COVID creates cautious approach to Williamson County budget

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By ANTHONY FLORES

GEORGETOWN — As Williamson County gets ready to release its recommended budget for 2021 this month and vote on the final budget in August, the big question is: What role does the COVID-19 pandemic play in the process?

Preparation for the county budget begins in February when the budget office meets with county commissioners for direction and guidance.

“At that point, it was business as usual. We talked about different issues like new positions, compensation increases, healthcare increases and we left that meeting with direction,” said County Budget Officer Ashlie Koenig. “What the court did later was put an item on the agenda when COVID hit and said they wanted to revisit things. At that point, they directed the budget office not to recommend any new positions or new programs.”

Because uncertainties with COVID-19 and its impact on revenue for 2021, county commissioners are pushing departments to be conservative in their proposals.

“Our instruction to those that are putting together their budgets needed to take a very cautious and conservative approach to what they were submitting,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long. “It would be doubtful that we will increase staff or programs going forward into next year. There are way too many unknowns at this point as to what the impact would be on county revenues going forward.”

Long expects to see the proper impact of COVID-19 once property taxes are collected in January 2021.

“A vast majority of county revenue comes from property taxes, and those taxes are usually collected by January at the latest every year,” she said. “So, we really won’t see the impacts until mid-next year of whether COVID had an impact on the values on people’s residences or businesses.”

While property taxes make up the most substantial chunk, the county revenue is also made up of court fines and fees.

“You’re looking at a wide array of revenue. So, you’re looking at property taxes and fines and fees, which have come down drastically,” Koenig said. “The other portion of revenue is investment income, revenue received from investments. COVID could impact all of these numbers. We need to be as conservative as possible until we know the impact.”

One of the most significant changes Koenig said will need to be continually addressed heading into next year is the increased need for technology.

“What I’m seeing is we’re looking at a lot of technology needs that are different than they’ve looked in the past because we have people working from home,” she said. “The biggest asks are going to be in the area of technology. IT is working hard right now to put together some lists of needs.”

Despite the pandemic, the budget is on the same track as it usually would be. The budget office is determined to remain on schedule.

“There haven’t been any setbacks. When the court revisited their directives for our office, they made it very clear that they didn’t want any hiccups,” said Koenig.

The total budget for 2020 was $393,843,886. The goal for the budget office is to match that number or get under it if possible. Once the proposed budget is released on July 23, there will be a series of workshops to discuss and adjust the recommended budgets for the County Commissioners’ final vote in August.

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