Budget poses challenge for Carter County Commission

John Thompson • Apr 23, 2012 at 12:47 PM

ELIZABETHTON — A decision made by the Carter County Commission last year to make the property tax for 2011-12 less burdensome will add to the burden of crafting a budget for the 2012-13 budget.

Last year, the County Commission faced a lot of demands for additional revenue. This included a $1.3 million increase to staff 37 new positions for the new jail, a $1 million increase for the schools, an additional $344,720 for the Carter County Highway Department and $378,783 more for the General Fund to cover increases in cost of fuel, utilities, insurance and maintenance agreements.

These increases were met in two steps. The first and most usual step was to increase the property tax rate by 18 cents, going from $2.01 to $2.1928 per $100 of assessed value. The second step was to reduce the amount of the property tax rate used to fund the county’s debt.

The county commissioners decided on this unusual step because there was a nice reserve of $8 million that had built up in debt service. The county only had to pay out $3.2 million from debt service last year. Even with the reduced share of the property tax, about $600,000 would be put back in.

While there were reserves to draw from debt service last year, Carter County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach has already been telling county commissioners this year to put some of the property tax back in debt service to bring it close to equilibrium.

One positive note concerning debt service is that there are still enough reserves that not all of it has to be put back in just one year. Another plus is that one of the big ticket payouts, the Cloudland Elementary School bonds, will be paid off in a couple of years.

In addition to putting money back into debt service, the County Commission is being asked for increases from several officeholders and agencies.

Carter County Schools have been hit by a double whammy of declining revenue and an underfunded mandate from the state to give teachers a 2.5 percent pay raise.

During a series of workshops, the school board has discussed several proposed cuts to overcome the $1.1 million in anticipated increased costs and $336,000 in reduced revenue from losing approximately 100 students from the average daily attendance.

The cuts, which included the loss of positions through attrition, the one-year stop in the purchase of textbooks, the one-year postponement in the purchase of a school bus, and numerous small cuts left the anticipated deficit at $366,000. Director of Schools Shirley Ellis recommended requesting that amount from the County Commission plus enough to provide a 2.5 percent pay raise for school employees who are not teachers.

In the general fund there are numerous requested increases, which total $812,551.73. The largest increases are for the sheriff’s department, with a requested increase of $428,507, and the jail, with $213,461, as the jail will finally open in May after a lengthy delay.

The Election Commission needs an additional $60,000 as part of the cyclical pattern of its operations. In a two-year cycle, it manages one election the first year and two elections the subsequent year, resulting in a need for the additional $60,000 whenever there is a national election in November.

In outside agencies, there is a total requested increase of $178,510. The largest requested increase is coming from the Elizabethton/Carter County 911, which is seeking $97,145.50 more in county funding. That request is a result of the state 911 board that has classified the local 911 as “financially distressed” because it used reserves to balance its budget for the past two years.

Local 911 board chairman Matt Bailey said the reason for the local funding shortfall is because the purpose of the funding was forgotten over the years as new members of the Budget Committee came on who had not been on board when 911 started.

The funding had originally been used to pay the salaries and benefits of dispatchers who had been transferred from the Elizabethton Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department at the startup of 911. Through the years, the reason the local governments were providing the funding was forgotten and the same amount of money was given each year, even though the salaries and benefits of dispatchers, and the number of dispatchers increased over the years.

While there are a lot of demands for budget increases this year, two of Carter County’s most prominent leaders say the county needs to look for more ways to cut spending.

“We have got to live within our means,” Mayor Leon Humphrey said. He said the county needs to talk not of what is going on in the private sector. “It has a lean mindset. You do more with less,” Humphrey said. “You can’t keep putting the burden on the taxpayers.”

He said an example is the school system. If it is losing students, the school board needs to look at its overall staffing levels.

He said the school system’s new virtual classroom is one example of how technology can make the school system more efficient. He said instead of having a French teacher at each high school, one could be hired for Happy Valley and the virtual classroom can enable students at the other three high schools to take French.

He said a budget increase may be justified when it results in an improvement in infrastructure, and there is a return on the investment that taxpayers can see. He said there are too many times when a tax increase “is thrown into a black hole.”

Carter County Commission Chairman Thomas “Yogi” Bowers agreed with the mayor that the county has got to live within its means.

“Since I have been retired, I have had to make the decision when I go to the grocery store of whether I could afford to buy steak or would it be better to buy potted meat. You get used to living on less.”

Bowers was chairman of the Budget Committee last year and opposed many of the increases the committee approved. He had the unusual circumstance of presenting the committee’s recommended budget and voting against it.

The county’s budget workshops are scheduled to begin May 7. The goal is to have a consolidated budget to present to the County Commission for its June meeting and a vote to be taken at the July meeting.

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