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Mayor vetoes county budget

Photo by Brandon Hicks Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey vetoed the budget approved by the County Commission on Monday citing "illegal" action taken by the commission as well as other problems with the amended budget.

Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey vetoed the budget approved by the County Commission on Monday citing “illegal” action taken by the commission as well as other problems with the amended budget.

On Wednesday Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey vetoed the amended budget approved by the Carter County Commission during its meeting on Monday.

“I know I will probably take a lot of criticism for this, but it is the right thing to do,” Humphrey said.
He said he made his decision to veto the budget for a number of reasons – most importantly because he felt the actions taken by the commission – in amending the debt service portion of the proposed budget – were illegal.
“The first reason I am going to put on record for vetoing this budget is, here again, we have violated the statute by adjusting the debt service portion that had been presented to the public in a public hearing,” Humphrey said. “The statute makes it clear that you cannot do that. You cannot reduce those funds.”
Humphrey compared this scenario to last year, when the question of the legality of reducing the debt service funding prompted his veto of the 2013-2014 budget.
That veto was overridden by the County Commission.
“In 2013-2014 they went from a 10-cent allocation down to 3,” Humphrey said. “That was a significant amount. It created a major deficit in our debt service account.”
“This year they went from a 12 cents down to 10,” he added. “It’s not as dramatic, but still the statute states you do not alter the debt service portion of the budget once it has been through public hearing.”
After last year’s budget veto, Humphrey said he asked the state attorney general to issue an opinion on the legality of changing the debt service portion of the budget once it had been presented at the public hearing.
“It took me almost six months to get it,” Humphrey said. “When I brought it back and presented it to the Commission I was told, ‘Well, it’s just an opinion.’ Even this year you saw that was the stand.
“‘It’s just an opinion?’” he repeated. “No, it’s not. It’s the attorney general’s opinion and we should allow that to carry some weight.”
Humphrey referred to the comment made by County Commission Chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers to Commissioner Nancy Brown, who cited the attorney general’s opinion when she questioned the legality of altering the debt service portion of the budget.
During Monday’s Commission meeting, Bowers said he didn’t think the Commission’s actions violated the law. “It has not been challenged in court,” Bowers told the group. “That is just one attorney’s opinion.”
Beyond the legal issues, Humphrey said the amendments made to the proposed budget on Monday not only failed to correct the shortfall in the debt service portion but created additional problems as well.
“Once they made those amendments to the budget, it went from being a budget that was totally balanced – debt service, general fund, school board allocation – it created not only a shortfall in the debt service account but a major shortfall in the general fund because there was a 10-cent change there,” Humphrey said.
The original budget, he said, was balanced and would have taken care of some of the major shortfalls and problems that “we had built up in the other funds – debt service in particular.”
On Monday, on a motion by Commissioner Buford Peters and seconded by Lawrence Hodge, the Commission passed on a vote of 13-9 to take 10 cents away from the general fund portion of the budget and move that money to the debt service portion of the budget.
The general fund portion of the budget covers all of the county’s departments and expenditures, which are not part of debt service, the county school system or the highway department.
Humphrey said taking 10 cents away from the tax allocation for the general fund, caused the amended budget to have a huge shortfall because expenditures in the general fund were not reduced to meet the loss of funding.
“Here we have approved (general fund expenditures) but yet there are not funds in the tax rate to support that budget,” Humphrey said. “There is a possibility that by the end of next year, or mid-way, that we could run out of money. We wouldn’t have enough because there is not enough appropriated.
“We may have to go into a mode where we would have to float a tax anticipation note just to make it through the year,” he added. “It’s not good business.”
Humphrey said the amendment to the budget not only created a shortfall, but created what he called a “mandatory” tax increase for next fiscal year.
The changes, he said, dictates that next year’s budget – 2015-16 – will have to include a 12-cent mandatory tax increase.
“I don’t know that the commission really understands the repercussions of that action,” he said. “People are upset now with the 12 cents, but they don’t know about the 12 cents that’s mandatory as a result of these actions.
“The original budget that did not have those provisions for the school project did not demand a tax increase next year. But once it was amended, then there is an absolute mandatory 12-cent tax increase needed next year just to plug the holes that were created this time.”
He said the 12 cents would be required in order to put the 10 cents back into the general fund and add 2 additional cents to the debt service to balance that fund.
Humphrey said his third reason to veto is based on concerns about the proposed middle school project. He said he is only one of a number of people, including school board members, who feel the school project is advancing too quickly.
“I have been in conversation with three school board members who are of the opinion that we are moving way too fast with the project,” he said. “I have been told there are at least a couple more who are of the same mindset.”
Humphrey said he supported the school system, but he feels there are too many unanswered questions for the county to proceed with funding for a new school. He said the schools have not informed the county about additional costs – such as utilities, maintenance or any additional personnel – the new school would require.
The budget approved by the county on Monday removed the 12 cents added to the debt service by the budget committee. The budget also shifted 10 cents in funding from general fund to debt service and added 10 cents to the tax rate to fund architect fees for the middle school project.
“We are at a point now that we all need to listen to our finance director. She has given us good, sound advice and it’s been ignored,” Humphrey said. “We’ve got so many holes in this bucket we’ve got to start plugging it before we start taking on additional debt.”
“We cannot continue to do this because you are breaking the taxpayers’ backs,” he added. “You are indebting our children and our grandchildren.”
Humphrey said he is taking quick action to veto the budget so the process can keep moving forward and the Commission can take action.
“I have acted as quickly as possible, as expeditiously as possible,” he said. “What this will do – making the decision today and vetoing today – that will give them the opportunity to go ahead and advertise and have a meeting scheduled no later than the 31st so we can get it done in the month of July.”
The Commission could, at that time, either make changes to the budget or override the veto by a simple majority vote.
Humphrey said it is his hope that members of the Commission will use the time created by the veto to reconsider.
“What this veto will do is give this body an opportunity to rethink and clearly understand what they have done,” he said.
The Mayor said he has spoken with several residents about the budget passed by the commission. “I have fielded countless calls about this budget since the meeting on Monday,” he said. “People are upset and concerned and rightfully so.”