Considering the general fund portion of the Carter County budget

Published 8:34 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017


Developing a budget for a county in Tennessee is not an easy task. Our county’s legislative body — the county commission — must not only follow all the state laws and mandates, but also manage our citizens’ money to provide the proper level of service. State law demands that the county provide and fund services for education, civil defense, health department, law enforcement including the jail, medical examiner, roads and bridges, solid waste, courthouse and county building and grounds, and courthouse office expenses for fee officials.
The state also requires the county to have a growth management policy, designed to help us maintain an appropriate level in fund balance as well as other policy issues.
Then there is optional funding — items not required by state law. That includes services like 911, animal shelter/control, recreation, support for non-profit organizations, fire protection, and others which are at the discretion of the county commission. Periodically unfunded mandates are also handed down from the state — items we must pay for, but for which we receive no state money. We must pay for those with county tax dollars. An example of such a state mandate is the 5% salary increase for all elected officials (not including county commissioners). That total cost is $42,019.60.
As our budget committee began reviewing the proposed budget and hearing from county department directors as well as outside agencies, it became clear that full requests could not be met without a large increase in revenue (property tax). Many department requests included a 4-5% increase in salary for employees, coupled by non-salary requests ranging from no request for additional funding to over $230,000 in additional support.
Eighteen outside agencies — those not a part of county government — requested over $250,000, an increase of approximately 25% from last year. As much as we believe in and depend upon the services of our county departments and the missions of these outside organizations, our county’s financial situation prohibits our ability to honor these requests at the current ask.
Our 2017-18 budgeting process is complicated and multifaceted, and to try to adequately describe it in a single editorial is impossible. The best way to present all of the information reminds me of an old joke: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”
This editorial addresses that one “bite” — the general fund budget. In upcoming editions we will offer follow-up editorials with additional information on the other budgets that are not part of the General Fund budget: education, highway and solid waste. Each of these budgets have intricacies and complexities that contribute to the Carter County budget of $61,444,985.44.
Coming into this budget process, the County was already experiencing a deficit of nearly $700,000. To complete the fiscal year closer to target, several items were paid for out of fund balance (the monies required by the state to be held in reserve for emergent expenditures). The two largest expenditures were the renovation and expansion of the health department ($500,000), and the animal shelter increase in operational cost ($119,000). The tendency to run to fund balance when budgets are not met is a practice that must be slowed and eventually eliminated. (This is a topic for another editorial; so let me get back to the upcoming budget.)
The proposed 2017-18 budget reflects an increase of 2.75% over last year which currently totals $14,750,451.98 as part of the General Fund (not including state and federal funding for education, or highway and solid waste). In order to fund all requests and pay back $700,000 to fund balance, we would need a 14-cent tax rate increase (based upon the value of one cent collected in property tax in Carter County = $82,800). Those 14 pennies equates to $1,159,200 and would erase all debt and restore the County’s fund balance to the 2016-17 level of $6,468,369.09.
The budget committee is presenting, not the needed 14 pennies but, rather a 4-penny increase in property tax. If approved by the commission, the new tax rate of $2.49 will result in an increase of $331,200 in tax revenue, which still falls short of paying for the increases — even with the cuts that are suggested. The County will have some additional revenue in the new budget year from property tax from new construction and re-appraisals, increased returns on County investments and other smaller items resulting in a revenue enhancement. This can help offset the deficit and perhaps provide an adequate “rainy day” fund for unforeseen expenditures. Over time, if we manage carefully and conservatively, the Commission can erase the deficit and rebuild the County’s fund balance.
The Carter County Commission Budget Committee has completed its task of preparing the 2017-18 budget, and it will be presented for consideration by the full Commission on June 19, 2017 in the Carter County Courthouse. The proposed budget raises the property tax 4 cents from $2.45 to $2.49 per $100 assessed property value. That means for every $100,000 of assessed value, the property owner will pay an additional $10 next year come tax time. Additionally, the committee has reviewed, discussed and negotiated where we intend to continue services and missions of those entities impacted.
This is your money we are discussing. As your commissioners, we represent and vote according to how those who put us in office want us to vote. If you have not yet had a chance to share your thoughts on this matter with your commissioners, you are encouraged to come out June 12 or June 19 at 6 p.m. to the courthouse for the meeting of the Budget Committee Public Hearing (12th) or the Carter County Commission (19th). You will have the opportunity to communicate regarding any topic impacting the 2017-18 budget process. We welcome and appreciate your input.
(Robert Acuff represents the First District (Stoney Creek) on the Carter County Commission. He also serves as vice chairman of the budget committee and secretary of the nominating committee.)

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