R2: 20-21 budget OK; 21-22 may not be

COLUMBIA – Richland Two doesn’t anticipate any tax increases or job losses in next year’s budget beset by the COVID-19 pandemic.

District officials, however, cautioned that both actions remain a distinct possibility in the 2021-2022 budget.

“2020-2021 ought to be fine,” said Dr. Harry Miley, the district’s chief financial officer. “2021-2022 may be the more difficult year.”

The news came during a special meeting Tuesday night in which board members received a budget update via the Zoom conferencing app. The Voice remotely attended the roughly 20-minute meeting.

Though audio was low and pictures were pixilated, staff provided the clearest picture yet on the district’s projected budget, which has been placed on pause pending adoption of a state budget.

Normally the General Assembly adopts its budget by June 30, a process that helps local school districts develop their budgets.

Miley, though, said state lawmakers aren’t expected to return to session until at least September 15. In April, the Richland Two board passed a continuing resolution to continue funding district operations at 2020-2021 levels.

Based on that timetable, Miley estimated that Richland County likely wouldn’t set millage rates until October, meaning the district’s budget likely won’t be finalized until October or November.

Early economic indicators look grim, however.

Overall revenue is down $48.3 million largely due to reductions in corporate income and license taxes. Sales tax revenues plunged nearly 26 percent in March 2020 alone, according to state budget figures.

General fund revenue is down almost 43%, partially due to tax filing deadline extension to July 15, budget figures show.

On the flip side, the district received encouraging news from Richland County.

The Richland County Auditor’s Office projects a nearly $1.45 million increase in revenues resulting from increased assessed values at the current millage rate of 331.7 mills.

Additionally, property tax relief revenues have been projected to increase by almost $1.18 million, according to district estimates.

The state also adopted its own continuing budget resolution, which suspends step increases until the budget is approved. It also delays a 1% increase in retirement contributions until next year.

With an additional $2.6 million available locally, and two state earmarks on hold for several months, the district doesn’t plan to increase taxes.

Furloughs and/or layoffs also aren’t expected. Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis delivered that news in response to a question from board trustee Lindsay Agostini, who asked if jobs were in jeopardy. Davis said he doesn’t anticipate an impact on those currently employed, but also noted that could change in future budget cycles.

“We may have to do some other things in preparation for the 2021-2022 budget,” Davis said. “It’s going to be prudent upon us to be very conservative in some of the things that we do as we prepare for the 2021-2022 budget.”

Agostini then asked if positions would be eliminated by attrition. Davis said that’s a possibility, but also noted that new growth could generate revenue sufficient to support filling vacant positions.

How and when students return to school could also impact some positions, Davis added.

“We also have growth positions. A lot of that depends on what decisions are made on how we return back to school,” he said. If we stagger start times, we may need some additional employees.”