Just a doggone mess… Public hearing on 2021-2022 budget could provide its own fireworks

Published 2:23 pm Tuesday, June 29, 2021

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
There is sure to be a lot of fireworks this coming weekend as Independence Day will be celebrated across the country but there could possibly be another firework show on the horizon come July 19th when the Carter County Commission holds its public hearing on the fiscal year 2021-2022 budget at 5 pm at the Carter County Courthouse.

The main issue that is sure to draw much discussion from the public, as well as the commission during their meeting to approve the budget, will focus on the animal shelter.

This issue has been ongoing for quite some time in regard to the funding of the shelter. The issue is not toward Director Shannon Posada or even the importance that the shelter has in serving the citizens of Carter County.

It all boils down to one thorn in the flesh and that is dollars.

There are two solid points in the talk about funding and that is the commission has agreed to fund $225,000 and the city just upped its ante in the funding and now has committed to $145,000 for a total of $370,000 combined from both governing bodies in the county.

Now, the issue arises on how or more specifically who will fund the remaining $122,603 left on the proposed budget. The animal shelter board is currently working to get detailed information on how to make a 501c3 work for the shelter but there still are more questions than answers as neither board has said that they were looking to pull funding once the 501c3 is established.

During the June Commission meeting, while Budget Committee Chairman Austin Jaynes was discussing motions to budget items, Commission Gary Bailey who has been the most vocal commissioner about the animal shelter budget made a motion regarding the funding to the animal shelter.

“I would like to make a motion that we give them all the remaining funds they bring in – sales, donations, and all revenue they get from adoptions and whatever they get and we set their budget at $225,000 from the county and we are finished and we see where this goes,” Bailey stated in his motion.

“They get every dime donated to them that they sell and work for independently is theirs and as for as the county, we give them $225,000. Maybe we can see if this works a little better.”

Mark Blevins seconded the motion and asked Bailey directly if his motion meant that the $225,000 that Bailey had stated was all that the commission was going to give the animal shelter and just as the city told them to not to come back and ask for more.

Bailey responded yes.

Dr. Robert Acuff was recognized by Commission Chairman Travis Hill and reminded his fellow commissioners about a couple of things surrounding the animal shelter seeking the 501c3 status.

“When we began this process, as you may recall, we are exploring the opportunity to become a 501c3 and the animal shelter board is acting in good faith to do that, and CTAS and MTAS have already been contacted,” Dr. Acuff stated.

“As I said in the budget committee, County Attorney Josh Hardin did have some issues of county employees becoming employees of a 501c3 and remaining as county employees. That also brings up the other issues of benefits, TCRS retirement funds, etc.

“We were under the impression in February that we would have 16 months to complete that process,” Dr. Acuff continued. “This body and council came together with an agreement that the animal shelter board is the ruling board for the animal shelter.

“We are doing our job as best we can to approach that. I think it’s unfair and disenchanting for this commission to back down on their word to move to $225,000 without that 16 months.”

Bailey responded to Dr. Acuff’s comments by stating that the motion was for 16 months and that the 16 months were there.

“From February to now is four months and we have one year left so we will be right back in this situation one year from now if they don’t,” said Bailey. “All we are doing is setting the wheels in motion.”

In regards to the motion made earlier by Bailey, Commission Mark Tester questioned by saying, “To my understanding, the animal shelter has been turning in $40,000 to $50,000 every year.

“In this resolution, this money will stay with the shelter and they won’t have to turn it back in. Roughly, last year or year before, they spent $239,000 more or less but they turned in $40,000 or $50,000 so in this, they would get to keep all the funds they have left.”

Dr. Acuff shared with the commissioners that in the last budget meeting that County Finance Director Brad Burke stated that if the dog catcher or animal control officer and everything surrounding that was removed, that the 2021-2022 budget is less money than the last two or three animal shelter budgets.

Burke confirmed Dr. Acuff’s comment.

City Manager Daniel Estes was present at the meeting and responded to the commission about the City of Elizabethton’s willingness to help the county in meeting its budget in regards to the animal shelter.

“To the question at hand, the math as I saw it and I took Director Burke’s numbers, the cost per animal per day per citizen for those who live in the city and those county citizens that live in the city, the fiscal year 2018-19 number that I came up with was $257,483 which was the number the county government put into the animal shelter and the fiscal 2019-20 year was $228,501 and the difference pretty much is that the city went up to $25,000 in its lion share from one year to the next,” Estes stated.

Estes also added that the city was willing to pitch in another $20,000 to bring their total contribution to $145,000 to help the county meet their animal shelter budget.

Finance Director Burke broke down the budget for the commission on numerous occasions as numbers were flying around the room like seagulls on a beach becoming confusing at times.

“The total amount budgeted for 2021-2022 is $492,603,” Burke began. “You take $125,000 from the city contribution out and another $20,000 from the city, $47,500 in revenue from the animal shelter, and $62,198.24 in payroll for animal control and another $7,150 for non-payroll animal control, that leaves $230.755.

Burke was questioned by Brad Johnson about some of the items in the budget

“I guess you could go without liability insurance and get the county sued. I am just telling you the numbers needed to fund that position. You can close your eyes and pretend it’s not there but it’s there and has to be paid,” stated Burke.

“We are talking about two different things. Last year, 2020-2021, is different from 2021-2022. There are some additional costs in 2021-2022 for animal control and of course revenue is budgeted higher.”

Discussion continued among the commissioners and at times became a little heated between commissioners.

Burke shared his opinion on the issue which many of the commissioners and the public, in general, may have wanted to say but haven’t.

“I am going to give my opinion because I am a short-timer here – I have a little bit more than 30 days left but like I told Mr. Bailey back there – S**t or get off the pot. Fund the d**n thing or close it,” said Burke emphatically.

After much discussion, the subject met a Barney Fife moment as it was quickly nipped in the bud by County Attorney Hardin.

“It’s inappropriate for you tonight to vote on any department’s budget as a final vote,” Hardin stated from an opinionated standpoint. “There is a process by which the budget committee has their hearings and they present you a recommended budget which was sent just before this meeting.

“There is a public hearing, and then you all can make adjustments to the budget but that ain’t tonight. This is not the appropriate time to vote on any department’s budget tonight.”

Both sides have valid points in regard to the issue. Bailey and some of the other commissioners see the animal shelter as a growing money pit while those who support the animal shelter want to serve the community with animal control and other services while getting the needed funds to cover employees wages and benefits, insurance, and many other areas that are required for the shelter’s operation.

It will be an interesting public hearing, to say the least.