As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic sets in, local governments are beginning to reset budget expectations for their next fiscal year.
Perhaps no reset has been as jarring as Kings County.
Tensions over potential cuts have boiled over with three department heads – Sheriff David Robinson, District Attorney Keith Fagundes, and Assessor/Clerk-Recorder Kristine Lee – pushing back on the severity of across-the-board spending cuts.
The three agency heads sent individual letters to the Kings County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday contesting the fiscal state-of-the-county.
Fagundes and Lee’s letters were provided to The Sun.
Wednesday, Fagundes wrote, “[department] Heads and Elected Officials were informed of the usual “sky is falling” approach to budget discussions and planning process.
“However, in recent years the dire circumstance approach has never actually come to fruition,” the district attorney said. “Although we are in uncharted waters with our current experience, using drastic and morale-killing measures will only further our path into uncertainty.”
Doug Verboon, Kings County’s Board Chairman, noted that the the county’s departments were instructed to prepare two sets of proposed budgets: one reflecting a 2.5 percent reduction, another at 5 percent.
“They were resistant. Nobody wants their budget cut,” he said of the county’s agency executives. “And they tried to negotiate around it.”
“But the people that are in business that are paying your salaries had the rug pulled out from under them on March 19,” Verboon said. “They didn’t get to negotiate.”
Lee was equally nonplussed about the initial approach taken by Kings County’s administrative team.
“Undoubtedly there will be fluctuations and COVID-19 will have some effect and certainly unfortunate consequences to some of our constituents,” Lee wrote. “[But] the budget for the County of Kings is not in the dire position that is being proposed by the Administration Office.”
In her letter, Lee contested figures presented – arguing that property tax revenue increased in fiscal year 2019-2020 from the year prior and that other non-sales tax budget impacts were not as unforeseen as presented to the county’s agencies.
Verboon, for his part, contested the characterization of Kings County’s predicament. He said that the county was facing a likely $9 million budget shortfall on account of slackening tax revenues, led by a decline in sales taxes.
In his letter, Fagundes said he was surprised there would be potential discussion of a 5 percent pay cut for managers who were unrepresented by unions. Lee also disputed the need for salary cuts.
Verboon pointed out that the Kings County Board authorized a round of layoffs, aimed at dovetailing with Federal benefits being rolled out at the time, affecting 122 employees. Ultimately, County administrators scrapped the plan and pivoted to a hiring freeze.
Fagundes noted that he was “relieved and supportive that the Board would rely on a ‘hiring freeze’ rather than ‘lay-offs’ to manage any budget shortfall” at that time.”
Despite that, Verboon reiterated that the projected shortfall – communicated in a follow-up briefing on Thursday with department heads – was serious.
“If we don’t act, it’s going to get tougher,” Verboon said. “And we need to make some changes.”