Budget passes; tax rate increases 5 cents

It took Blount County Commissioner Ron French a good 30 seconds to do what he had been agonizing over for 30 days - vote against a 2007-08 budget that was going to require a tax increase.

French was in the minority as 13 Blount County commissioners voted Thursday night to raise taxes by 5 cents per $100 of appraised value to fund a $150 million budget for fiscal 2007-08. The increase gave department heads the funds to give employees up to a 5 percent raise, based on merit. In 2006-07, employees got no raise.

On average, the property tax increase adds about $12 more in taxes to a homeowner of a house valued at $100,000, Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said recently.

Blount County schools director Alvin Hord asked for $4 million more and didn’t get it. Blount County Sheriff James Berrong asked for enough to equalize their pay with that of officers in Maryville and Alcoa and that request wasn’t granted either. The only amendments granted to the budget proposed by the county mayor were to fund an additional $1,500 to the veteran’s office and to give the Blount County Public Defenders Office $5,581 out of an account specifically designated to collect litigations taxes for their use. In other words, it wasn’t property tax funds but litigation tax funds collected from people using the court system.

There was much discussion on how dollars were spent, especially regarding the sheriff’s office budget and the school resource officers. There were a few heated exchanges, one between Sheriff James Berrong and commissioner David Ballard and another between commissioner David Graham and Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett.

Commissioner Joe McCulley made several amendment motions that would have reduced commissioner pay from $35 a meeting to $17, the sheriff’s pay by 10 percent and the county mayor’s pay from $112,000 to $80,000. The moves were made to eliminate supplemental pay to employees if this year’s budget required a tax increase. McCulley also made a motion to drop all appropriations to non-profits, about $180,000, if taxes had to be increased. All amendments failed either for lack of a second or by vote of the commission.

One of the more memorable moments of the evening came near the end of the meeting during the roll call to vote on the budget. Commissioner French leaned back in his chair which a hand over his face for several seconds as commissioners watched him.

Ramsey asked if French wanted to pass and vote after the other commissioners, and he said "No." After waiting several more seconds, French voted "No" to the budget.

At a short recess, French said, "I’ve been debating this thing for 30 days. I was torn between doing what my constituents asked me to do and my loyalty to Blount County. Either way, it’s a no-win situation," he said. "It’s not that I don’t think the employees deserve a raise. I know these people deserve a raise, but the county has an opportunity to step up and bite the bullet and take care of constituents. It was a tough decision. I agonized over it 30 days."

The budget breaks down to $39 million for the General Fund, which includes the Sheriff's department budget of $9 million; $73.7 million for schools; $7.2 million for highways; $2 million for the library plus other appropriations.

After the appropriations had been passed and prior to voting on the tax increase, Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves said she wasn’t for new taxes. "We can do what we need to do without raising taxes," she said.

During the appeals process of the meeting before the votes were taken, Hord appealed for an additional $4 million and explained that while new Basic Education Program money from the state estimated the county would receive an additional $1.9 million in state funds, they were expecting the state to mandate that $1.2 million of that had to be spent on at-risk students. State education officials had postponed a meeting scheduled for earlier this week, so Hord said he still wasn't sure how the $1.9 million would play into the schools budget.

Hord said that if the state is too strict, they may not allow him to spend more of that money on pressing needs and this would mean he would have to make other cuts in his budget to fund his priorities.

"It’s disappointing to me this is 21st of June and they haven’t told us firm numbers," he said of their BEP allotment. "If we use the money as we said, we still haven’t bought the first textbook. I heard this is the year of no new taxes, and I heard sheriff’s department appeal. I’m not here to compete with them. But we’re in sort of a desperate need."

Berrong appealed for commissioners to go back to his original budget so he could pay his deputies equal with what officers in Maryville and Alcoa make.

"If not pass a resolution pledging to do that within three years. We want to focus on making this a safe community," he said. "I feel from the bottom of my heart my employees deserve what they deserve, equal pay to their peers in same profession in the same county."
Berrong was questioned repeatedly on two subjects, school resources officers and sheriff’s office vehicles.

Regarding SROs, Graham asked Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett if pay for those deputies was included in the budget and Bennett said they were.
Reeves questioned why their pay wasn’t move to another division when Berrong moved some of the SROs out of the schools to save money

"In last year’s budget we had over $1 million was allotted to SROs," she said.

Regarding vehicles, McCulley made a motion to take $555,782 from the $855,782 that was going to be appropriated to the sheriff to buy vehicles and instead use it to pay for deputies’ raises. Reeves seconded this motion. After much discussion, the motion failed.

Bennett told commissioners the fund balance needs to have about $8 million in it to pay bills because the majority of the county’s property taxes don’t start coming in until October. "That figure is about how much is paid out in pay until October when majority of tax money starts to come," he said.

Commissioner Steve Samples said when he left the commission in 2002, the general fund had $2 million. "Being fiscally responsible isn’t always saying ‘No’ to taxes. Part of being responsible is being sure the county is sound year around," he said. "We have a $140 million budget, and right now we have less than $800,000 in fund balance."

The commissioners then voted on the budget. It passed 13-8.

When it came time to approve the $182,529 appropriation for non-profit agencies, McCulley made the motion that non-profits not be funded if it took a tax increase to fund them.
Bennett explained that this in effect denied the resolution because the appropriations, which had just passed, were going to require a tax increase.

Commissioner Gary Farmer disagreed with McCulley. "We’ve decreased this each and every year," he said of money for non-profit appropriation. "Then to hold it hostage after the appropriation has been approved, I don’t agree with that."
Hasty and McCulley voted yes to the amendment. All the other commissioners voted no and the motion failed.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Commissioner John Keeble made a motion to raise the tax rate to $2.23 to fund the budget and Helton seconded it.

The motion passed, 13 to 8.

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