The Carter County Commission’s Budget Committee has approved a budget plan for the next fiscal year. The committee developed the plan, which includes a six-cent property tax increase, at their Thursday night session.
The 2013 budget was finalized, in part, by using an estimated surplus from several different county departments from the 2012 budget. Finance Director Ingrid Deloach informed the committee that preliminary figures indicate the county will receive approximately $910,000 in surplus, including $750,000 from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office.
In the county’s general fund, Deloach informed the committee that in order to provide funding for all of the budget requests from county departments and outside agencies that receive local assistance, they must find a total of $758,692. She also commented that the general fund requests include a state-mandated raise for county officeholders and a proposed two percent raise for county employees.
After hearing Deloach’s report, County Commission Chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers presented a motion to the committee that uses a portion of the $910,000 to fund several areas of the county’s general budget. His motion asked for $90,000 to cover increases in workers’ compensation, $220,000 for the school resource officer salary line-item, $58,000 to pay for the two upcoming elections and $280,000 to the lost revenue fund. An additional $23,000 of the surplus would cover the county’s portion of the animal shelter and $9,773 going to cover increases in the cost of services from First Tennessee Development District and the ETSU Department of Pathology.
Bowers’ motion passed the committee by a unanimous vote.
Two areas of the FY 2013 budget—debt service and the county school system—continued to create the greatest level of contention among the committee. Deloach presented an initial outline at Thursday’s meeting that included a four-cent increase to the debt service fund and a 7.8 cent increase to the school’s general fund to offset a budget gap of $431,469. Those numbers were drawn from a motion by County Commissioner Steve Chambers during last week’s session.
Chambers’ motion, which received a vote of 4 to 3 with one pass, was initially recorded as a successful motion. After review of the rules, however, the budget committee determined that a motion must receive a true majority of the eight-member board to pass.
Two different motions on setting the county’s tax rate were raised by Bowers and Commissioner Bill Armstrong. Bowers’ motion asked for a four-cent increase for the school system and another four cents for the debt service. His motion failed by a vote of 3 to 4. Voting “nay” were Hodge, Brown, Sams and Arney. Commissioner Bayless did not cast a vote on the motion.
When Bowers’ motion failed, Armstrong presented a motion that asked for an additional three cents to be placed into the county’s debt service fund. The motion failed on a vote of 4 to 3. Voting against Armstrong’s proposal were Hodge, Brown and Sams. Bayless did not vote on the issue.
After two votes on funding the debt service failed, Bowers reminded his colleagues about last year’s decision to use the fund to pay for the budget without a tax increase. “Are we not going to pay it back now just because we don’t want to? I don’t understand. We knew we would have to pay it back. We knew there was going to be a payday. It has to go back in. You can just sit here and say you’re not going to vote for it because you don’t want to raise taxes,” said Bowers.
County Commissioner Scott Sams explained that he voted against the two motions on debt service because he favors deeper cuts to the budget. “If we don’t raise taxes, it forces us to cut,” he noted.
“That’s an easy horse to ride. No one in here wants to raise taxes,” Bowers answered. “When you get down to it after what we did last year, we’re going to have to raise taxes. You can give speeches about not raising taxes. That’s a reelection speech.”
“We can make the cuts. It’s there. Making fun of us won’t change it. You’ve got the vote right there (in Charlie Bayless) to pass the tax increase. Don’t blame us,” Sams responded.
Commissioner Nancy Brown also explained that she voted against Bowers’ motion to increase the funding to the school system because “we have some major issues. I just cannot rightfully go along with it.”
Carter County Assistant Director of Schools Dr. Kevin Ward, who attended Thursday’s budget meeting, explained that the school system is working to improve standards and achievement scores. “We understand there has to be teaching of standards. There has to consistency in teaching. Just going into a classroom and teaching part of the time won’t cut it,” he said.
Ward added that the school board has already cut $1.8 million from the 2012-2013 budget. He noted that $1.2 million have been made to recurring portions of the budget, while another $600,000 has been made as one-time cuts. Ward cautioned, “We’re coming into next year with a $600,000 deficit. We have already started looking at next year’s budget to identify potential ways to trim the budget. I’m not Joe Namath. I don’t make guarantees. But I will promise you we are going to look at every program, every angle to find these $600,000 in cuts so we don’t have to come back to you next year.”
Ward also explained that school systems across East Tennessee are experiencing the same type of financial problems as Carter County is currently facing. He stated that the loss of revenue from state and federal programs in the last one to two years has played a significant role in the budget crisis. “If we have failed to do one thing it’s that we have failed to see some of this money come to an end,” he said.
On a local level, Ward also stated that the school system has funded several capital improvement projects without asking for financial assistance from the county commission. He noted that the school board has approved roofing and bathroom renovations, kitchen hood replacement and new school buses without requesting the money from the commission. “Instead of using that money for a rainy day, we used it for these projects,” Ward said. “Over the last ten years, we have utilized $5 million of our own money.”
Carter County Commissioner Ken Arney, who attended Thursday’s meeting in lieu of Commissioner Chambers, spoke in support of the school system. He said, “When companies come to Carter County, the first thing they ask is about the school system. The best investment we can make is in our children. We can either invest in them today or we can do it tomorrow right over here (in the jail). I would rather try to educate these children today. If we don’t, they’re going to get educated another way tomorrow.”
Commissioner Hodge presented a motion to add three cents to the property tax rate for the school’s budget and another three cents for the debt service. The motion passed on a vote of 6 to 1. Arney voted against the motion.
Brown, who had voted against the previous motions on the tax rate, said, “If you swear our kids will get a better education, I will support this. All I ask is that our kids get a better education.”
The proposed property tax rate of $2.21 includes $1.015 for schools, 95 cents for the general fund, 11.5 cents for debt service and 13 cents for the highway fund. The budget committee agreed to the rate by a vote of 6-1-1. Commissioner Arney voted “nay,” while Bayless abstained from the vote.
With the revenue split between Carter County and Elizabethton City Schools, the budget committee’s decision to fund an additional three cents to local schools equates to a funding increase of $165,000 for the county. Dr. Ward noted the vote means that the school board must go back and find an additional $266,000 to trim from their budget. “We’re going to have to go back to the school board and look at some deeper cuts,” Ward said.
A public hearing on the 2013 budget has been scheduled to take place on Monday, July 9 at 5:15 p.m. The hearing will take place during the committee’s monthly meeting at the county courthouse.