With ‘no tax increase’ as starting point, can Blount balance county budget?

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell, left, and Finance Director Stephen Jennings answer questions at a Blount County Commission budget meeting on Monday, March 7.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell, left, and Finance Director Stephen Jennings answer questions at a Blount County Commission budget meeting on Monday, March 7.

If ever there was a symbol for this year’s county government budget process, it would have to be a knife…a sharp one.

Since January when County Mayor Ed Mitchell and the Budget Committee requested each department cut 12.8 percent from their budget, the idea of cutting county spending has been on the minds of department heads and elected officials.

During the March 7 Budget Committee meeting, District 3-A commissioner Steve Samples shared his disappointment that more office holders didn’t heed the committee’s request. The budget as proposed this week would require a 42-cent property tax hike from the current tax rate $2.04 per $100 of assessed value.

“I would appeal to office holders and people responsible for their budgets that they go back with their knife and see if they can’t help us some more,” Samples said.

District 2-B commissioner Mike Lewis echoed Samples’ sentiments. “I certainly agree with Commissioner Samples. If at all possible, we need to ask again that office holders look again at their budgets,” he said. “We see where the current cuts are. As presented it would require a $2.46 tax rate. What we’ve done is not enough. I applaud the effort of all those who have cut but clearly what we’ve done at this point is going to require a significant tax increase if we don’t do anything else. I would request office holders take note of and see what room there may be for more cuts.”

Samples said every office holder, whether they’re making streets safe, selling license plates or giving people good access to the judicial system, wants to do a good job for the people of this county.

“I think it is time now that, for the good of the county, the office holders come together and realize that this year our main objective in working for the people of this community is to provide them a level of government without getting back into their pocketbooks,” he said. “The best thing every office holder and every person around this circle can do is put our heads together and find out how we can operate this government without going back to the taxpayer and asking for more money.”

Samples said commissioners and elected officials have until the end of April to submit a budget. “I sat on this budget committee when we didn’t have a budget in June and if that is what it takes to keep from going back to the taxpayers, that is what we do,” he said. “We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. There is enough brain power in the office holders and commissioners to work this out without having to ask for a tax increase.”

Mitchell said he and the Budget Committee put out a 12.8 percent budget cut request to department heads, which would meet the current $2.04 property tax rate. “Where do you see the conversation going from there with the elected officials?” he asked.

Samples said it appeared everybody thought somebody would make the cuts. “Now we’ve figured out we’re all in the same boat, and everyone has to help navigate this boat to a successful landing,” he said. “It’s not just going to be Parks and Rec cutting 12.8 percent or more so I don’t have to cut as much. We’ve all got to work with this. I think the mayor set a good example to start with, but I think we just need to give officeholders more time. Let’s give them an opportunity to go to round two.”

In Round One of the budget cuts, some departments cut the 12.8 percent requested by the mayor. Others proposed smaller cuts, some held their budget requests flat and others proposed an increase.

Blount Today spoke with elected officials and got their take on just how much they were willing to cut from their budgets, how those cuts would affect the services they provide and how they think the current budget crisis should be solved.

The Schools

Schools director Rob Britt said the mayor never formally asked the schools to cut 12.8 percent but did ask that they prepare a budget based on 97-cents of the tax rate instead of $1.

“We felt it was important for us to communicate our needs and where we are as a school system right now, especially given the fact we’re turning in a budget request two months prior to it being officially due,” he said. “The state mandates we have a budget to them by April. This is the earliest it has ever been. That is for the most part what precipitated our choice to develop a list of needs. We cut a number of those things from our list and tried to narrow it down to what we had to have next year to continue at an adequate delivery of services.”

The schools director said opening the new Prospect Elementary School in Seymour plays significantly into the upcoming year’s budget. The school is being built with federal recovery funds.

