County approves ’16-17 budget with no change to tax rate

Published 12:23 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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After hours of debate that at times got heated members of the Carter County Commission passed the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget.
Debate among commissioners became contentious on a few topics, and at one point during a debate on funding for the County Mayor’s Office Commissioner Ronnie Trivets picked up his papers and left the meeting. Trivet did not return to the meeting.
As part of the budget approval process, commissioners were presented with four resolutions that set funding and revenues for the county – one setting the various budgets for the county departments, one setting allocations for outside agencies, one setting the county’s tax rate and one approving tax relief for residents who qualify as low-income, disabled, or as veterans.
To begin the budget review process, Commissioner Dr. Robert Acuff made a motion to review each department’s budget one at a time instead of approving them in one single lump. The motion received a second from Commissioner Al Meehan.
As part of the reason behind his motion, Acuff cited a desire to comply with a state law that recently went into affect that restricts voting for members of the county’s governing body who are also county employees or whose spouse is a county employee. Under the previous law, county employees were allowed to vote on any matter as long as they publicly declared they had a conflict of interest prior to voting. County Attorney Joshua Hardin explained that under the new law, those commissioners who are a county employee or whose spouse works for the county can not vote on any matter they have a conflict of interest in. Hardin said those affected commissioners could still vote on the overall budget but could not vote on a specific amendment or a specific department budget that would affect them personally.
Acuff said he also felt all members of the Commission should have a chance to review the proposed budget in full, not just those members who serve on the budget committee.
Several commissioners voiced their agreement with Acuff’s motion, but others did not — saying the budget committee had worked hard on the budget for several months and there was no need to rehash it again. Three members of the budget committee, including Chairwoman Sonja Culler, said they had no problem with the full Commission reviewing the proposed budget.
Ultimately, Acuff’s motion passed the Commission on a vote of 15-9.
Carter County Finance Director Christa Byrd reviewed the budget for each department for the Commission and stopped to answer questions asked by the Commissioners.
Debate turned heated during discussion on the budget for the County Mayor’s Office after Acuff questioned if the office would continue to have a secretary since the line item for the secretary salary showed $0 while the amount of $40,000 was listed under the line item “other salaries and wages.”
“It is clear to me what your intent is here tonight,” Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said in response to the question by Acuff. Humphrey then handed out several sheets of paper to the commissioners which he said contained a job description for the new position of Economic Development Director in the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development as well as a salary comparison for economic development director positions.
Humphrey told the full Commission he would give them the same presentation he had given the budget committee regarding his plan to change the title and job duties of his current Administrative Assistant Susan Robinson.
Acuff then asked Hardin the legalities of whether or not a county mayor could create a new director’s position. Hardin said his understanding of state law allows the Humphrey to hire whatever secretarial or clerical assistants he feels are necessary for the performance of the duties of his office.
Hardin reviewed the applicable state law and offered a more detailed opinion to the Commission.
“I don’t know that creating a position of Economic Development Director is something that can be done without the vote of the Commission,” Hardin said. “There isn’t a black and white answer for you.”
Creating a county-wide director’s position would require the vote of the full Commission, Hardin said, but he added that Humphrey had the authority to create the position in his own office so long as it was not a county-wide position.
“At no point in time am I advocating creating an economic development director for carter County,” Humphrey said. “This is going to be the County Mayor’s Office for Economic and Community Development.”
Because the position within his office is changing, Humphrey said he approached the budget committee requesting to transfer excess funds from the Buildings and Grounds Budget to the County Mayor’s budget in order to provide an appropriate salary for the new position.
Humphrey originally requested an increase of $18,000, which would have set the salary for the position around $50,000. That request was denied but Humphrey presented a compromise plan that would set the salary at $40,000 and that was ultimately approved by the budget committee in a split vote.
“We’re not talking about a pay increase, we are just talking about paying someone for what they are actually working,” Humphrey said, adding Robinson frequently works more than 40 hours per week.
Commissioner Al Meehan, who serves on the Buildings and Grounds committee, voiced a concern that Humphrey never discussed his plans to cut funding from the Building and Grounds budget with that overseeing committee.
Humphrey replied that while he worked with the Buildings and Grounds committee on special projects he had never presented the request for the Buildings and Grounds budget, which he oversees, to that committee.
“The concern here seems to be communication and how you go about doing things,” Meehan said. “I am concerned about how you are relating and communicating information to get things done.”
Some commissioners voiced their opposition to the questioning the proposed raise when the budget had already passed the committee. Commissioner Robert Carroll said he would not participate in what he called a personal attack on Humphrey, Commissioner Charles Von Cannon called the questioning of the issue “horse manure” and Commissioner Ronnie Trivett picked up his papers and walked out of the meeting during the debate.
Commissioner Buford Peters made a motion to reject the Mayor’s budget request, but it failed on a vote of 9-13.
After more than an hour of debate, the Commission moved on to other portions of the budget.
The only changed that was made to the proposed 2016-17 fiscal year budget before it passed was an increase in funding for a mutual agreement for the Butler Fire Department to begin officially providing service to residents of Carter County who live near Butler. A portion of those residents live in an area of the county that is only accessible by crossing over into Johnson County and then back over into Carter County.
The budget committee previously agreed to funding the Butler Fire Department at $10,000 for the service. During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Randall Jenkins, who represents the affected area and first presented the request, made a motion to set that funding at the originally requested $20,000. That motion passed on a vote of 17-7.
After the department budgets were passed along with funding for outside agencies, the Commission voted to set the county’s property tax rate at $2.45, which is the same rate as last year. The Commission also approved the resolution to provide financial assistance to qualifying residents.

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