No budget blues: $1.4 million deficit disputed by county mayor

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

A $1.4 million county deficit four months into the fiscal year is either a reality or a "Chicken Little" fantasy, depending on who is asked.

Citizens for a Better Government founder Jim Folts presented a document to the Blount County Commission on Oct. 16 that he said showed a breakdown of expenses in county departments that illustrated several departments were overspending to a total of $1.4 million. He said that many of those departments could run out of money by early spring.

On Monday, Cunningham said he didn’t understand how Folts came up with the $1.4 million deficit. He said the situation was similar to the "Chicken Little children’s story." He said that Folts made it appear the "sky was falling," and the county was about to be bankrupt when in fact the fiscal condition of the county government is very healthy.

Cunningham said he is trying to listen to everybody in regards to issues connected to county, especially the budget. "We don’t know it all," he said. "If we can improve something, we will."

Cunningham said Folts didn’t take into account that some departments often pay yearly expenses such as insurance and workers’ compensation all at once at the beginning of the fiscal year. As an example, he pointed to the county maintenance director.

"Damon Fortney (county maintenance director) encumbers all his money for utility costs on the front end," Cunningham said.
Cunningham said Allen Rippetoe in the finance and accounting department monitors each department’s spending to ensure they are in line with budget. In a example of how he monitors it, he showed how he split each department’s expenses up into 12 parts and then multiplied the individual part by four to get the amount of the budget that should be spent to date.

According to Rippetoe, the figures show that most departments were either under budget or on budget.

When divided out by month, some departments had spent more than one-twelfth of their budget per month out of necessity.

"The election commission was over because they had to hold two elections," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said that some departments simply spend more some months of the year than they do other months. "That’s why I say it’s the Chicken Little Syndrome," he said.

"The $1.4 million is so far off base. We’re ahead of our game by $301,000 in general county department. The sheriff is ahead by $400,000, and Tom Hatcher’s office is almost $152,000 ahead," he said.

Rippetoe agreed that the numbers look one way because some expenses are simply paid all at once, not spread over 12 months.

"The sheet (Foltz) had, he wasn’t taking into account up front expenses," Rippetoe said of Folts documentation handed to commissioners in the Oct. 16 meeting. Cunningham said as the fiscal year progresses, expenses in each department will level out to where each department’s budget comes in as it should.

Cunningham said he’s gotten plenty of advice from others since he assumed the job of county mayor in September. "I’ve been here almost 60 days. I’ve listened to everybody who wanted to talk to me," he said.

Cunningham said the professionals working to monitor the budgets are competent, that he has studied the figures and is confident the county’s budget has good safeguards to prevent any departments from overspending. The mayor said employees of the finance department are committed to ensuring that each department abides by their budgets. "All departments as well as elected offices are on target accordingly from a budget standpoint. We don’t need to be saved from ourselves," he said.

Folts was contacted on Monday and asked how he came up with his figures in light of some departments spending more at some times of the year than in others. Folts said his group, Citizens for Better Government, did try to take expenses encumbered for the entire year into account. Encumbered expenses for building maintenance and general administration were dropped. "We dropped that cost center (general administration) to make the report as accurate as possible."

Cunningham said that while he hopes to "tighten" the fiscal belt of the county government and pay down some of the county’s debt beginning with next year’s budget, this year’s budget is good and allegations of overspending are inaccurate.

The mayor said that as far back as anyone can remember, the elected offices and those in the general county have always have come in on or under budget. "This is corroborated by every audit report done for years and years. The audit reports are public information and available for any watchdog group or individual to review," he said.

"Absolutely, unequivocally and without hesitation or reservation, I can say there exists no budget crisis in Blount County," Cunningham said. "I don’t know how to say it any more succinctly. We’re on line. I hate that the alarm bell was sounded when there is no fire. We’re in good shape."

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