“Prospect, it is a very, very important part of our budget request. We will spend $13.7 million in constructing that school, and it is a turnkey. It will have everything in it and everything will have been paid for. The dollars are non-split dollars and at no interest for the life of the loan,” Britt said. “It is very inexpensively built in comparison to schools in the past. We just can’t help but feel the public would want us to occupy that building after tax dollars have been poured into it. We feel it is imperative to serve children in that building”

Britt said to tighten the budget, the system last year cut $3.6 million and eliminated 34 positions, including teachers, teacher assistants and custodians. “Over the past two years, we’ve cut a number of positions out of our budget, and we are trying to do with less,” he said. “I’ve instructed our principals to go look at our strategic plan and determine what can we do in terms of reaching our goals in the most cost-effective manner, and they’re doing a very good job at that.”

Britt said people should keep in mind there are a lot of new initiatives in the State of Tennessee with the Race to the Top money and the Tennessee Diploma Project. “There are quite a number of higher standards and expectations and accountability measures we have to satisfy,” he said. “There is not a specific price tag that comes with those things but at the end of the day, you have to address them. We’ll do all we can at meeting and exceeding those initiatives and goals but there is going to be cost associated with them.”

The schools director said the system will make a good faith effort to look at all budget requests and needs and try to bring that in line with the a balance budget. “I still believe we’ll need help. We’re not going to get $3.4 million, and I’m not sure we’ll expect that, but we definitely feel we need some help,” he said.

Britt said the system hasn’t purchased any text books in four years. “This year, math text books for K-12 are up for adoption. We feel strongly that math books are a necessity to purchase this year for our teachers and students for several reasons,” he said. “Our current text books are not aligned to current curriculum math standards.

“At the end of the day, we’re willing and are going to do our part in terms of holding costs down, but we’re also providing the very best educational services for our students and their parents.”

The Sheriff

Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said he turned in a budget request that was flat.

“It’s the same budget as last year and, operationally, it has been flat a number of years,” Berrong said. “There are uncontrollable expenses like retirement and health benefits. It is hard to cut deficit budget with a population increasing, we’ve taken cuts by per capita expenditures.”

The sheriff said when he presented his budget, he told the budget committee there are statutory responsibilities that are mandated that the department must provide and non-statutory services they provide to help improve the quality of life in Blount County. “I told the mayor that there are non-statutory services and if you want to choose to reduce those, I will consider those,” he said.

Non statutory duties are things like school resources officers and the Fifth Judicial Drug Task Force. which Berrong said help improve quality of life. “To have a designated narcotics unit in charge of drug enforcement in all jurisdictions throughout the county has enabled us to be proactive. We can let patrol do that, but will they be as effective? Probably not,” he said.

“Right now the sheriff’s office has presented its budget. I have told the mayor if he wants to cut non-statutory duties, we’ll discuss that. As far as the sheriff’s office, it is in the budget committee’s hands. I would like to think there is majority of commissioners who understand the importance of a safe community and what we provide the community.”

The sheriff said the last two or three years the department has been short $200,000 to $300,000 on inmate medical coverage. “We budgeted half a million dollars the last few years, and last year expenses were around $800,000,” he said. “We made that up internally.”

Assistant Chief Deputy Jeff French said when there was money available created from vacancies, those funds were transferred to cover the deficits created by the overrun in inmate medical expenses. Currently there are three vacancies in the department, Berrong said.

Berrong said fuel prices have also hit the department. “We encumbered at end of the 2009-10 budget year $120,000 for fuel to make it through this fiscal year, but now with gas prices rising, we may be close,” he said. “We look everyday for ways we can do our job better and more cost-efficiently. We look for savings at the sheriff’s office, but unfortunately, we’re looking mostly at personnel because most of our expense is in salaries or benefits.”

A conversation about the sheriff’s office wouldn’t be complete without asking about the fleet program. The sheriff buys cruisers from funds generated by housing federal prisoners in the jail.

“If there is anyway to save on cars, we do that. We haven’t increased the number we buy. We buy the same amount of cars we bought each of the last 12 years. Nothing has increased in the number of units we buy,” he said.

Berrong said that in 2008-09 the jail brought in $3.3 million in revenue from federal inmates and in 2009-10, it brought in $2.4 million. “This year we will bring in $2 million. It is going down because we’re very overpopulated in the jail and we’re worried about the Tennessee Correctional Institute coming in the next couple months and de-certifying our jail.”

