CHATHAM, Va. — Chatham Town Council's finance committee met Monday evening to discuss the proposed 2021-2022 budget for the Town of Chatham. The proposed budget totals over $3 million and, in its preliminary form, would result in a more than $200,000 deficit on the year, something Chatham Mayor Will Pace called "extremely rare."
At the committee meeting, council members voted unanimously to take the proposed budget to Chatham Town Council at its routine meeting next Monday, May 10. The budget totals $3,113,541.12, an increase of more than $250,000 over the 2020-21 budget.
After the proposed budget is taken to council, it will be advertised to town residents for at least two weeks. Then, before its June meeting, Chatham Town Council will hold a public hearing about the budget to gather citizen input. Approval of the budget will happen no earlier than June 14.
The proposed budget would result in a deficit of $205,426.12. This deficit is due to $60,000 worth of inflation, $80,000 taken from reserves, $25,000 for a Pittsylvania County Service Authority (PCSA) meter and roughly $40,000 for new computer technology.
"It's an extremely rare deficit," Pace said.
This deficit is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pace said. Many Chatham residents have neglected to pay water and sewer bills, and CARES Act funds received by the town were less than anticipated. For those reasons, the finance committee stated its intention to raise water and/or sewer rates this year.
"We need to increase water and sewer rates," Committee Chairman Irvin Perry said. "I think we really need to increase sewer and water bills, maybe 3 percent."
Pace responded, "With people just coming out of a pandemic, I say no more than 2 percent."
The finance committee agreed to reconvene after May 10 to work toward a decision on a fair increase in water and sewer rates.
The $25,000 for a PCSA meter would be used to prevent the county from overpaying on a water tank lease in the future. Pittsylvania County recently overpaid the Town of Chatham by $56,000 on water tanks, which was an unpleasant shock for the town. Councilman Robert Thompson said investing in this meter is "long overdue."
The $40,000 for new computer technology, to be provided by ITG Group, a Swiss information technology company, would primarily be used for the Chatham Police Department. The department's current computers have personal information and sensitive photos dating back to 1994. The department is required by law to maintain certain records, like sexual assaults and missing persons reports, for 50 years.
If the Town of Chatham agrees to contract with ITG Group, the company would check all the cables and redirect them to a secure cabinet containing two mirrored, fireproofed and ventilated backup systems that update records to a cloud on a daily basis.
Council members were attracted to the services of ITG Group, which include perks such as protection against ransomware, which often targets small American governments, and the ability for Chatham Police officers to record telephone calls.
The finance committee voted unanimously to send that proposal to council for further review.
Councilwoman Janet Bishop also requested an inflation beyond her initial $10,000 ask for maintenance of the town's walking trail, which begins at Frances Hurt Park.
"I was horrified at the condition of the trail," Bishop said after walking the trail this week for the first time in several months. "It has had zero maintenance. Weeds have overtaken the trail. The steps are slick with mildew, the gate is hanging. It's awful. I'm afraid it will take a pretty good injection of cash if we don't do something about it."
In response to some concerns, Perry also pointed out why the proposed budget implies pay increases of "only" 2.5 percent.
"This council in November or December decided to do away with straight raises in favor of a merit system," Perry said. "There's a bucket of $40,000-$45,000 to be dispensed throughout the merit process. Some will get less than 2.5 percent, some will get more than 2.5 percent. As a council, we all agreed to go to a merit-based system."
Under current policy, supervisors evaluate their department personnel and recommend a raise based off of the quality of the work they see. The proposed budget also includes Christmas bonuses for town employees.
If the preliminary budget considered Monday stands, the finance committee will request roughly $417,000 for administration, $264,000 for police, $82,500 for fire, $14,200 for parks, $388,000 for streets and $7,900 for cemeteries from Chatham Town Council for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
"It's open to any and all corrections, additions and subtractions. It's subject to changes," Perry reiterated. "It will be reviewed again after the public hearing. Everything is up for discussion up to that point."