News In Brief:

By Lance Coleman

County budget passes; tax rate increases 5 cents
It took Blount County Commissioner Ron French 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.

Commissioner Joe McCulley made several amendment motions that would have reduced the commissioners’ pay from $450 per month to $35 per meeting, cut the sheriff’s pay by 10 percent for two cost centers, the workhouse and juvenile for a 20 percenttotal cut equaling about $19,800 per year.

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.

"The moves were made to cut elected officials’ compensation that had some authority to either set the budget or vote on the budget. It was not to eliminate supplemental pay to employees but to officials," he said in an e-mail following the meeting.

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 with 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.

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 moved 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 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.

The commissioners then voted on the budget. It passed 13-8, County Clerk Roy Crawford said.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on June 21, 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, County Clerk Roy Crawford said.

In a standing room only crowd in the commission room during a public meeting before the scheduled commission meeting, Citizens for Better Government founder Jim Folts stood and told Mayor Jerry Cunningham that a deputy had thown away some of his group’s fliers which had been placed on a table outside the commission room. The commission changed the rules recently and dictated that fliers and handouts be kept out of the commission room during meetings but allowed them on the table with the agendas for citizens to pick up.

Chief Deputy Ron Dunn said he was shocked by the allegations and said he would look into the matter. Cunningham appeared visibly upset when told of the allegation. "That’s childish behavior that I do not condone," he said. "You were abiding by rules by putting them out there."

Dandy Lions gift shop to open Saturday on Church
Dandy Lions gift shop is scheduled to open Saturday, June 30, in the former Red Cross Building on East Church Avenue.
Co-owners Joy Carver and Kristin Wilson said store hours will be from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Wilson said guests will notice an updated building when they enter.

"When people come in, they’ll see updated light fixtures, a fresh coat of paint, original hardwood floors that have been restored, all the original woodwork and some of the original bookshelves are in place," Wilson said.

Wilson said the bathrooms have been updated with new sinks and are more modernized. While browsing through the store, customers will see home décor items, wedding supplies, gifts for babies and others.

"We try to carry gifts for everyone of all generations," Wilson said. "You’re going to find your $10 gifts and $100. We’ve got something for every occasion or just a pick-me-up or a little happy."

There also will be a gift registry. The wedding registry will be for more formal gifts, and there will be an everyday gift registry for more casual items.

Overbey announces grant awards from Arts Commission
Mary Blount Elementary School and the Appalachian Ballet Company recently won grant awards from the Tennessee Arts Commission for Fiscal Year 2008.

"Both Mary Blount and the Appalachian Ballet Company are highly deserving of these awards, and our entire community takes great pride in their accomplishments," Rep. Doug Overbey said.

In announcing the awards, Overbey, who chairs the General Assembly’s Arts Caucus, emphasized the contributions the arts make to our quality of life in Tennessee communities.

Overbey said, "The Tennessee Arts Commission’s matching grants are made possible through an appropriation of state funds by the General Assembly, federal dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts, and by Tennesseans who purchase specialty license plates."

Additional information on grant programs offered by the Tennessee Arts Commission is available at: www.arts.state.tn.us.

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