WATAUGA — With only a few more months in the 2019-20 fiscal year, local municipalities are having to adjust their budgets to brace for impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Managers of the towns and the county have been working for the past few months to set budget priorities for fiscal year 2020-21. Boone Town Manager John Ward said he and Finance Director Amy Davis would be making adjustments to revenue projections for the 2020-21 budget.
“All departments are continuing to work and prepare spending requests,” Ward said. “We will have to make adjustments but it is early on in this situation. We still have time to make adjustments before we proceed with adoptions in June.”
Ward said the town of Boone had registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency using states of emergency issued by the town, Watauga County and the state of North Carolina to file for possible reimbursement at a later date.
The Boone Town Council met with department heads in February to talk budget amounts. The Watauga County Board of Commissioners met the same month for their two-day budget retreat to discuss the following year’s budget, and staff were planned to have individual agency and department meetings throughout April to discuss budgetary needs. The county was scheduled to have its work budget session May 14-15 to hammer out budget details.
Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox said the town’s budget will see an impact from a significant reduction in sales and occupancy tax due to COVID-19. Finance Director Nicole Norman recently sent an email to departments requesting that they eliminate non-essential expenditures until the year’s end.
“The full impact is unknown as this point,” Fox said. “I would say for sure, we will begin the budget process with a focus on absolute needs and look to find some budget reengineering.”
The Blowing Rock Town Council met in early February to discuss its budget needs. On April 2, Fox said Blowing Rock staff were tracking all time and expenses impacted by COVID-19 with plans on filing for reimbursement information when the time comes.
Major projects in Blowing Rock that are in process are still on target, Fox said. This includes the Bass Lake sidewalk project and the town’s street paving project — both of those projects are bond funded from a 2014 bond issuance. Additionally, the Bass Lake sidewalk project included an 80 percent Eastern Federal Lands Access Program grant. Fox said the process and budgeting for other projects will be assessed more the further the town gets into the budget process.
For the town of Boone, Ward said the pandemic had not yet impacted the loan process from the USDA for the Howard Street project. No delays had been identified, and the town receives updates from the local USDA office on a regular basis, Ward said.
AppalCART Director Craig Hughes said low ridership due to COVID-19 would affect the company’s ability to communicate its cost effectiveness, but that he was hopeful that funding partners would understand that the low ridership correlated to the pandemic situation.
Hughes explained that some of its State Maintenance Assistance Program funding is tied to ridership. AppalCART will receive $1,098,148 in SMAP funding this year, which could decrease in 2020-21 based on decreased ridership caused by the COVID-19 event.
AppalCART has been experiencing record ridership so far this year; during the first week of Appalachian State University’s spring break ridership was around 800 trips per day and 350 on the weekend. This dropped some due to COVID-19. On a Monday and Tuesday in mid-March, AppalCART had a ridership of around 630.
Funding is allocated based on seven criteria and utilizes some key performance indicators to determine how much of the funding a system receives compared to other transit systems in the state that operate fixed routes, according to Hughes. One of those criteria considers how many trips per hour are provided for transportation systems.
“If our number of trips drops dramatically and the number of hours we operate does fall at the same rate then our score will be lower and we will not receive as much funding,” Hughes said.
During a typical school day at App State, Hughes said AppalCART will average 44 trips per hour. In mid-March, the agency experienced an average of seven trips per hour.
Another piece criteria considers AppalCART’s cost per trip. If the number of trips decreases and the cost of service does not go down at the same rate, the agency’s cost per trip will increase and its criteria will not be comparable to previous years, according to Hughes.
“A lot of this will depend on how adversely other fixed route transit systems are impacted by the COVID-19 event,” Hughes said.
According to Mass Transit magazine — a publication tracking public transportation news — the $2.2 trillion stimulus package through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that was recently signed into law contains $25 billion for transit agencies and more than $1 billion for Amtrak. Hughes said AppalCART and other transit systems across the nation have provided a list of needs and concerns to the Federal Transit Administration for funding consideration.
AppalCART plans to continue running on a break schedule until regular operations resume at App State, which mean the staff scheduling reflects summer employment levels, Hughes said. Both full-time and part-time employees are used, but there is a reduction of part-time hours and a reduction in the need for employees to work overtime to cover routes.