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Hawkins approves balanced budget following lengthy debates

Jeff Bobo • Aug 29, 2018 at 6:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — By a vote of 13-6 Monday evening, the Hawkins County Commission approved its 2018-19 budget, which uses $95,290 in savings to balance, but has no tax increase and ends the fiscal year with a reserve fund of $4.152 million.

In the past, the Budget Committee worked on the spending plan with the mayor’s staff and presented a proposal to the full commission for a final vote.

But after last year’s $40 wheel tax increase was needed to eliminate a $2 million revenue deficit, it was agreed that the full commission would participate in all 2018-19 budget hearings, which began in April.

As a result, most of the detailed spending issues had already been debated and resolved by the time the new budget came up for a vote.

However, there were still a few unresolved issues Monday evening, such as shifting property tax revenue to make use of the Spec Building sales revenue; the best way to give 92 employees on a flawed salary scale an extra 2 percent pay bump; and rising obligations to “maintenance of effort” for the sheriff’s office.

Spending the spec building funds

When the Phipps Bend spec building sold this year, Hawkins County was reimbursed approximately $700,000 that it had lent to the industrial board to pay the loan on the building.

The state comptroller indicated that those funds must be allocated into the debt service line item of the budget, where there’s already enough property tax revenue allocated to meet 2018-19 payments.

So, in looking for a way to make use of those funds in the current fiscal year, the commission received permission from the comptroller’s office to shift 7 cents of property tax revenue, or about $700,000, from the debt service line item to the capital project line item for one year only.

In doing so, an additional $700,000 would be made available to pay for one-time-only projects which must be completed in 2018-19, including a new roof for the Rogersville Health Department building, a state-mandated filter system for jail sewage, and $425,000 allocated for new patrol cars for the sheriff’s office.

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner John Metz made a motion to place that 7 cents back into debt service and use the fund balance to pay for the capital projects.

“At some point, we’re going to have to put that money back, just like in 2015-16 when we removed 5 cents from the school budget’s debt service fund,” Metz said. “And the commitment made to the Board of Education in that agreement was that money would be put back. So we’re still potentially looking at putting that back. If we pass this, we’re going to have to put that 7 cents back, which equates to about $1.2 million (combined).”

Budget Committee Chairman Stacy Vaughan said the cheapest and easiest way to utilize the spec building sale revenue for capital outlay projects was to redirect tax pennies.

Vaughan said the comptroller’s office will allow that 7 cent shift for only one year, and some or all of the 7 cents will go back to debt service in 2019-20. Vaughan said the number of pennies needed to meet the 2019-20 debt payments must be returned to that line item, and if not all 7 cents are needed, the remainder can stay in capital projects to help build that fund and pay for future projects.

Metz’s motion failed 10-9. The county property tax rate of $2.53 was approved 13-6 with commissioners B.D. Cradic, Danny Alvis, Dawson Fields, Metz, Rick Brewer and Mike Herrell voting no.

Cost of living pay (COLA) increases

Every Hawkins County employee will receive a 2 percent cost of living increase in 2018-19. But the 92 employees whose pay is controlled by what everyone agrees is a highly flawed salary scale will receive an extra 2 percent increase.

The debate Monday was how to administer that 2 percent.

The salary scale offers no annual step increases and no chance for employees to improve their pay except through COLA increases. But with the county’s economy struggling in recent years, some years there have been no COLA increases.

Following a lengthy debate, the commission agreed to give those 92 employees the same 2 percent all county employees will receive and add another 2 percent to their individual salaries. The affected employees work for the trustee, register of deeds, county clerk, property assessor, mayor, election office, clerk of courts, chancery court and solid waste department.

The additional 2 percent for those employees was projected to cost $55,000 in the general fund and $11,000 in solid waste. Metz and Herrell voted against the additional 2 percent.

The final vote

Brewer and Herrell asked how much the county’s maintenance of effort obligation to the sheriff’s office would increase in 2018-19 due to regular annual employee step raises.

Without having the figures at his fingertips, county Finance Director Eric Buchanan estimated it would be about $70,000; however, Chief Deputy Tony Allen later told the Times News it was probably closer to $55,000.

Brewer asked Allen if the sheriff’s office will “hold our feet to the fire” to cover that maintenance of effort next year if the county budget is in deficit.

“Absolutely,” Allen replied.

“For that reason I can’t vote for this budget,” Brewer said. “We cannot afford to increase our maintenance of effort that much not knowing if we’re going to be able to pay for it again next year.”

The overall budget was approved 13-6 with Brewer, Greg Fletcher, Fields, Metz, Bob Palmer and Herrell voting no.


 

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