Budget in the balance

Carrying a 5 cent increase, proposed budget is under scrutiny

By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

The number for the general fund is just shy of half the winnings available for this week’s Powerball Lottery, but with a $39.6 million price tag and a 5 cent tax increase, few are betting on a smooth passage for the 2007-2008 Blount County budget.

If this Blount County commission votes for a 5 cent tax increase, it will be by a slim margin, said one Blount County commissioner.

"I think this commission, outside of the budgetary process, is looking at things in a different perspective than it has been looked at before," Commissioner Mike Walker said. "I think if there is a tax increase, it will be passed by a slim margin."

Commissioner Steve Samples echoed those thoughts. "I think this commission is going to look very closely at the justification for raising taxes, whether it’s 1 cent, a nickel or 20 cents," he said.

Depending on who is talking, the proposed budget and the 5 cent property tax hike that Blount County commissioners will vote on June 21 are either a very good idea or something to be avoided.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said that for the first time in a long time, department heads asked simply for a 5 percent raise for their employees and not for additional employees or equipment. The raise would give employees a 2 and a half percent raise for this year and make up for a 2 and a half percent raise they didn’t get last year.

"There have been a lot of accolades spun toward elected officials for their frugality for wanting to take care of their employees," he said.

Cunningham said Sheriff James Berrong is asking for more than 5 percent on his employees’ pay in order to equalize deputy pay with that of officers in Maryville and Alcoa. If the 5 cents goes through, it will cost $12.50 more per year on a $100,000 home, Cunningham said.

"The last commission cut everybody back and didn’t give anybody raises and to do that again would be a travesty," said Cunningham. "These folks have cost of living expenses going up like everybody else. They work hard in spite of what some naysayers, who have not observed what goes on in the offices, say. The employees of the county are dedicated, and they work hard and provide excellent services."

Blount County schools director Alvin Hord said that he needs his full budget request because he has to hire teachers to fulfill state requirements. "What’s crucial for us is the teachers we have to have to meet BEP standards," he said of the Basic Education Plan, the state blueprint for education funding for schools.

Some commissioners have suggested taking 5 cents per tax dollar away from the schools since the state is poised to give the Blount County system $1.9 million in more money this year. An alternative to raising taxes would be to take that nickel away from schools.

"If they take the nickel away, it would cut deep, and it’s going to be hard enough to make it now at this point," Hord said. "Losing 5 cents is $800,000. That puts us further in the hole. On the surface (the $1.9 million) sounds like a lot, but when you’re told you have to spend $1.2 million a certain way, you don’t have money to get new teachers or to give raises."

Hord says the money they need from the county is for raises. "We have 12 regular teachers we’ve got to hire to meet our ratios the state makes us have."

Hord said classrooms K-3 have to average 20 students to a teacher. Grades 4 to 6 must average 25 to a teacher, and 7 to 12 must average 30 to a teacher. In addition to hiring teachers, Hord also must bring on teaching assistants, hire a special education teacher and the school system also needs to buy more than $1 million in reading books for elementary students.
"There are lots of things in here, things you’ve got to have," he said.

Sheriff Berrong was quick to describe what was crucial in his budget. "The main thing we asked for this year and the last few years is raises for employees, and we have asked for more money to put back the school resource officers. The salaries for employees are by far the most crucial things," he said. "We’re having such a hard time keeping anybody based on salary levels. If they don’t get an increase this year, you’ll probably see continued turnover in the sheriff’s office, which will result in lower response times."

Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher said the only thing he asked for that he considered crucial was a five percent raise for the employees. "I’ve said this for 14 and a half years, the employees are the most important cog in the wheel that turns county government," he said. "I feel they need to be compensated for the job they do."

If the commission doesn’t pass the tax increase, each department would have to make adjustments.

At the school level, it will be the school board that has to make the cuts if the full budget isn’t funded, said Hord. "The things I would recommend, it would be painful."

Micky Roberts, director of the Blount County Health Department, said his department stands "shoulder-to-shoulder" with other department heads in asking for a 5 percent raise for employees. "We’re in the business of sustaining public health. We need a competent, well-trained, service-oriented workforce," he said.

Year after year, budget cuts force employees to suffer without the opportunity for raises, says Roberts. "At a minimum we need this year to be able to give our employees the opportunity to do the best work they can to achieve a raise," he said. "I lose good people. I’ve lost people to surrounding counties that pay better."

Blount County Highway superintendent Bill Dunlap said that while his department is funded by gas taxes and sales taxes generated in the unincorporated parts of the county, if the county commission doesn’t pass a raise for their employees, his department usually mirrors that action.

"Last year they gave no increase, and we in turn gave no increase," he said.

Dunlap is asking for a bond to be issued so he can buy equipment to replace what he has that is old and outdated. "I won’t
be appealing my budget, but I will be talking with them about a six-year capital plan regarding infrastructure needs," he said. "What ever we end up with, we’ll use it wisely and put it on the roads. That’s all we’ve ever done."

Cunningham said if the property tax doesn’t go through, cuts will have to be made.

