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story.lead_photo.caption Flags flutter in strong winds Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at the Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.
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Be mindful of your spending during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cole County commissioners noted in a message sent out this week to all department heads.

County Auditor Kristen Berhorst said the county expects to see a drop in sales tax revenues due to many businesses having to shut down or greatly reduce operations because of the pandemic; the message to county staff was to reduce or stop spending when possible.

"So far, we haven't seen the effects of the pandemic on our revenues because there is a two-month lag in receiving sales tax dollars," Berhorst said. "Businesses complete their sales tax calculations for the month and then turn that over to the state. Then the Department of Revenue calculates and distributes to each political entity their portion of sales tax dollars. So that's about a two-month period. What we got in sales tax dollars in April was actually from February's revenues. The March sales tax distributions wouldn't come in until May."

In January, the County Commission approved an $88.8 million budget that included a 3 percent pay raise for all 315 full-time employees of the county, Berhorst said. Part-time employees did not get raises.

"I don't think the raises would be affected at this point," she said.

The county's three half-cent sales taxes (capital improvements, law enforcement and EMS) brought in a total of $19,521,399 by the end of 2019, Berhorst said. At the time the budget passed, Berhorst expected the same amount would be collected in 2020.

"Sales taxes are 42 percent of county revenue," she said. "We were projecting flat sales tax growth for 2020 at the time and actually over the first two months of this year we saw a small increase."

Berhorst said the departments affected by the three sales taxes (public works, sheriff's department and EMS) have all been directed by the commission to come up with a contingency plan with a list of projects that could be delayed due to a severe drop in funds.

"We also had $1.5 million in our general fund for capital improvement projects and spending from that has also been put on hold due to the pandemic," she said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Berhorst said, commissioners put in $10,000 in the general revenue fund, $10,000 in sheriff's budget and $50,000 in the EMS budget to specifically be used for COVID-related expenses.

As of Thursday, Berhorst said, EMS had spent about $24,000 of its amount and $500 had been spent that was put in general revenue fund. She said she hadn't seen figures yet from the sheriff's department, but she added these numbers are "ever changing."

Berhorst said while they have run some models for months where they are predicting losses of revenue, they don't have a good indication of how bad things could be.

"In talking with other county officials and hearing reports from other counties the estimated losses have been at 50-80 percent, but those are just a guesses," Berhorst said. "You have to look at several factors such as how many businesses had to completely close and was there enough of an uptick from other businesses that stayed opened which could cover the losses from the other business."

Berhorst said there are measures are in place to try and make sure county government continues to function as normally as possible.

"We do have healthy reserves so if we need to get into those we can," she said. "The state requires a 3 percent reserve in each spending fund that the county controls. Most of those reserves in our funds is greater than 10 percent."

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