While many West Volusians are cautiously optimistic that the worst of COVID-19’s human toll in the area is in the rearview mirror, city leaders are bracing for the impact on municipal coffers.
Businesses generate revenue for local governments, and the near-shutdown of the area’s economy means lower revenues from sales tax, electric utilities, facility-rental fees and other sources of income cities use to provide services to residents.
DeLand City Manager Michael Pleus said his city could experience a 2008-style disruption to its finances, “and then some.”
“The problem right now is, we’re kind of flying in the dark. We don’t know how bad the loss of sales-tax revenue is going to be, and the state-shared revenue,” Pleus said.
Cities receive revenue shared from the state two months in arrears.
“Right now we’re trying to put together a model that we can plug into once we get the reports,” Pleus said. “We will get, this month, the numbers for March, and in June, the numbers for April.”
Pleus has experience in making tough decisions during financial crises.
Hired as DeLand’s top administrative official in 2008, he was faced with making severe cuts to staff and city services in his first year at the helm — something he fears could be on the horizon once again.
Property-tax increases aren’t out of the question, either.
“Right now, our best guess, based upon some of the percentage reductions that we saw in 2008, would be about a $500,000 to $1 million loss,” he said. “And that’s just for this year … If businesses aren’t able to get back to business, that’s what we’re dealing with.”
The city may find itself paying more money into its pension funds, as well.
“The other thing it affects is things like the actuarial contributions for the retirement funds,” he said. “When all of those portfolios are down, that means the city has to put more into retirement funds.”
The one bright spot, he said, is that property values used to calculate ad valorem property taxes haven’t dropped off yet.
Pleus, like other city managers around West Volusia, is in the process of trying to put together a draft budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Typically, a draft budget is produced by late May or June, and budget hearings before the DeLand City Commission are in July.
“There’s a lot of things that are in flux right now and we just don’t quite know,” he said. “It’s going to be a difficult budget to put together.”
Besides 2008, there’s no playbook for how to budget in the midst of a pandemic, Pleus noted.
‘PREPARE FOR THE WORST’
It’s a similar story for City Manager Dale Arrington in Orange City.
“Where I’m having a difficult time is trying to figure out how much money we will have,” she said. “I am anticipating that it will be less money, looking at revenues from what we bring in at the card room, our share of sales tax, what we bring in in gasoline tax, probably even what we bring in from our electric receipts or utility receipts is going to be less.”
Arrington estimated the city might see a 25-percent to 30-percent drop in those revenue streams.
She’s currently in the process of developing several budget and tax scenarios to present to the Orange City City Council.
“It’s hard to plan for something that has not stabilized or normalized,” Arrington said. “I’ve put together different scenarios where you look at our soft reopening as a progression, and I’d love to say that it’s just going to get better and better, and in three months we’ll be back to where this has been, but I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to be.”
“I don’t know where we’re going to be in three months or six months,” Arrington added. “Do you?”
She said she fears the prospect of a “double whammy,” if, for instance, a hurricane were to affect West Volusia in the coming months,
“This may not be the worst of it. I pray and hope it is, but what happens if we get a bad hurricane on top of this? What happens if the resurgence that some people are saying is going to happen because we’re opening up too fast, or a terrible flu season, happens at the same time?”
Such scenarios have been keeping managers like Pleus and Arrington up at night.
“I think what is really clear is, nobody’s sure what the outcome is going to be,” Arrington said. “So, my motto has been to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.”
‘ALL OPTIONS ARE ON THE TABLE’
Interim Deltona City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper had city spokesman Lee Lopez answer a few of The Beacon’s questions.
“The city is anticipating some level of financial impact; however, there are not enough statistics at this point from the county and the state,” Lopez said. “The finance department is still reviewing information, as well.”
Lopez said “all options are on the table” in terms of how to deal with a budgetary crisis.
“The city is still formulating which possible direction to follow, but is not ready to present it to the public at this time,” Lopez wrote in an email.
He said Cooper and his city-manager cohorts participate in a conference call with managers from all of the county’s municipalities, as well as county officials, three mornings a week to share thoughts and strategies about what’s going on.
CONSERVATIVE BUDGETS ON THE HORIZON
On the opposite side of the population spectrum, in Lake Helen, City Administrator Becky Witte said she anticipates a lesser impact than some of the larger cities. For one, she pointed to reserve funds the city has built up over the past several years.
“Lake Helen may experience a mild reduction in revenue from decreased sales tax, but we anticipate seeing less of an impact than the larger municipalities,” Witte said, adding, “That being said, we won’t know the true financial impact of this pandemic for a few months.”
Witte said the budget for the next fiscal year “will be conservative” to minimize borrowing from the reserve funds.
She also praised the communication and collaboration that goes on between the area’s managers.
“The communication and collaboration between Lake Helen and other Volusia County cities has been outstanding,” she said. “Together, the 16 city leaders and Volusia County emergency management have prepared, discussed and started implementation of the unified plan to reopen Volusia County.”
Witte said she is fortunate to be able to participate in the thrice-weekly calls, where the managers air out their “respective policies, opinions and difficulties” and work collaboratively to find solutions.
STRONG FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT
In DeBary, City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said he feels his city is well-prepared to take a fiscal hit from the COVID-19 crisis.
“Through some strong financial management, we have prepared for a revenue loss, we have put $750,000 into cash reserves from our budget last year,” he said. “We had a surplus of $1.6M in revenues, and that was from additional revenues and budget cutting.”
DeBary, which has the lowest property-tax rate in the county at 3.5 mills, is even aiming to lower its millage rate in next year’s budget, to 2.9247.
Rosamonda said the city isn’t going to let any employees go, either. He also projects a relatively quick recovery in sales-tax revenue, as businesses reopen.
“For next year’s budget, we’ll adjust accordingly. We’ll resurface fewer roads,” he said. “… I anticipate the economy will come back, and we’ll probably see a dip here on sales-tax revenues for the next three to four months, and then we’ll see a steady rise.”
And as in West Volusia’s other cities, Rosamonda said he meets regularly with staff from all of Volusia County’s municipalities, along with county government officials.
“The communication between the 16 cities and the county has been spectacular,” he said.