"The problem is that the person who bears the brunt of that is going to be the employees, and they deserve better treatment and consideration. Whether you’re in the office of mayor or commissioner, you can’t set a budget out of fear of whether you’re going to be re-elected or not," he said. "You have to do what’s right as your conscience dictates. I feel I’ve got 21 persons of good conscience working with me."

Berrong said that if his budget has to be cut, his funds for gasoline will be short again this year. Medical costs for inmates would have to be passed on to the commission, he said.

"I guess we stand to lose more experienced personnel who have a lot of years of training," he said. "We’ve invested a lot of money and time in those men and women, and we’ll continue to lose a lot of them."

The sheriff said that it’s easy for people to criticize individuals in elected offices.

"What has bothered me personally a lot this year is the distortion of information and facts. On issues such as vehicles, we buy the same amount of vehicles we’ve bought the last seven years," he said. "The other issues they talk about are total distortions, and they don’t want to take time to learn. It really became a political issue. I don’t know whether it’s just my turn to be in the barrel or not. It’s turned into partisan politics."

Berrong said his office is effective and looks everyday to try to find savings. He recently turned money back over to the general fund that wasn’t used from this year’s budget. "Then I heard county commissioners saying, ‘You’re turning this money in. You don’t need it.’ We find cost savings, then we’re punished. The game they’re playing, it’s hard to win," he said. "Being an elected officer, you have to hunker down and hope people see your track history and know you run a good
law enforcement agency. We’ve been honest and effective and aggressive."

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said that now that the budget committee has forwarded their proposed budget, it’s up to the commission to pass it or amend it.

"If they amend it, they have to tell where it’s amended. If they say $2.23 isn’t right, they want $2.18, they have to go into the general fund and reduce appropriations by $1,275,000 and tell us what appropriations to reduce," he said. "They’ll debate and ultimately decide what they need to happen. We need a budget passed, whatever that may be."

Several Blount County commissioners weighed in with their thoughts on the budget and the proposed tax increase.

Commissioner David Ballard said that until the school issue resolves itself, and he learns how the state will mandate the new education money be spent, he didn’t feel comfortable approving a 5 cent tax increase.

"I want to see the dollars from the state to education. I want to see that in place," he said. "I’m not comfortable recommending a tax increase to the full commission when we were initially offered an option of taking money from schools or a tax increase without the commission having an opportunity to discuss those options."

Commissioner Tonya Burchfield had a similar attitude. "I would like to move money from other budgets, particularly from schools, because they’re still getting more," she said.

Commissioner Mike Walker said he hasn’t seen where the money from the 5 cent increase per $100 of appraised property value would go. He said he would want to know there wasn’t any property tax going to support fee-supported offices.

Walker said there’s no doubt county offices have been operating on tighter purse strings the last few years. "It seems like those that have done a good job year-after-year-after year, working within the limitations the county commission puts them under, those are the ones who continually get cut when we go back to look at areas to save money. I don’t want to see that happen," he said.

Commissioner David Graham said he’s not as concerned about raising or lowering the property tax rate as he is about restoring the school resources program to full strength after budget cuts in the sheriff’s office necessitated taking the officers out of the schools.

"The SRO program was cut in half, and the county commission was blamed for that. We are not to blame for that, and, if you’ll look in the budget, you’ll find where the sheriff is turning back $150,000, which would be five SRO officers," he said.

Graham said he supports pay raises for rank and file employees of the county and for funding non-profits like Meals on Wheels and the volunteer fire departments. "I can’t vote for any of that until the SRO situation is addressed and corrected," he said.

Commissioner Scott Helton said he supported the five cent tax increase while Commissioner Joe McCulley said what he’s looking for in the process is ensuring that department heads are spending their money wisely. "Is money being spent for county programs that are the main, essential county responsibilities?" McCulley said.

Ballard said he wasn’t necessarily against raising the tax rate if he felt that was the best option for the county to pursue. "There are a lot of questions I still have about the budget," he said. "Before I would recommend a tax raise, I think there are some full commission discussions that need to take place."

Burchfield said she’s hesitant to raise taxes because many in her district are getting hit with Maryville or Alcoa city tax increases. "If there are other options available, I’d like to choose those," she said. "I don’t want to raise taxes if we don’t have to, but the county is in need of more revenues."

Helton said the only way he would change his mind was if the budget director, mayor and budget committee changed their recommendation. "They’re crunching the numbers, and I’ll accept their guidance. I feel a 5 cent tax increase is reasonable," he said. "In order to provide services, you’ve got to be able to generate the revenue."

Samples said before he votes to raise taxes, he would have to be assured that everything was done by the budget committee to eliminate as much waste as they could. "They’ve got to demonstrate to the full commission that raising taxes is a last resort," he said.

County Commission will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 21, in Room 430 of the Blount County Courthouse. There is a 6 p.m. public hearing on the budget preceeding the meeting in the same location.

Blount Today will update the website within 30 minutes of the budget vote Thursday night. Check www.BlountToday.com or email gardner@BlountToday.com to sign up for our Breaking News email alerts.

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