Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge is not happy with the County Commission’s rush Thursday to approve cuts to the 2012 budget, which he says was an irresponsible action that left no time for a full review of the potential impact they may have.
“One way or another we have to amend the budget,” Eldridge said late Friday. “To sum it up, the changes to the budget that were proposed, debated and passed Sept. 8, impose some serious risks to the county. Some of them may not even be allowable under the law, while others are short-sighted and could impede progress in Washington County. Some are worth looking at and considering, but those few are outweighed by the many that seem arbitrary and not very well thought out.”
Commissioner Mark Ferguson introduced a list of budget cuts totaling of about $1.73 million, including nearly $600,000 in administrative cuts, about $71,000 in capital costs for maintenance of county buildings, $16,000 for pauper burials and $298,000 in disaster relief funds.
After further discussion, the relief funds were put back in the budget, as was $100,000 for the Johnson City Fire Department.
Eldridge said that after reviewing the specific line items it was his opinion some of those cuts had to have been decided on “in a rather arbitrary and perhaps even uninformed manner,” and several of the cuts could leave the county facing significant repercussions.
Thursday’s vote was 14-9 with two commissioners absent.
The total budget figure still is unknown. Last year’s county budget, including schools, was about $136 million. Eldridge said the amendments made to the budget Thursday could be up for discussion again as early as Sept. 28 at the next commission meeting.
The changes that were approved Thursday, and apparently will continue to evolve, are all positioned within the county’s general fund.
Eldridge said his role as the county’s chief financial officer allows him to move funds around, and he is looking for ways to do so without negatively affecting the county. He also is working with outside auditors and the state comptroller’s office to determine the most responsible way to address the issues.
He also has another option.
Eldridge stepped down as commission chairman Thursday, which means he now has the power under state law to veto the entire county budget.
Remember, he has not yet signed off on the budget.
“A veto is my last option,” he said.
Under Tennessee law, any county mayor who also is elected chairman forfeits veto power. Eldridge will retain all other executive powers and become a nonvoting, ex officio member of the commission.
“It’s really a pretty weak veto,” said Fred Congdon, Tennessee Association of County Mayors director. “It just goes back to the County Commission where they can vote to override it. But it does serve a purpose. It’s a statement. A veto allows time to pass in which the media has more time to cover the issue. And, it allows commissioners to look closer at what they’re dealing with.”
Once Eldridge signs a resolution, in this case the budget, it becomes effective immediately or at a later date specified in the resolution. If he then vetoes the resolution, he must return it to the County Commission for action on the veto, and the resolution becomes effective only upon subsequent passage by a majority of all members.
That must take place within 20 days of receiving the veto or at the County Commission’s next regular meeting, whichever is later. If Eldridge does not sign or veto a resolution or report the action to the County Commission within 10 days after he receives it, the resolution becomes effective without his signature.
Eldridge also mentioned some of the changes could jeopardize upcoming important accomplishments, including the “Contribution to Other Agencies” line item amended by Ferguson.
A reduction of $100,000 would bring the total down to about $297,000.
“This line item includes several recipients, with the Tax Increment Financing program overseen by the Johnson City Development Authority being by far the largest,” he said. “It also includes the ETSU Law Library ($30,000), Vocational Education ($7,958 to the First Tennessee Development District) and the Northeast State Community College scholarship fund ($25,000) that offers scholarships to students graduating from Washington County high schools.”
The commission postponed a vote on the budget Monday after a motion by Ferguson. That motion was supported by 18 commissioners. At that time, Ferguson blasted the commission’s Budget Committee for having not completed their work until two weeks before Monday’s scheduled vote.
On Friday, Ferguson’s opinion hadn’t changed.
“It’s been like pulling teeth getting information out of the mayor’s office,” he said Friday. “I’ve found the mayor’s office will not listen to anybody. I’m sorry, that’s the way I feel about it.”
Ferguson said he and other commissioner’s continually told the mayor’s office that they needed the budget
“The requirement by the mayor’s office was that county officials have the budget in by April 1,” he said. “The Budget Committee, which is controlled by the mayor, held the budget until August. By law, a budget is not final until we have a public hearing. That didn’t happen until Aug. 29.”
Ferguson the commission was asked to approve the budget on that date, “but I stood up and asked that we hold off until Thursday.”
He also said he felt like he was doing the work of the Budget Committee.
“I’m not perfect, but it seems like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” he said.
Eldridge stressed the Budget Committee spent months studying the fiscal and budget situation closely and recommended numerous reductions from last year’s budgeted figures. He said the result was a budget submitted by the committee a few weeks ago that was the first in probably many years to make significant reductions in proposed spending.
What that proposed budget did not do, however, was make any cuts that would have impacted services provided directly, he said.
“And certainly it did not make any cuts that would breach contracts, jeopardize important upcoming accomplishments, remove funds for obvious necessary expenditures for basic operational needs or eliminate county employees,” he added. “Unfortunately, the budget amendment presented by Commissioner Ferguson does all of these things in some fashion.”
“That’s just simply not true.”