The sheriff said that 11 years ago, the agreement he had with the commission was 40 inmates a day would pay for the vehicle fleet purchases.

Berrong said this will be the third year our employees have not received a pay increase. “I would guess I have a number of my employees who are eligible for federal assistance programs, whether it be food stamps or kids getting free or reduced lunch,” he said. “I don’t wish to add more stress to what is already a very stressful job, so no, I haven’t asked them to take pay cuts.”

The sheriff said times are tough in the nation, state and obviously in the county. “People are hurting and suffering, and that is why we’re taking a very good look at this. If there are savings to be made, we’re willing to step up to the plate on that,” he said.

The Circuit Court Clerk

Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher said his proposed his office requested a total $208,704 operating budget for his office as well as the circuit court judges and the juvenile court judge. Hatcher administers the funds in the circuit court judges and the juvenile court judge.

Hatcher said the 2010-11 operating budget is $256,846 and the proposed budget for 2011-12 is $208,704. “That is a decrease of $48,142. When you add all three, the proposed operating budget shows a decrease of 18.7 percent,” he said.

Hatcher said he cut money in printing and other contracted services. “We’ve taken money out of travel and some out of tuition. Basically in the areas we trimmed, we cut as much as we felt we could,” he said.

Hatcher said when Mayor Jerry Cunningham took office, there was $800,000 in fund balance, and, up until last year, there was a little over $11 million. “The reason it went from $800,000 to $11 million is because all the elected officers have been frugal and have not raised our budgets any in four years, other than the benefits we have no control over.”

As a fee office, Hatcher said his office this past year had a budget of $1.9 million and turned in $600,000 plus to the county general fund. “With the economy as such, we’re setting payments on payment plans at $5, $10 and $25 month and with that, we’re still on target to turn in over $200,000 more than what our budget is,” he said. “My office gets zero property tax dollars. We operate only on fees we bring in from the people who use the judicial system.”

Hatcher said the budget isn’t going to be fixed in a year. “It has taken 10 years to get where we’re at. It needs to be a process of at least three years to get things fixed,” he said. “When you talk about 12.8 percent, you’re talking about cutting lots and lots of services to citizens. I don’t think the community is aware of what those services are going to have to be. I don’t know what the magic answer is, but it is not something you’re going to fix overnight. It’s a process of at least a three-year period.”

General Sessions judgeships

General Sessions Judge William Brewer said for himself and General Sessions judges Mike Gallegos and Robert Headrick, they are asking for 40 percent less in operating costs than they did in 2010-11.

Brewer said in the past, the judges have always turned back between $20,000 and $30,000. “We were asked to go ahead and make that sacrifice up front, and we said that’s fine. If we didn’t spend the money, we turned it back over to the county. We’ve done it every year - $25,000 in operating costs,” he said.

“The justices’ salaries are set by the state governments, and we each have a secretary,” Brewer said. “We can not get along without them.”

The total amount with operating costs and salaries is $930,000. “I’ve cut operating expenses to the bone. We’ve got to have books and paper, and I don’t know what else I can do,” he said.

Brewer said he trusts that executive and legislative branches of county government will recognize that and give the judicial branch the opportunity to continue to do the job they are doing now.

“Please remember, we have no direct contribution to the revenue of this county, and remember how much we contribute to the other offices of this county,” Brewer said. “The pursuit of justice is never about money, We will make the decisions that come before us without regard to any money issues at all.”

Register of Deeds

Register of Deeds Phyllis Crisp said she requested $587,784 for her department.

“Last year’s request was $618,811, so we have a $31,027 decrease. Our office has always operated on a short budget, but I’m figuring I’m cutting out a part-time position and also I did not replace my position when I became register,” she said. “I’m turning that money back in. The way I’m figuring it, I’ve met my 12.8 percent by turning in that money.”

Crisp said she has also cut back on office supplies. “On some of the contracted services, I’m saving money, such as my lease agreements on my copiers,” she said. “When I took the office, instead of buying new envelopes with my name on them, I recycled and put labels over those envelopes. That made a big cut on office supplies.”

