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Expecting the worst, Roanoke County instead finds itself with $14 million surplus - and more

Expecting the worst, Roanoke County instead finds itself with $14 million surplus - and more

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An extensive, expensive list of government projects needs catching up with, but Roanoke County officials said an almost $14 million surplus, plus millions in federal coronavirus relief money, will help fill some of those gaps.

When the coronavirus outbreak began nationwide in early 2020, the county planned for the worst of economic impacts. Officials slashed the county’s operating budget, laid off part-time employees and deferred many planned projects, anticipating a severe financial downturn.

“We had no way of knowing what the true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be,” said Finance Director Laurie Gearheart. “The economy has performed better than anyone predicted, which has led us to significant available funds.”

Local tax revenue was expected to decline during the 2020-21 government year, which ended in June. But the county wound up collecting about $11.5 million more tax money than planned, documents show.

“We’ve been blessed to perform better than we have expected,” said Jason Peters, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “There is a windfall here.”

Personal property tax collections were $4.4 million higher than budgeted, owed largely to the fact that many used vehicles appreciated in value in 2020, said Assistant County Administrator Richard Caywood. Sales tax revenue came in almost $1.7 million over expectations, and real estate tax collections were $1.3 million over estimates, according to county documents.

Combined with some operational savings, the county wound up with nearly $14 million in surplus funds when the 2021 government year ended, documents show.

Further bolstering the county coffers are funds from federal coronavirus relief programs, including the first half of $18 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The extra money is fortunate, officials said, because there exists in Roanoke County a laundry list of unfunded requests and outstanding projects.

More than $3 million worth of new fire trucks, garbage trucks and ambulances are needed, a combined $2.5 million of air conditioning updates are requested between more than one facility, and the county’s cyber security system needs a $500,000 upgrade, among dozens of other various needs and requests, documents show.

Those requests, some as small as $6,300, all add up. Combined, the lingering needs of the county government total about $30 million, estimated Assistant County Administrator Rebecca Owens.

The supervisors were briefed on the surplus during its meeting Tuesday afternoon, and more updates on that extra year-end money are expected in October. Supervisors are simultaneously discussing with staff how to spend the money from ARPA.

“We need to be looking at citizen-forward services,” Peters said. “I mean police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, trash trucks — everything we need to service our citizens.”

Peters said there should be no rush to make decisions on where the surplus money will be spent. Those funds do not need to be allocated until December, officials said.

“While we have this windfall, we need to be very strategic,” Peters said.

Supervisor Paul Mahoney said some relief should be returned to county citizens. Peters and Vice Chairman David Radford agreed, though the board acknowledged there might exist complications with state tax law.

“Yes, we can use some of this windfall for critical capital projects like fire engines, garbage trucks and police cars,” Mahoney said. “But I think our citizens would like to see a little bit of this, also.”

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