A near capacity audience packed into the county courthouse Monday evening to voice their opinions on the county’s proposed budget for 2013. The Carter County Commission’s Budget Committee conducted a public hearing to gather input from the community on next year’s spending plan.
Most of those who went on-the-record Monday night communicated a negative reaction to the proposed budget, which includes a six-cent increase to the county’s certified property tax rate. The proposal calls for an increase in the tax rate from its current level of $2.15 to $2.21 per $100 of assessed value. Budget committee members agreed to provide three cents of the property tax increase to offset a portion of the school system’s budget shortfall of $336,702, while the remaining three cents has been earmarked for the county’s debt service.
Many of the individuals who spoke at the public hearing made passionate remarks regarding the financial troubles being experienced by Carter County’s 16 schools.
Vic Harrison of Hampton commented, “Every single year, we hear the same argument. We hear that we need more money for the schools. It’s utterly ridiculous the things that are going on in the school system. You can drive by the schools any night of the week and every light is turned on, both inside and outside the school. This is asinine.”
Another Hampton resident—Roy Livingston—argued for a greater level of financial responsibility from the Carter County Board of Education. “We just need some accountability from somebody in charge,” Livingston said. “We need someone who can come up with the same answers every time. There’s something not right about this.”
The Carter County Citizens in Action member said he has been unable to gain a consistent answer on budgetary matters, especially in regards to the amount of federal stimulus money the school system has received since the beginning of the Obama Administration. “We’ve gotten quite a bit of data on the school system, but none of it matches,” Livingston argued. “We know for a fact the school system has received $9 million in stimulus money in 2009 and 2010. Where is all this money going?”
Expanding on the issue of the school system, Jim Dabbondanza of Butler discussed the need to reduce the school system’s budget and to undertake educational reform in Carter County. He noted school systems across the country have been forced to operate on tighter budgets. Dabbondanza said, “It’s a fact of life that citizens in Carter County have had to embrace in their personal lives. Why is the government any different? It’s your fiduciary responsibility to protect our funds and to see they are used wisely. Our children deserve an education and our teachers deserve good pay and benefits. I believe with proper management, those things can and will occur,” he said.
James Hughes of Elizabethton agreed with much of Dabbondanza’s comments. He said school systems across the country “have failed to keep up with the global economy. Unfortunately, countries like China and India have surpassed us in our educational system. They have focused on math and sciences that are demanded by today’s economy,” Hughes stated. “Our school system is focused on sports, field trips, snow days and anything you want to throw out there. We can throw all the money we can possibly scavenge in Carter County to put into our school system, but we’re not going to change the future of our children. Throwing more money at a broken system is not the way to go.”
In regards to the overall budget, Hughes compared the manner in which the county spends money to that of the private sector. He noted successful businesses use hard facts and data to defend their financial plans. “I sat through countless meetings last fall when Mayor (Leon) Humphrey encouraged the county commission to buy time management software. As a manager, if you don’t know where your workload is at, how can you know how much money you need? The only thing they’re left to say is to threaten to lay people off or that they’re going to have to cut services,” Hughes said.
The retired Army Colonel encouraged elected officials to require officeholders and department heads to make detailed presentations on their spending requests “instead of taking the flimsy excuses they’re giving you.”
Hughes’ comments to the budget committee received a round of applause from those in attendance Monday night.
Some citizens also addressed their difficulties in obtaining answers and solutions to ongoing problems from the county despite paying higher taxes each year. Betty Grindstaff of the Central Community explained that she has had an ongoing problem with one of her neighbors keeping chickens on their property. Grindstaff said the previous property owner received an exemption from the county planning commission to keep the livestock. She added, “After he died, the (chickens) were supposed to be done away with. We’ve had some Mexicans come in and buy the property and we’re still in the same mess. And even though you continue to raise our property taxes, we can get nothing done. It’s depreciating our property and we can’t sell it because of this problem.”
Bill Younce of Elizabethton commented on the lack of fairness shown by the county commission in regards to their decision to increase property tax. He stated the commission has continued to place the burden of taxation upon the same group of individuals during every budget year. “Every time we have a shortfall, we go back to the same people. I have an idea. Why don’t we put some litter laws into effect? It would be the biggest thing to hit Carter County,” Younce said. “I have never seen a place that is as nasty as Carter County. We have so many people who just throw trash out their windows when they drive down the road.”
Elizabethton resident Robert Carroll noted taxpayers in the city limits of Elizabethton will be severely impacted by the county’s proposed property tax hike. He explained many property owners within Elizabethton are facing tough times because of a sluggish economy. Carroll commented that the city’s current per-capita annual income is approximately $14,000 per year.
Carroll also implored the commission to make better use of taxpayer funding rather than increase the tax rate to offset budget shortfalls.
Following the conclusion of the public hearing, the budget committee held their regular monthly session. The committee discussed two issues on last night’s agenda, including a clarification of the proposed two percent raise for county employees. Budget Committee Chairman Harry Sisk asked the committee to determine if the raise would be based on each employee’s current salary or if they recommend an across-the-board raise which would give every county worker the same raise for the upcoming fiscal year.
“I’d like to see everybody get the same,” said Commission Chairman Tom “Yogi” Bowers.
Bowes presented a motion to give the raise to employees who have at least one year on the county payroll. Commissioner Steve Chambers provided the necessary second on the issue.
The budget committee approved the matter by a vote of 6 to 2. Voting “nay” were Commissioners Scott Sams and Nancy Brown.
The committee also discussed the procedure for the method by which funding is provided to the Carter County Parks and Recreation Board. Finance Director Ingrid Deloach explained that the county’s auditor recently informed her office about potential liability risks. “We have them classified in the budget as an outside agency, but we have them set up as a separate part of the county with their own fund,” she said. “We’re straddling the fence with this issue. The auditors recommend that we either have them as part of the county or that we classify them as an outside agency, which would mean we just write them a check.”
Deloach said the issue is not based on the level of funding the parks and rec board receives. While she noted there are pros and cons to either course, Deloach noted if the board continues to be part of the county, and an individual is injured during an event sponsored by parks and recreation, the county would liable for the accident.
Mayor Humphrey cautioned the budget committee about the potential impact to the county’s parks and rec board. He explained that a funding level of $11,000 would likely be inadequate to provide services to the community and to cover the costs of liability insurance and an annual audit. “I just don’t think you have enough information to make this decision,” Humphrey argued. “We may be asking them to take their entire budget just to maintain themselves. I think you need to get some hard numbers before you do this.”
Chambers said he agreed with the decision to move the parks and rec board to outside agency designation. “I think the public has stated that’s the direction they want to go. They want more responsibility for financial matters,” Chambers said.
The budget committee approved the motion on a vote of 5 to 3. Voting against the move were Sams, Brown and Armstrong.
Commissioner Chambers closed Monday’s meeting by commenting on the current financial issues facing the school system. Chambers apologized to county voters for his decision to vote in favor of funding $250,000 for the construction costs of the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter. “It was a 23 to 1 vote. The only commissioner who voted against it was (Joel) Street. Mr. Street, I applaud you for that vote,” he recalled.
Prior to the commission’s vote, Chambers said he had decided to vote against the capital expenditure for the animal shelter, but changed his mind since no action had been taken on the issue for several months.
“If I had known that the vote to fund $250,000 for the animal shelter would take money away from the children of this county, I would take that vote back right now. It’s a shame when we put animals in front of our children. I’m sorry. I apologize because our children are suffering because of that decision,” Chambers said vehemently.