County budget probe may not be criminal case

Published 10:14 am Saturday, April 4, 2015

As an investigation into the budgetary actions of the Carter County Commission continues, District Attorney General Tony Clark says he does not think any commissioners will be removed from office as a result.

“As far as I’m concerned I don’t think there will be an ouster,” Clark said. “I didn’t think that was warranted.”

In December, members of the community action group Carter County Citizens In Action filed a formal request with Clark’s office, asking for a criminal investigation into actions taken by the County Commission in setting the county budget for fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15. In their request, the group alleged the commission violated state law by altering the debt service portion of the budget after the public hearings had been held.

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Under state law  “the county legislative body may alter or revise the proposed budget except as to provision for debt service requirements and for other expenditures required by law.”

When the public hearing on the budget was held in July 2014, members of the budget committee voted to allocate an additional 12 cents on the tax rate to the debt service fund in order to balance a pre-existing deficit in that fund. However, they did not include any allocations for a proposed new middle school project in the Stoney Creek Community.

At the July commission meeting, Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to strike the proposed 12 cents for debt service and move 10 cents from the General Fund tax rate over to the debt service tax rate. He also wanted another 10 cents added to the debt service tax rate, to be earmarked for a one-time capital outlay note to fund the architects’ fees for the proposed new middle school.

The proposal by Peters ultimately passed on a split vote of 13-9. The budget was vetoed by County Mayor Leon Humphrey but the commission overturned the veto and the budget was set.

Many of the commissioners who voted for the budget did not return to the commission following the August general election. The commissioners who did vote for the budget alteration, and who are still on the governing body are Peters, Willie Campbell and Sonja Culler. Commissioner Bobbie Gouge-Dietz originally voted against the budget but voted to override the mayoral veto.

But those commissioners are not in danger of losing their seats, regardless of the outcome of Clark’s investigation he said.

During his investigation, Clark said he has spoken with the State Attorney General’s Office several times for advice on how to proceed. Shortly after the community action group requested the investigation, State Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III rendered an opinion in which he concluded the commission did violate state law when it altered debt service funding for the 2014-15 budget.

While Clark said he will speak to a judge about seeking civil relief in the matter, he said he also does not foresee criminal charges being placed. In his conversations with the State Attorney General’s office, Clark said he questioned whether criminal charges would be proper in the case.

“They said it would probably be unconstitutional for criminal charges to be brought against the commissioners,” Clark said. “That sort of takes me out of the equation as far as criminal charges.”

The option now would be to pursue civil action and “let a judge decide this matter,” Clark said. “That is what the Attorney General’s office recommends we do,” he added.

A civil action could be brought in either Circuit or Chancery Court, Clark said, adding he has not filed anything with the courts “at this time.”

Once the case is filed in civil court, the judge presiding over the case could issue a declaratory judgement or an injunction which would bar the commission from taking the same actions in the future, if the court finds the group did indeed break the law in setting the budget.