15.75¢: ‘Bare bones’ would still hike rate

Published 8:30 am Friday, May 23, 2014

Despite bare-bones budgets and funding only absolutely necessary expenditure increases, the county tax rate could see an increase of about 15.75 cents for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
The Budget Committee of the Carter County Commission met Thursday for its final budget workshop of the year with the immediate financial needs of the county on the table. The final workshop came on the heels of several budget presentations where the county departments and outside agencies presented budget requests.
“Tonight we want to try to sift through everything and sort of get our ducks in a row,” said Budget Committee Chairman Harry Sisk.
The meeting was a workshop, so no votes were taken on tax rates or funding. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss funding options in order to give the county finance director some direction in drafting the budget for an official vote.
To start the meeting, County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach reviewed the budget requests and the county’s current budget situation with members of the committee.
The first requests to be discussed were those presented by outside agencies that had requested additional funding for the coming fiscal year.
“A good way to start would be to address the needs and leave everything else as is,” Sisk said.
The biggest request that the committee labeled as a “need” was the request for increased funding in pathology services received from East Tennessee State University. These services include autopsies and death investigations, which Deloach said are expenses the county cannot ignore.
At a previous meeting, Deloach reported the original request from pathology services had been much higher, but that county officials had been able to negotiate the increase down significantly. The current requested increase is in the amount of $35,157.25.
“That pathology, in my way of looking at it, is just extortion,” said committee member Tom “Yogi” Bowers. “I feel like they are trying to strong-arm us. It’s a squeeze play because they are trying to keep up with Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.”
Bowers said he felt that way because these are services needed by the county, and if it does not contract with ETSU for these services, then the county would be forced to contract with an agency in Knoxville to receive the same service – but would have to pay additional transportation costs.
The recommendation made by the committee was to leave the funding for outside agencies the same as last year with the exception to fund the requested increase from pathology services.
When talks shifted to the General Fund budget, Bowers suggested leaving the funding the same as last year and asking the elected officials to absorb the increased insurance and retirement costs as well as any state-mandated raises into their own budgets.
“The thing about this is each officeholder will have to agree to this,” Sisk said.
Deloach agreed the office holders would have to agree and also said the elected officials would also have to rework their budgets in order to be able to absorb the additional expenses.
“The only thing I would caution you about is the Election Commission,” Deloach said. “It is an election year and they cannot absorb $75,000 in their budget.” The additional $75,000 had been requested by the Election Commission because it will have two elections this fall – one in August and the second in November.
The next fund up for discussion was the solid waste fund, which has been the subject of much discussion in recent months.
“There is not much you can do with solid waste fund,” Deloach said. “There is no waste in this budget. It is bare bones already.”
Deloach went on to describe the solid waste fund as being in “critical need” due to decreasing revenue after the loss of the landfills largest client. She said the landfill would need an additional $91,000 in funding just to balance the budget. She said that amount would not cover the completion of the Elk Mills convenience Center or the cost of a new rolloff truck desperately needed by the landfill.
The committee then discussed the needs of the debt service fund. Deloach told the committee that if the funding for debt service remained the same as the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the debt service fund would start out the 2014-2015 fiscal year being $955,000 in the hole. She said the next note to come off the debt service will not be paid off until mid-2016, so the county would not see any debt relief until that time.
“We are going to have to put some money into debt service,” Bowers said.
Deloach said that a total of 12 cents would have to be added to the tax rate just to balance the debt service budget. She said currently 14.5 cents of the tax rate goes into the debt service fund.
When discussion of the school budget began, Deloach reminded the committee that any funding approved for the county schools would have to be matched at 32 percent for the city school system as well.
Currently, Deloach said, the county school system needs an additional $96,000 in funding from the county to meet their Maintenance of Effort funding requirement with the state in order to receive any state revenues. She said that meant the county would have to budget a total of $140,000 in additional education funding to account for the 32 percent would have to go to the city school system.
After all the department and outside agency requests were discussed, the committee agreed most agencies and offices would receive the same funding level as last year, with the following increases approved: $68,000 for the Election Commission, $91,000 for Solid Waste, $140,000 for education funding and $955,000 funding for debt service.
Deloach said those funding increases would result in a property tax increase of 15.75 cents, which would bring the property tax rate to $2.4875.
Deloach will begin drafting the budget for 2014-2015 fiscal year based on the committee’s recommendations. The budget will then be presented to the committee for decision at a “voting meeting” to be held on May 29 at 5:15 p.m. at the Courthouse.