Blount County government could stand to cut more from its budget in the next fiscal year, said County Mayor Ed Mitchell, and doing so would make the county more attractive to new businesses.
“I still firmly believe you can tax yourself into not being lucrative,” he said. “A lot of businesses will look at us, and if we are in the process of taxing, taxing and taxing, they are not going to be interested in a county that is in out-of-control mode. A continuation of tax increases is not going to bode well on economic development in Blount County. It is hard for me to raise taxes when I know we’re not doing the things we need to do be efficient.”
The first-term mayor gave Blount County Chamber members an update on the county during a packed morning coffee meeting Wednesday, June 29, just days after the county commission overrode his veto of the budget and put in place an 11-cent property tax increase. “We just finished the budget process. There was disagreement, but it worked out, and its time to get down to business,” he said. “It’s no secret I was not for the 11-cent tax increase. I didn’t feel it was time for it. I don’t know if next year will be time for a 20- to 25-cent tax increase.”
Mitchell said the county’s large debt is also on his mind. “I have a problem leaving that kind of debt for our kids. We don’t start paying on the principle until 2027 and don’t pay it off until 2037,” he said. “With that kind of debt looming over us, it will be tough to do any projects.”
When asked about prospects for new revenue, the mayor praised Blount Partnership President and CEO Bryan Daniels. “Bryan has done a heck of a job. He’s always scouring the country and the world trying to bring industry here,” he said.
Earlier this year Mitchell announced he would ask each department head in county government to cut 12.8 percent from their budget. The mayor came up with that figure by working with a committee of citizens who studied the county’s finances. “If everyone had cut 12.8 percent, the revenue generated by property tax and sales tax would have been level,” he said.
The mayor was asked about health insurance for county employees and how changes could help the budget. “Right now ours is at no-cost to the employee with $100 for family. When you retire, you get 100 percent of insurance paid,” he said. “My wife is in the private sector and pays $550 a month with a $3,500 deductible.”
“I don’t want to put a burden on employees that they can’t pay,” he said. “I put a proposal together for $34 a month per employee with $100 for families. It would put $991,000 back into the budget.”
Mitchell said he carried that proposal to the HR Committee in early winter. “We were never given the opportunity to bring it to the table because they voted not to change the benefit package,” the mayor said.
Mitchell said the proposal didn’t get past the Human Resources committee.
In response to the mayor’s comments, former Blount County Human Resources director Betsy Cunningham shared general information about how much county employees earn in relation to their benefits. “As a whole, county employees make much less than other municipalities,” said Cunningham said. “As a rule, salaries in the county are less.”
Mitchell agreed with Cunningham’s comments, saying, “County employees are on average or below others,” he said. “That is when benefits step in and make it a more attractive position.”