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WNC Counties Brace For Budget Cuts, Despite COVID-19 Relief Funding

Abby Bishop
Near Pisgah Forest in Transylvania County. County Commissioner Page Lemmel says the county will face budget cuts.

Across the country, counties expect to have to tighten their budgets this year because of the COVID-19 health crisis.  

The National Association of Counties estimates that by 2021 counties will have lost $144 billion dollars.  This is due to the compounded impact of funding spent fighting COVID-19 and losses in revenue such as local sales taxes.  

This is the case in Transylvania County, explains County Commissioner Page Lemmel. She says the county budget will look very different this year: 

“What’s going on is the expense that we have had in acquiring the PPE that folks need and getting set up to handle the needs of our citizens. So we are pretty confident that we are going to end up with a budget deficit for this fiscal year,” says Lemmel.  

The National Association of Counties explains that another reason for this loss of revenue is because of each county’s responsibility to respond to the health care needs.

“Counties are on the front lines of addressing the far-reaching health, safety and economic impacts of COVID-19, and we urge the administration and Congress to unite in supporting relief efforts on the ground,” says Matthew Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties in a press release.  

This month, the North Carolina General Assembly announced how the state’s about $4 billion in federal funding from the CARES Act would be dispersed across the state for COVID-19 relief. 

About $2 billion of the funding was set aside for a future round of relief funding. 

The largest counties were allotted separately: Guilford County will receive $93.7 million, Wake County will receive $194 million and Mecklenburg County will receive $193.8 million. The rest of the 97 counties in the state will receive about $150 million that was disbursed based on population and other factors. Each county was guaranteed at least $250,000 dollars.

Transylvania County received over $800,000 in funding.

“I don't know if there will ever be enough quite frankly because the needs shift,” says Lemmel, who is also state chair of the health and human services steering committee of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. "But $809,000 dollars - that is substantial for our citizens in comparison to what we potentially would have to do to make up for our budget deficits."

County governments are starting to think about next year's budget as the fiscal year ends on June 30. Lemmel explains that one of the only sources of revenue that is guaranteed for a county is the property tax base. 

Lemmel says that the funding for Transylvania County is well over the amount that increasing the property tax by one cent would have brought into the budget. 

“It would be just hitting people when they are down to look at any additional tax levies,” says Lemmel. 

Lemmel and two of her colleagues on the county board of commissioners left the Republican Party last year. Lemmel is now an Independent. But she says right now is not a time to focus on politics. 

 “I truly maintain that politics doesn’t belong on the local level,” says Lemmel. “COVID-19  is not political. It’s not hitting Republican’s versus Democrats. It’s not selecting who it chooses to touch at this point.” 

North Carolina also allocated funds for other specific pots of CARES Act funding to health, education, rural hospitals, rural broadband and more. 

Here’s the full chart of the disbursements for each county:

Credit Courtesy of the NC League of Municipalities
Here is the full breakdown of how much each county received. Click the image to enlarge.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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