WINDSOR – The Bertie County Commissioners held a public hearing Monday night for the proposed 2021-2022 fiscal year budget.

During the presentation, Bertie County Manager Juan Vaughan, II., said there had been several work sessions to look at the budget, and several changes had been made.

“The updated proposed budget does not include a tax rate increase. It does include a one percent cost-of-living adjustment. One percent is better than no percent,” he added.

Line item adjustments were made to emergency services, 9-1-1 and the sheriff’s office.

“Some cuts were made to make the budget work,” Vaughan continued.

Bertie County received $1.8 million from the American Rescue Plan.

According to Vaughan, part of this funding is proposed to be used for payroll expenses during the COVID-19 pandemic. The amount to be used is approximately $411,000.

“We are proposing to give $1,500 bonuses to all Bertie County employees for their dedication and service during COVID-19. This leaves approximately $1 million for next fiscal year,” said Vaughan.

The remaining funds would be used for other projects, including updates to the animal control shelter, new voting machines for the Bertie County Board of Elections and new software.

Vaughan said it was also recommended to hold some of the funding for matching grants for projects such as broadband.

“We have cut the budget by approximately $540,000. We took action so we can make a surplus, which goes into the account the state says we must do. We had to spend money in the courthouse and the county jail,” he continued.

Over the last few years, Bertie County had incurred expenses to its General Fund Balance for unforeseen circumstances like natural disasters, and construction updates to the Bertie County Courthouse and Bertie-Martin Regional Jail.

“We are still waiting on grant funding reimbursement for some of these projects. We must still pay for the projects upfront and wait for grant funding,” said Bertie County Commission Vice Chairman John Trent.

“The Local Government Commission (LGC) is looking at us hard because the fund balance is where it is,” Vaughan added.

“I went into this budget die hard for the county employees to receive more than one percent. But after looking at the incurred expenses and the need to save funding I understand now. The county incurred debt from taking over the water systems for three towns. I am just glad the tax rate did not go up. Bertie County employees would be receiving a premium pay bonus. Martin County employees did not receive premium pay,” said Bertie County Commissioner Ron Roberson.

Bertie County Department of Social Services employee April Graham expressed her concerns to the board.

“I came to speak about an increase, and I have already heard what you have to say. I feel like the department of social services is at the bottom of the totem pole. We don’t feel like we get treated fairly,” she continued.

“We have made some salary adjustments,” said Bertie County Commission Chair Tammy Lee.

“It is amazing to see the budgets. Some are making 200 percent more and does not need it. Some like me make a lot less,” Graham replied.

“I think we should ask our human resources department to look at the salary ranges for the department of social services, and look into future changes,” Roberson added.

According to Vaughan, there have been salary compression issues with the department of social services, and there was a meeting with the previous county manager.

Retired Bertie County employee, Bonita Henderson asked if the $1,500 bonus pay would be given to only current employees or also to those that may have retired during COVID-19.

“I was there during COVID-19, and have recently retired. Why can’t those who retired get the bonus?” Henderson added.

According the Vaughan, any employee that worked during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also retired in that timeframe would not be eligible for the bonus. It is only for current Bertie County employees.

“I have been with the county for 26 years. I have trained new employees in Hertford County in my position who start making more money than me. Those in Martin County make more money than me. I have never had a merit raise. To me it is just not fair,” said Bertie County Employee Bonita Thompson.

“I hear the concerns loud and clear. We can only spend what we receive. Some years we had to spend more than $1 million. The LGC says we must have an eight percent fund balance we are lucky if we have four percent. I wish we could do more,” said Bertie County Commissioner Ron Wesson.

The LGC recommends each individual county government maintain at least eight percent of its fund balance. If it falls below the recommended percent, the LGC begins to question the decrease and where the funding is going.

“I believe 1 percent is better than nothing, but all of the employees in this county are important. Every now and then throw the dog a snack, and we want a snack. Each of the commissioners should walk around and see what we do. Most things in our office comes in electronically,” said Bertie County Register of Deeds Annie Wilson.

Bertie County Department of Social Services employee Ruth Davidson asked if the workers would receive an increase in funding if the state increased its funding amount?

“No, it does not work that way,” answered Vaughan.

“Will the premium pay be taxed?” asked 25-year employee of Bertie County Department of Social Services Stephanie Bell.

“Yes, it will be taxed,” answered Vaughan.

“I will ask if someone could come and speak with us. Not everyone can come to the board meetings,” Bell continued.

“I have just not wanted to interrupt your day,” said Lee.

“The only way employees receive raises is across the board. We have not been giving merit pay increases. We need a system to reward superior performance. I would love to find the money to do so,” said Roberson. “This is something for us to look at, but we need to the funding is in place. Give us another chance, and lets all stay positive.’

“I get the phone calls, and I hear the frustrations,” Lee added.

“I would like to see funding spend on a project the citizens would like to see done. We all have concerns and would love to have our voices heard,” said Bertie County citizen Vivian Clark.

“Unfortunately the first half of the funding has already been budgeted for projects. We will be getting another $1.6 million in funding We should meet with the citizens to get an understanding of how to spend the additional dollars,” Wesson closed.

The Bertie County Commissioners did not take any action on the proposed 2021-2022 fiscal year budget. They agreed to meet again before the ribbon cutting of the Bertie County Public Library/Cooperative Extension Building to discuss the concerns of the citizens and possibly approve the budget.

However, Trent made a motion to approve the spending of the American Rescue Act funding. Wesson offered a second. It was unanimously approved.

With the approval of the American Rescue Act funding, Bertie County can provide the $1,500 premium pay bonus to its employees.

Leslie Beachboard can be reached via email at lbeachboard@ncweeklies.com.

Thadd White is Editor of the Bertie Ledger-Advance and can be reached via email at twhite@ncweeklies.com.