$128M Washington County budget passes by healthy margin

Gary B. Gray • Sep 11, 2013 at 1:51 PM

Washington County’s nearly $128 million 2014 fiscal budget on Tuesday got the green light, putting in motion nearly $10 million in capital projects, a 2-percent salary increase for full-time employees, an expansion of the School Resource Officer program and school security improvements without the need for a property tax increase.

Coming capital projects, provided for through several debt offerings, include construction, renovations and equipment for the Highway Department, detention center, county archives, public safety, library, courthouse, bridge replacement and repair and renovations and equipment for county schools.

Commissioner Mark Ferguson voted for the budget, but said he was doing so with some regrets.

“We’re tootin’ our horn about 2-percent raises. We’re tootin’ our horn about our fund balance. But a half truth is a whole lie, so let’s make sure we tell the citizens that they’re $10 million in debt. I think it’s our obligation to keep the schools and county government running, but there’s a lot I don’t agree with.”

A healthy fund balance of about $18 million — an all-time high — put the county in a favorable position to issue debt. The process of concluding what projects, personnel or equipment would be in or out, how much each item would cost and why it was needed, took both the Budget Committee and the full commission on a months long journey.

That process has now concluded. However, when it came time for the final vote, there were some detractors in an 18-4 vote with three absent — a roughly 82 percent approval rating, if you will.

Commissioners Phyllis Corso, Sam Humphreys, Alpha Bridger and David Shanks expressed concerns about the process being flawed and voted against the budget.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for this budget,” Corso said. “Every year the commission is put under pressure to pass a budget — any kind of budget. I feel I’ve been bullied in the process. It became very muddled. We were told we were not even going to see a budget until we passed a capital spending plan. There were no narrative reports. A simple notation would have kept us from this burdensome process.”

Commissioner Mark Ferguson voted for the budget, but said he was doing so with some regrets.

A handful of commissioners, including Mark Larkey and others, applauded what had been accomplished, as well as the work and leadership provided by County Mayor Dan Eldridge.

“We did borrow money, because of the fact that we have a mayor that’s well versed in finance,” said Mitch Meredith, a commissioner and Budget Committee member. “We were able to fund the government and schools, and I think the mayor should be commended.”

County schools, the largest slice of the financial pie, will operate on about $63 million with a balanced budget. The county budget includes a projected $35.5 million general fund, which pays mainly for essential services. A more than $1.5 million deficit in the general fund was dealt with by using unappropriated funds from the county’s reserves.

All property taxes collected are projected to total about $54 million in FY 14, about $500,000 more than the current year but less than a 1-percent gain. Meanwhile, Local Option Sales Tax collections for Washington County, including Johnson City and Jonesborough, are estimated to come in at about $45 million.

Meanwhile, most department heads are getting a 4- to 5-percent raise. The county mayor’s annual salary is set to rise from $104,955 to $109,720. That’s $4,765 or about 4.3 percent.

Requested expenses for the County Commission are up by about $16,000 and include a jump in employee and dependent insurance costs, Social Security, dues and memberships, duplicating supplies, rentals and state retirement. The overall projected expenditures for the 25-member commission is $295,126.

Though the 2014 budget numbers were ready for a vote when commissioners met on Aug. 26, they were not in a position to take action until Tuesday night. The Board of Education fine tuned its budget near the end of the process, which then required Budget Committee approval, and that happened about a week before the scheduled meeting, when time had run out to properly advertise a reading of the budget resolution.

The BOE followed Director of Schools Ron Dykes’ recommendation to ask the Budget Committee to use 3 pennies from the Debt Service Fund and not increase funding from sales tax revenue. The committee had proposed using 2 pennies from debt service and a 1 percent increase in sales tax revenue to help balance the school system’s nearly $63 million budget.

The school system will use $1 million from their own reserves to balance the budget. About $950,000 will remain, an amount just over the state-required minimum.

On July 22, two of three resolutions to borrow money for capital projects passed. The first was the issuance of $2.9 million for school projects. The second, a $1.4 million bond to reimburse the school system for buses and the cost of reroofing and other equipment and to pay the county’s share of the Knob Creek Road right-of-way acquisition.

On Aug. 5, 28 capital projects, equipment and other costs comprising the remainder of the spending plan all were voted back into the original resolution that had been sent back to the county’s Budget Committee for further scrutiny.

In other business, commissioners voted to appoint Keith Bowers as interim county attorney for a term beginning Sept. 6 and lasting 120 days. Bowers, a private attorney who has been representing Carter County, will receive $150 an hour for his services.

After Bowers advised commissioners they may have been flirting with a violation of Tennessee Sunshine Law by not giving proper public notice before a vote to approve attorney Tom Seeley’s services specifically to represent the county’s Zoning Administrator’s Office, the matter was deferred until the next regular meeting on Sept. 23.

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