County seeks to cut budgets by 10 percent in face of tax hike

Published 6:15 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2018

With the possibility of a significant property tax increase looming, members of the Carter County Budget Committee are asking officeholders and department heads to cut 10 percent from their bottom lines to help avoid the tax hike.

“It’s looking very grim,” Budget Committee Chairwoman Sonja Culler said during a Budget Committee meeting Monday evening.

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The committee started this year’s budget process an estimated $443,000 in the hole after the Commission voted last year to pull that much funding from the county’s reserve coffers to avoid a large tax increase. That shortage came in spite of a 2-cent increase to the property tax rate for the fiscal year 2017-18. In the 2016-17 budget process, the Commission allocated around $472,000 from the fund balance to avoid raising taxes.

When the budget requests came in from the various departments this year, the county would have needed a significant increase in the property tax rate to fund all the requests.

“We started out a week ago at 16, and now we’ve managed to get it down to 10, well almost 11 because it’s at 10.73,” Culler said.

After cutting out raises for county employees apart from those mandated by the state for elected officials, the committee is still facing a significant tax increase to cover the expenditures.

Those numbers are not solid yet because the Carter County School System has not presented their budget to the county as they have been awaiting word from the state on the BEP funding for the year. Culler said the school system hopes to present their budget to the committee on Thursday evening when the committee meets again.

Several members of the committee said the group needs to look at the budget requests and find ways to cut expenses to avoid such a large tax increase on the citizens.

Commissioner Dr. Robert Acuff noted that several departments listed an increase under the “communications” line item and asked if the county is supplying cell phones for employees.

Carter County Finance Director Brad Burke said there are approximately 80 or 90 cell phones paid for by the county that he has records of, with the majority of those belonging to the Carter County Sheriff’s Office.

Acuff and others on the committee questioned the cost of supplying cell phones to employees and whether that is truly a need or more of a perk.

“I know it’s not much, but I think we’ve got to look at every dollar,” Acuff said.

Deputy Finance Director Michael Kennedy informed the committee that one of the communication increases that had been noted by the group was for a cell phone for General Sessions Court Judge Keith Bowers Jr. Kennedy said Bowers obtained a phone to use for court business because individuals were calling him on his personal cell for court-related matters.

“This is going to come across meaner than I mean it, but when you’ve got folks who are making $160,000 a year they can afford to pay for their own cell phones,” Acuff said. “Nothing against the Mayor, but if you are making $100,000 a year, you can afford a cell phone without the county having to pay for it.”

Commissioner John Lewis echoed the sentiment expressed by Acuff.

“I don’t think the county ought to pay for any cell phones,” Lewis said. “The state don’t mandate no cell phones.”

Commissioner Ross Garland questioned what is included in the “supplies” line item for the budgets, noting that one department had two separate lines for “supplies” and there were increases in these areas of the budgets.

Commissioner Brad Johnson questioned a budget request by the Carter County Emergency Management Agency for $30,000 for the purchase of a vehicle to be used by the deputy director. Johnson said the EMA should look at the state surplus listing for a used vehicle or consider a lease agreement instead of purchasing a new vehicle.

While the committee discussed various things in the department’s line-item requests for their budget, Acuff and Culler reminded them that they could not make cuts to specific line items in the requests.

“We have to give them an amount to cut and let them adjust their budget accordingly,” Acuff said.

Members of the committee directed Burke to speak with the office holders and ask them to cut the non-salary portion of their budgets by 10 percent and bring the requests back to the committee.

“Some may be able to do that and some may not,” Acuff said. “I think we need to get to a manageable budget and cut all the bells and whistles out of it.”

The Budget Committee will host their next meeting on Thursday, May 17, at 6 p.m. at the Carter County Courthouse.