County officials next week will begin the arduous task of crafting their 2021 spending plan.

County council members will meet with the commissioners as well as representatives from every county office and elected office holder over more than 30 hours spread across four days.

“I think this may actually be more hours than in previous years, certainly more days,” said county council president Bob Lechner with a chuckle. “But I’m sure this is more feasible.

“It will certainly work better in the afternoons than at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Members of the county council in June decided to abandon their annual marathon budget sessions.

Council members have, for years, hashed out their spending plans by meeting for many hours over the course of about three days; on the last day, budget discussions have often lasted into the early-morning hours.

Last year, they met on the last night of budget hearings until 4 a.m.

County auditor Mike Morris, during a preliminary budget planning session this summer, presented a different plan for them to consider, one a little less heavy on the nighttime hours and easier for members of the general public to be involved in, should they wish to.

Morris suggested stretching annual budget hearings out over four days instead of three, and they agreed, scheduling the hearings for noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday of next week.

“We’re always crunched for time,” Lechner said, “trying to get through the voluminous budget package and spending time with department heads. We think this will give us more time to do all that.

“And it’s commendable that this was a recommendation brought to us by the county employees themselves, specifically the county auditor’s office.”

The primary goal for next year’s spending plan, Lechner said, will be in maintaining expenditures from this year and closely monitoring any increases.

It’s time to prepare, Lechner said, for what they fear could be a 10% cut — if not more —in revenue, at least, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, between now and 2022.

To prepare for a reduction in funds — both income and property tax funds — in coming years due to extensive job losses felt across the state, the council this summer sent out a memo to all department heads and office holders, one that asks them to hold off on any additional requests for money and to “flat-line” their budgets for 2021, meaning to ask for little-to-no increases over this year.

The council, too, has said they will look heavily at employment numbers, likely eliminating positions through attrition in the coming two years.

“Our No. 1 goal is always our employees, taking care of them,” Lechner said. “This year, we’ll be looking at that goal from the standpoint of just holding everything together, not going backwards.”

Employees, Lechner has said, should not expect pay raises in 2021 or 2022.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid any kind of catastrophic result where we end up asking our department heads to cut 20% of their budgets or where we have to lay off employees.

“And we’re hopeful (our actions during budget hearings) will be the means to do that.”

The county will meet for budget hearings this year in a large conference room at Knox County Community Corrections, 147 N. Eighth St., one that will allow for greater social distancing.

Masks will be required.

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