Commission OKs 11 cent tax increase, employees raises

Published 3:15 pm Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Following nearly 20 different tax rate proposals during a seven-and-a-half hour long meeting, members of the Carter County Commission voted to approve an 11-cent property tax increase for the coming fiscal year and to provide raises for county employees.

Members of the Commission voted in a split decision by a margin of 14-9 to set the property tax rate at $2.58. That increase includes 9 cents to balance the budget and 2 cents to divide into raises for county employees and school system paraprofessionals. The 2-cent increase for raises will provide $166,701.74 in additional revenue for the county to fund pay raises and the associated benefit costs (social security and retirement payments) for the employees. The Carter County Finance Department was tasked with calculating what amount of raise could be handed out across the board utilizing the additional revenue.

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In addition to giving raises to county employees, the approved budget also restored funding to several outside agencies that had been cut from allocations earlier in the budget process. Budget Committee Chairwoman Sonja Culler made a motion early in the meeting to take $20,000 from the Carter County Emergency Management Agency budget along with $61,456 from the Highway Department budget to cover the cost of restoring funding to the previously cut outside agencies. That motion passed by a margin of 12-9 with two commissioners abstaining for cause citing their service on boards of some of the non-profit agencies involved in the vote.

Normally approval by the Commission requires at least 13 votes, which is a simple majority of the 24-member body, but in this instance, County Attorney Josh Hardin said that threshold was lowered due to two commissioners abstaining for cause.

Culler made the motion that was ultimately successful in setting the tax rate for the coming fiscal year, while Commissioner Ross Garland provided the second for the motion. Commissioners Willie Campbell, Buford Peters, Chairman Dr. Robert Acuff, Mike Hill, Al Meehan, Bradley Johnson, Danny Ward, Garland, Bobbie Gouge-Dietz, Randal Jenkins, Larry Miller, Culler, Ray Lyons, and Kelly Collins voted to approve the tax rate and raises. Commissioners Nancy Brown, Ronnie Trivett, Charles Von Cannon, Isaiah Grindstaff, Timothy Holdren, John Lewis, Scott Simerly, Robert Carroll, and Cody McQueen voted against the proposal. Commissioner L.C. Tester, who had been in attendance earlier, left the meeting prior to this vote taking place.

Before the motion by Culler was successful, several members of the Commission made a variety of proposals to set the tax rate ranging from the current rate of $2.47 up to $2.59. Some proposals were determined to be out of order, such as a suggestion to defund the Commission which is required to be funded at a certain level by state statute.

Earlier this year, the Commission voted to adopt a Balanced Budget Policy, which prohibits the Commission from tapping into the county’s reserved fund balance in order to cover expenditures in setting the annual budget. During Monday’s meeting several attempts were made to suspend the Balanced Budget Policy, but all failed after failing to garner a two-thirds majority on any vote.

Tempers flared several times during Monday’s meeting leading to more than one instance of raised voices and Chairman Acuff having to call down speakers. Several proposals failed to gain traction and the Commission seemed at a deadlock standstill at times. Some commissioners accused their colleagues of using the budget and tax rate as a political tool.

“In 18 days, a good number of people on this body are up for re-election, and I wonder how much of an impact that is having on this discussion,” Meehan said.

Hardin cautioned members of the Commission of the consequences of not approving the budget during Monday’s meeting. State law requires Carter County set its fiscal year budget during July. If the budget is not approved by August 15, Hardin said the county must send a letter to the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office requesting an extension and demonstrating what extraordinary circumstances the county is facing that prevented them from passing a budget by deadline.

“I don’t think ‘We couldn’t agree on a budget,’ qualifies as an extraordinary circumstance,” Hardin said.

Failing to pass the budget by deadline would also open the door for the state to set the county’s budget, and tax rate, for the county.

“If you don’t adopt a budget by that time, the Comptroller’s Office will have to come in and set the tax rate and appropriations,” Hardin said.

Members of the Commission asked Carter County Finance Director Brad Burke to share his experience in that particular area due to his work as an auditor with the Comptroller’s Office prior to taking the helm of the county’s Finance Department.

“They can come in and set the tax rate at whatever they feel is reasonable based on what the officeholders have requested,” Burke said. That could lead to the Comptroller providing additional funds for county offices based on their review of those budgets and also the state setting the tax rate higher than the one proposed by the Budget Committee.

“Somewhere, in some fashion, we’ve made a boo-boo and we need to fix it,” Grindstaff said. “If the Comptroller’s Office comes in here, they will fix it, and it won’t be $2.47 or $2.57. It could be $2.74. If the officeholders decide they can’t make it on what we’ve given them, a federal judge may come in and decide what we will give them.”

During debate on the budget, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey spoke several times stating he did not believe a tax increase was necessary and the Commission should look instead to cutting budgets for other officeholders and pointing to cuts he said he has made to his budget during his tenure. “You never have examined those budgets,” Humphrey said.

Culler pointed out cuts were made to the various budgets.

“We put in 30 hours on this. We talked to the officeholders. We asked them to make cuts,” Culler said. “Some of them could, some of them could not, and some of them already had.”

Humphrey said he believes there is “padding” in other officeholders’ budgets which the Commission could cut if they chose to.

Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford told the Commission any cuts to his budget would result in cuts to services because he has a maintenance of effort he must maintain under state law regarding personnel. If he has to cut things such as uniforms, training, and vehicles, Lunceford said his officers can’t perform their jobs. One area which could see cuts because it is not a state-mandated law enforcement duty, Lunceford said, is School Resource Officers in the schools.

Grindstaff pointed to statements made by Burke when he told Budget Committee members that he did not see areas in the officeholders’ budgets that could be cut.

“Brad has told us many times that some of the offices can’t be cut any more,” Grindstaff said to Humphrey. “If you will show us where the padding is, where we can make those cuts, I will be the first to make that motion, Mayor.”

Ward then said, “And I’ll second it.”

Later in the discussion, Humphrey described the Balanced Budget Policy as a “feel good” move the Commission made without thinking it through. Humphrey encouraged the Commission to balance the budget using money from the reserve fund balance. He also took issue with statements made by some in the Commission that the county started the budget process this year “in the hole” due to taking money from the fund balance to balance last year’s budget.

“There is $2 million more dollars in it than there was last year,” Humphrey said of the reserve fund balance. “Where is the hole?”

After a brief recess to allow Burke to check some figures, Burke returned to the meeting and informed the Commission that last year the reserve fund balance contained approximately $8,138,000 while this year it is estimated the county will begin the new fiscal year with a balance of about $7 million.

Humphrey again urged the Commission to tap into the fund balance to avoid a tax increase this year and instead look into fixing the funding issue with next year’s budget.

“You said that last year,” Deputy Finance Director Michael Kennedy responded. “You keep saying we’ll fix it next year.”