Crisp said she can’t speak for other offices, but she is working to be conservative to get through this tough economic time. “I think we can get by. For the past 10 years, the registers office has worked a steady pace to keep expenditures low,” she said. “If you look back 10 years ago, operating expenses (apart from salaries) were $58,000. I’ve cut back to the $31,000. We’re working with fewer employees than we did 10 years ago. There were 13 employees 10 years ago and today we have eight.”

Property Assessor

Property Assessor Mike Morton said his office turned in a proposed budget with a 7 percent reduction.

“The total prior year budget was $1,366,762. What I requested this year, which represents 7 percent reduction, was $1,271,089,” Morton said.

Morton said the way his office was able to carve down the budget was by not filling a vacancy. “We had one of our appraisers who moved out of state late last year. With the budget situation looming, we sat on that position and didn’t fill it. We have a position we’ll surrender and not fill,” he said. “The rest came out of our operational budget. That is getting us down to an almost uncomfortable level. It is absolutely barebones. Anything additional will get into current employees and benefits.”

Morton said cuts above 7 percent would get into current employees jobs. “If we’re told that is what we have to do, that is what we’ll do,” he said.

Morton said he has faith a compromise can be worked out on the overall county budget. “At the end of the day, someone will come up with a package and look at a combination of things,” he said. “They won’t just try to cure it in a specific area -- all through tax increases or all through cuts or reallocations of the penny. I think it is going to be a concerted effort by many to come up with a combination of things where you spread it out.”

Trustee office

County Trustee Scott Graves said the Trustee’s Office is a fee office, meaning that the office brings in fees to operate the office. “We use no Property Tax to fund the Trustee’s Office. We will bring in approximately $1,820,000 in fees next year, and we are only asking to budget $445,874,” he said.

Graves said he cut the budget as far as he could without affecting revenues. “If I cut more, then it will start reducing the amount of revenue I bring in. Over the last 10 years, I have been conservative. Our workload has increased significantly, and we have come up with ways to do our jobs more efficiently,” he said. “Rather than asking commissioners for more employees as we got busier, we have done our jobs with the same number of employees. In fact, the Trustee’s Office has not added an employee to the county’s budget in 21 years.”

Graves said his budget is 1.6 percent lower than the 2010-11 budget. “We are cutting the budget by reducing the number of hours that we use some part-time employees,” he said. “This may create a few delays for customers, but as always we will work hard to keep our customer service at an acceptable level.”

County Court Clerk

County Clerk Roy Crawford said his office is requesting $1,104,501.

“That’s $59,000 below last year’s budget, about a 5.1 percent cut,” Crawford said. “We have had a reduction in staff due to slow down at the Motor Mile so we have cut a position that handles dealer work. That is where a large part of the savings have come from. We’re also cutting back part-time help, and we’re cutting printing, travel, office supplies and some operating expenses as well.”

Crawford said that, due to the fact 95 percent of his budget is salary or benefits, any cuts are cuts in personnel. “Cuts in personnel mean the office generates less revenue so if they cut, we’re going to have to go back and revise revenue estimates as well,” he said. “There are certain things we can do to generate more money and if we don’t have personnel, we can’t do those things.”

Crawford said to cure the overall budget crisis, county leaders need to look at the functions the county government is required to do. “They need to fund those at an adequate, not lavish level. We have to prioritize our budget,” he said. “That is very time-consuming but it needs to be done.”

County Health Department

Blount County Health director Micky Roberts said his office found a way to cut the requested 12.8 percent from their budget.

“I have requested about $440,000 - that is a reduction of 12.8 percent. Last year our budget was $485,000, so it is below last year’s amount,” he said. “What people need to remember is, we were asked last year by the previous mayor to cut our operating budget by 20 percent, which we did, and this year we’re asked to cut our budget by 12.8 percent and that brings it to a total of 32.8 percent in two years. Have other departments done that?”

