The COVID-19 pandemic fallout may delay Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s budget timelines and alter funding allocations, officials from both towns said.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, or coronavirus, the Town of Chapel Hill has canceled all advisory board, commission and town council meetings until further notice, including a council budget work session originally scheduled for March 18.
While these cancellations have delayed council budget discussions, Chapel Hill Business Management Director Amy Oland said town staff have been carrying out behind-the-scenes work.
“We can still be on target,” she said. “It just really depends on what’s next.”
Until this point, she said departments have put together their budget requests, and the Town has made several revenue and expenditure projections for its 2020-2021 budget. She also said staff planned to present this preliminary information to the Chapel Hill Town Council on April 13, but recent economic plunges changed their original projections.
Now, she said town staff is working to revise budget predictions and help craft the town manager’s recommended budget, which Town Manager Maurice Jones is tentatively scheduled to present to the council on May 6.
“It’s just a lot of unknowns, and those numbers were really strong before this happened, so we just don’t yet,” she said. “How long this event lasts is going to be the telling factor for what the impact’s going to be.”
Likewise, the Town of Carrboro has canceled all in-person public meetings through the end of March. Instead, they will begin holding remote council meetings Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews said these cancellations have put Carrboro’s budget process about two weeks behind schedule. The town typically works most on the budget in March, he said.
“I’ve been with the Town of Carrboro for eight years, and last week and this week are easily the busiest weeks of the budget year for me,” he said.
Right now, he said they’re trying to assess how the pandemic may affect the town’s local budgets despite limited information.
Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said she anticipates the town will lose revenue, which primarily comes from sales and property taxes.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order last week closing all sit-down services at bars and restaurants and another on Monday closing non-essential facilities like gyms, theaters and salons. Many businesses have in turn reduced their hours of operation and laid off thousands of employees.
“Our local sales tax is 8.1 percent,” Haven-O'Donnell said. “Not for this year – between now and June – but after that, we’ve got to assume that’s going to dip. Most of our revenue comes from property taxes, so what happens if somebody’s not working and can’t pay their property tax?”
She also said the pandemic may require them to prioritize measures to mitigate the health crisis and its economic damage in next year’s budget. Originally, she said the council had planned to prioritize funding to address climate change.
“We just don’t know how the execution of plans in a health crisis will affect things, and I’m not talking about whether or not we’re contributing to get masks,” she said. “I’m talking about whether or not we have to allocate money to something we had never done before and monies have to be moved for human services in a way that we have not spent it before.”
Andrews said Carrboro has been working with businesses to create a loan program to alleviate the pandemic’s financial damage.
The goal, he said, is to keep as many people employed as possible to facilitate economic recovery when the pandemic fizzles out.
“I’m really proud that we’re doing everything that we can to take this seriously and take precautionary measures,” Andrews said. “It’s a real hardship to people. It’s a real hardship to businesses, but I think that we’re doing the right thing.”
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