what was cut, and the impact on the highly contested topic of school funding, the answer is unclear.
“It’s complicated enough in a normal year. You throw in a global pandemic and a pretty deep recession, and it just makes it all the more complicated,” said Matt Harris, deputy county administrator.
Harris said the county is balancing dealing with the coronavirus and bracing for the economic impact, which means originally proposed staffing, including teacher positions, might be delayed.
A compensation study for Chesterfield teachers remains a priority, with an implementation target of Jan. 1, Harris said, but now “nobody can say whether that [date] still holds or not.”
If significant changes happen within the budget, the supervisors won’t adopt it before communicating the differences with residents, said Leslie Haley, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. She added that there are no anticipated teacher layoffs or cuts.
“I think we’re all upside down over this right now,” Haley said. “We’re going into this as conservatively as we can, with the ability to amend as needed.”
Harris said officials are revisiting the 2008 budget, which was put together as the Great Recession took hold, to plan accordingly. With the current volatile economy, Bermuda District Supervisor Jim Ingle suggested pushing the adoption of the budget until April 22.
The board will continue hearing feedback through its website’s online form until April 8, which is the projected date for budget approval.
The string of community meetings that customarily lead up to the adoption were made virtual on Facebook Live after the World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a pandemic. Although some residents agreed that it was a proactive, necessary approach to a public health issue, they were riled up about the limited access to board members.
“I don’t think it’s fair to make assumptions of what the community prioritizes without talking to the community first,” said Carrie Kahwajy, who added that in the virtual meetings, questions have gone unanswered.
Other Chesterfield residents, such as 73-year-old Deborah Brown, don’t have a Facebook account or access to the internet. Brown also knows people who are hard of hearing, and when presentation slides are being shown, there aren’t lips to read.
Haley, the board chairwoman, said Wednesday that the supervisors had read all of the residents’ comments, which Supervisor Jim Holland hinted were focused on education and the county’s senior residents. The comments weren’t presented at Wednesday’s meeting.