By Whitney Manzo
“Doggone scary” and “grim” are two ways one state lawmaker has described North Carolina’s state budget outlook after learning that we’re looking at a $4 billion shortfall during the next two years due to the economic impacts of Covid-19. The state budget director has also said North Carolina will experience a recession soon, if it isn’t already here.
But what about county budgets? After all, these local governments have arguably been even harder hit than the state, given that counties run many of the hospitals that care for Covid-19 patients and administer many of the state’s welfare programs that help families get through business closures and unemployment. Since counties run elections, too, they’ve been doing all this while trying to administer the upcoming 2020 election cycle; no small feat in a “normal” year, it’s been a nightmare trying to safely conduct representative democracy in the midst of a pandemic.
Luckily, I have a dataset that covers all 100 North Carolina counties from 2006-2018 and I can calculate what we might expect regarding county budgets by looking at what happened from 2009-2011, the years directly following the Great Recession. Because budgets are generally decided one year in advance, we must begin our analysis one year past the start of the Great Recession (some say it began in December 2007, but we’re going to just go with 2008 as the starting year).
Looking at all North Carolina counties together, from 2009 to 2010, 70% of counties experienced a decrease in their budget. Half of those were double-digit decreases. The largest cuts were experienced by Durham County, which cut its budget from the 2008-2009 fiscal year by a shocking 40%, and Iredell County, which cut its budget by 35%. This is all the more striking considering that Durham County grew by over 5,500 people in that time, and Iredell County grew by 2,300 people. So, at the same time that these counties were experiencing rapid expansion in the number of residents they need to serve, they were also drastically cutting services.