TUPELO • Even as cities across the region are cutting budgets and furloughing employees, counties will likely face a more slowly unfolding fiscal impact linked to the COVID-19 pandemic with consequences that may not manifest themselves for months.

To date, Lee County government has not incurred significant costs related to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, said Bill Benson, the chancery clerk and county administrator.

“Not a huge amount,” Benson said of expenses. “Not break the bank.”

But there have been expenses, mostly from overtime pay and the materials needed to install shields of plastic sheeting throughout county offices.

Most cleaning of county offices was done with county employees, but Benson said an external cleaning company was used at the Lee County Department of Human Services.

Revenue outlook for the future should also be more stable than that of municipalities. Cities receive sales tax revenue, whereas counties rely exclusively on property tax revenues.

As businesses have temporarily closed or seen sales slow, cities are bracing for a decline in revenue. The region’s economic and retail hubs, such as Tupelo and Oxford, could be particularly impacted in the short term.

Counties face a longer timeline to discern consequences.

“You don’t know what expenses will get pushed back to the counties,” Benson said.

Health services, libraries, even some road repair and other county services all receive significant funds from the state, which will itself face revenue decline in the coming months.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation is funded through a gas tax, and a decline in driving could also eventually squeeze the road repair programs of county governments.

At the same time, online sales taxes and lottery revenues are earmarked for road repair, and the pandemic’s impact on those activities could be varied.

The state’s fiscal year begins July 1, and a state budget will be in place by then.

For now, uncertainty remains the order of the day. According to Benson, there’s not much chatter in county circles to guide planning for the immediate future.

“There’s not a lot of discussion of it right now,” Benson said.

Even so, county government is taking steps to prepare should opportunities arise to recoup any expenses. On Monday, the Lee County Board of Supervisors authorized SCHAUS Professional Services to handle necessary paperwork should the Federal Emergency Management Agency make money available for COVID-19 mitigation response through its normal emergency response process.

Benson said there is much that remains unknown about how the federal government will continue to distribute aid to local and state governments beyond the CARES Act.

The county already holds a contract with SCHAUS to handle disaster declaration filings for tornados, storms and other events that typically receive reimbursement through FEMA.

Counties and cities alike will begin crafting budgets for the next fiscal year in late summer, and must approve them in September.


Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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