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Stout: Is Johnson City's school budget an 'animal' eating money?

June 12th, 2014 8:16 am by Gary B. Gray

Stout: Is Johnson City's school budget an 'animal' eating money?

Johnson City Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Director of Schools Richard Bales (file photos)

Several commissioners made it clear during a budget workshop Wednesday night they were not ready to open the property tax rate gate to help fund Johnson City Schools’ projected $3.4 million shortfall in fiscal 2015.

Vice Mayor Clayton Stout asked Director of Schools Richard Bales, “Haven’t we just been feeding an animal over there?” toward the end of a discussion on the school system’s needs.

Though he did not say “no,” Stout has made it clear for years he is not inclined to raise taxes — any taxes.

By the way, Bales answered Stout, saying, “No — not in my opinion. We’ve been very frugal.”

Schools, Freedom Hall, the city’s golf courses, and the Millennium Centre all are city-subsidized and they all were on the table during one of what will likely be several more workshops leading up the first reading of the city’s $204 million fiscal 2015 budget.

Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin mentioned how a property tax increase could help here and there as commissioners painstakingly reviewed items not included in the coming budget. He has suggested property taxes be raised by a minimum of 33 cents to accomplish two things: fund the school’s request (15 cents) and provide $2.6 million to keep city services funded at the same amount as the current year (18 cents).

The mayor called the school system’s salaries “a little bit out of control,” but he also suggested to commissioners that at least part of its funding needs be provided for with a property tax increase.

“We have only begun,” said David Tomita, who is both a city and county commissioner. “If you’re asking for a consensus on a tax increase based on what we’ve heard tonight, I’d say no. I know it’s what your objective is. I’m not ready.”

Commissioner Jeff Banyas chimed in.

“You know, I feel the same way,” he said. “It would be better for me if we looked closely at everything first.”

The comments were just that — comments. They should not be construed to indicate an unwillingness to consider a tax increase. But they were momentum changers.

As things stand, money would be coming out of the school system’s fund balance, the city’s fund balance, or a combination thereof.

Commissioners also reviewed the bottom line on its Golf Fund. Much like the Legion Street Pool, Pine Oaks and Buffalo Valley golf courses are not necessarily expected to be big revenue gatherers. Nonetheless, the two courses have suffered substantial operating losses over the past three years, and 2015 is projected to be another whopper.

Revenues have run between $780,000 and $880,000. The problem is operating expenses are running about $1.2 million to $1.3 million, creating losses of between $370,000 and $408,000. The projected hit in 2015 is about $380,000.

Meanwhile, city officials have talked with East Tennessee State University about using Freedom Hall, but City Manager Pete Peterson said Wednesday that university officials “have been very cool” on the idea of assuming operational control of the city-owned facility.

Freedom Hall, like the golf courses, is an “amenity” — a public venue aimed at serving residents and visitors. But it too is expected to be a bit more self-sustaining than it has been over the past few years. In 2013 Freedom Hall brought in more than $2.4 million. That number is expected to weigh in at about $1.1 million at the end of this fiscal year and hit about $1.3 million next year.

On the flip side, total expenditures in 2013 were more than $2.6 million. That number should drop considerably this year to about $1.5 million, but operating losses for 2013 were nearly $196,000, followed by an estimated $327,000 loss this year and a projected $254,000 loss in 2015.

At press time, the Millennium Centre had not come up for discussion, but the city is paying more than $1 million a year in debt service on the facility.

The most strenuous exercise of the night involved the least amount of money.

Here’s an example of what the whittling produced: “We’re not going to solve the world’s problems in a couple budget meetings. It’s serious, but it’s not dire,” Tomita remarked at a point where debate on a particular item had been what former Commissioner Phil Carriger would have described as “paralysis by analysis.”

Commissioners proposed the following items on a proposed General Fund “cut list” be eliminated in 2015 only:

n $100,000 in funding for new sidewalks.

n $60,400 (temporarily) to fund a new Senior Services Director.

n $56,750 for elimination of vacant fire marshal position.

n $45,000 in miscellaneous items

n $44,800 for part-time Public Works Department employees.

n $30,000 for reduction of snow-removal funding.

n $25,000 in street resurfacing.

n $10,750 for traffic calming.

n $10,000 reduction in Community Relations funding.

n $7,200 elimination of help with Little League and Babe Ruth baseball.

The following items will stay aboard for this year:

n $62,000 Legion Pool (to be revisited next year).

n $322,000 special appropriations funding (reduced 10 percent each year).

n $80,000 for a special prosecutor.

n $20,000 for video services for planning and City Commission meetings.

Commissioners meet again today at 3 p.m. in the Municipal & Safety Building.

Like Gary B. Gray on Facebook at Follow him on Twitter @ggrayjcpress.

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