Committee hears concerns during budget Public Hearing

Published 9:44 pm Monday, June 12, 2017

A handful of citizens addressed the Carter County Budget Committee Monday evening during a public hearing on the county’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
While no citizens had filled out a request through the Carter County Finance Office to speak at the public hearing as is required, Budget Committee Chairwoman Sonja Culler opened up the floor to anyone who would like to address the committee.
The first citizen who spoke said the county should look at ways to bring new revenue into the county without increasing the property tax rate. One of the woman’s suggestions was to require pet owners to pay for an annual tag for their animals at a rate of $5 per year if the animal was spayed or neutered and $10 per year if the animal was not. She also suggested the county begin issuing fines to residents who have a collection of trash and junk around their homes, stating that some homes along Highway 91 in Stoney Creek “look worse than any ghetto in New York City.”
The second citizen to speak was Sue Hart, who told the Committee her background was in budgets involving utilities. She asked the members to have the county officials look at other counties for ideas on how expenditures can be cut and managed and to track those savings.
“It’s important that we know how it’s spent, but can you account for process improvement, and best practices, and show you are trying to do all that you can,” Hart asked the committee.
Next to address the group was Jeannette Morgan, a resident of Elizabethton, who stated she was opposed to a wheel tax or an increase in the property tax rate.
“The ones who live in the City are getting hit double as it is,” Morgan said, adding she felt the county should “live within its means.”
Morgan said she had noticed a division between the County Commission and Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey, adding she feels there is a group of people on the Commission who vote against anything which Humphrey supports.
“It seems like when he wants to do good for the people they oppose him,” Morgan said. “They should put their feelings aside when it comes to doing what’s right.”
County Commissioner John Lewis, who is a member of the Budget Committee, asked if he could speak during the public hearing and Culler said he could speak as a citizen.
“I do not think we need a property tax hike this year,” Lewis said.
Lewis said the county has $20 Million in CD investments in Trustee Randall Lewis’ office and that money should be used to fund the budget instead of raising taxes.
“There ain’t no reason to have no kind of property tax increase,” Lewis said.
After Lewis had spoken, Culler addressed the Committee members as well as the citizens in attendance at the public hearing regarding Lewis’ claim the county has $20 Million it can access.
“The $20 Million sitting in the Trustee’s Office is to pay our bills until the next year’s tax payments come in,” Culler said. “I’m sorry that Mr. Lewis, as a Budget Committee member, is not well aware of that.”
Carter County Finance Director Christa Byrd said those funds mentioned by Lewis are used to pay bills throughout the year because property tax payments typically come in all at once during a short time frame as the tax payments come due. The money Lewis is referring to is the county’s operating cash balance as well as the county’s fund balance, which is designed to use to cover emergency or unforeseen expenses.
After Lewis’ comments, no other citizen asked to speak, so Culler called the public hearing to a close. Following the public hearing, members of the Budget Committee held their regular monthly meeting.
Culler said she had been asked to bring the subject of approving the county’s budget in June rather than July before the Committee for consideration. She noted all the advertisements regarding the budget calendar and advertised meetings listed that the full County Commission would consider the budget during the July meeting.
Committee member Ronnie Trivett made a motion for the Committee to present the budget to the full Commission to be voted on during the Commission’s meeting on Monday, June 19, rather than waiting until July.
Commissioner Dr. Robert Acuff said he opposed changing the date to approve the budget, citing public notice to citizens and a concern with allowing the members of the Commission ample time to review the proposed budget.
“This is probably the most important thing we do for this county,” Acuff said. “I want my fellow commissioners to be as familiar with this budget as we are on this committee.”
Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey said there was no state statute that prohibited the Commission from passing the budget in June. He cited in years past the Commission has only received the budget a week or so before voting on it.
“These commissioners are not going to have any less time to consider this than they typically do,” Humphrey said. “I just don’t see the need to delay until the month of July.”
Byrd informed the committee that if they decided to move the vote to the June Commission meeting that would give the other commissions less than a week to review the budget and research any questions they have.
“The majority of people who will be voting on this have not seen the budget,” Byrd said. “Even if they pick it up tomorrow they won’t have much time to look at it.”
Culler said she felt the committee should allow their colleagues plenty of time to review the budget.
“I feel this would be a disservice to the public,” she said regarding moving the vote up one month.
Trivett’s motion to move budget consideration to the June Commission meeting failed on a vote of 2-6 with Trivett and Commissioner Robert Carroll voting in favor and Commissioners Acuff, Culler, Al Meehan, L.C. Tester, Ross Garland, and John Lewis opposing the change.
The committee also heard from County Attorney Josh Hardin regarding the contract between Carter County and the City of Elizabethton setting each government entity to pay for 50 percent of the operating costs of the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter. The Elizabethton City Council previously voted to renegotiate the contract, but Humphrey said they failed to vote on the measure in time and the contract auto-renewed for five years.
Hardin told the Committee he had reached out to the city’s attorney Roger Day regarding the contract and heard back from him on June 8. Hardin said he received what he would call “an initial offer” regarding the contract with many of the details remaining the same.
“They proposed to change from 50 percent to 25 percent or cap it at $100,000,” Hardin said, adding the City is also requesting the contract be voted on year-by-year rather than on a five-year cycle.
Hardin said he would present the City’s proposal during the full Commission meeting on Monday.
Humphrey asked to address the Committee and took issue with comments which were made by city officials, particularly Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander, during the recent City Council meeting.
Humphrey said he feels like he is being “shot at every day” regarding his stance that more funding is needed for the animal shelter.
“I was beat to death in that City Council meeting that I would not sit down and negotiate with them,” Humphrey said, adding no one from the City reached out to him to renegotiate the contract.
Humphrey also pointed to the investigation being conducted by the State Comptroller’s Office into the shelter’s operations under a previous director.
“There is a potential criminal charges will be placed because criminal activities took place there,” Humphrey said, adding the District Attorney’s Office will ultimately decide whether or not to press charges based on the Comptroller’s report.
Byrd said she had been told the Comptroller’s report should be finalized “in the next couple of weeks.”

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