Roberts said that in order to achieve these cuts, he has reduced the infrastructure that helps support the staff that delivers services. “We can only serve the people at a level we’re funded. I’m having to reduce staff, and I’m eliminating our in-home visiting program,” he said. “This year we’ll also have to reduce our number of copiers. We’re a medical clinic, and we have to copy medical information and charts,” he said.

Roberts said he also doing other things like reducing the number of days they have lawn service. “We won’t have any mulching next year,” he said. “We’ve had to eliminate or decrease distilled water for the clinic. We’ve had to eliminate our county contribution to postal charges for notification of lab results, eliminate printing stationary and forms, periodicals for our providers. We’ve had to eliminate any additions to furniture and fixtures, any new or repairs on office equipment.”

Roberts said the Health Department is funded through a collaborative relationship between the Tennessee Department of Health, the State of Tennessee and local county governments. “There is a collaborative agreement for how much money each entity puts in,” he said. “There’s a contract for services rendered that draws-down state dollars to help pay for services here.”

Roberts said that as a civil servant and as a taxpayer, the county needs to follow the path designated by the mayor and finance director.

“If all the departments make the 12.8 percent cut, we’ve been told that will balance the budget, including other modifications regarding debt management,” he said. “If we are disciplined and follow this course, we’ll be on the right path to getting out of this crisis. The key is everybody has to make the cuts.”

Parks & Rec

Joe Huff, executive director with Maryville Alcoa Blount County Parks and Recreation, said they cut more than $83,000 from their budget, which reflects a 12.8 percent cut. “That is what they asked for, and what we turned in. We’re going to have to make some adjustments,” he said. “We’ll cut back hours in the Senior Center and cut back employees’ hour there. We’ll eliminate a maintenance position because one of our maintenance guys quit. We’ll probably have to cut back services at the county parks.”

Huff said the department requested $569, 924. “What we’re getting from them is about what we got in the 2004-05 budget year,” he said. “That’s how far back we’ve moved. It is fairly close to what we got in the 2004-05 fiscal year. This is the third consecutive year we’ve had cuts from the county.”

Huff said the way the agreement works between the county and two cities is that Parks and Rec will try to make cuts that only affect the county. “We will make sure the services we cut won’t affect city parks and make most of them in the county facilities. We’re going to hang on and hopefully maintain their parks with the same services we’ve had. If the county is the only one cutting, we’ll try to make sure those cuts are reflected in the county parks and not the city parks.”

Huff said much of the problem with the county budget goes back on the economy. “I don’t think it is any one individual group’s fault. It comes down to the economy,” he said. “Hopefully, things will start to recover. When things are tough, government agencies are no different than what we do at home. They have to make concessions like everyone else, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

County Highway Department

Bill Dunlap, Blount County Highway superintendent, said his department requested around $5.7 million. “It is around $200,000 less than last year’s budget. That is based on estimated revenues,” he said. “They’ve been going down the last three years now so we’ve been adjusting to it every year.”

Dunlap said he has had a tough winter that has also affected the budget. “I’ve had to cut back on paving. Winter hit me hard. What I had planned for spring, I’ll put off until summer,” he said. “We’ll maintain until we get a new budget.”

The highway superintendent said the best way to deal with the overall county budget is to simply do what needs to be done. “It is going to take cuts and tax increases the way I see it,” he said. “I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but you can’t cut your way out, not with what is in front of us.”

Industrial Development Board

Bryan Daniels, president and CEO of the Blount County Chamber Partnership, said the Industrial Development Board is requesting $685,542 from the county for fiscal year 2011-12. “That number reflects the 12.8 percent cut the mayor was requesting,” he said.

Daniels said a reduced amount from the county also means a reduction in the amount requested from the cities. “Our request means that we will recruit to business on a smaller scale, but we are still recruiting,” Daniels said. “The majority of our funding goes to incentives and industrial park operations.”

To hit the mark set by the mayor, Daniels said they have significantly decreased prospect visits to other states. “We’ve also idled back some of the industrial parks’ operations, and we have temporarily discontinued some of the financial forecasting we were doing to aid companies we are recruiting or who are already in Blount County,” he said.

The next Budget Committee meeting is set for Thursday, April 11.

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