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Hawkins commission will tackle numerous complex issues in coming years

JOHN METZ • Jun 29, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Over the next couple of months, the Hawkins County Commission will be asked to make some serious decisions affecting county finances for many years.

You have elected more small business owners with varied experience in this class of county commissioners than any in recent memory.

The goal of this commission is to acknowledge the most significant issues now, establish an investigative plan, and formulate a disciplined approach for implementation.

A new employee pay scale

The most pressing issue for the 2019-2020 budget is to consider implementation of a fair employee pay scale. The issue is significant enough to be the first challenge delegated to the Hawkins County Personnel Committee.

Many Hawkins County employees are stuck in a stagnant pay scale never to allow future advancement. The Board of Education, Sheriff’s Department, and Highway Department have their own pay scale. The salaries of elected official department heads are mandated by the state of Tennessee.

This leaves the employees handling your day-to-day county government operations hostage to a broken pay scale that will not accommodate advances in their improved training, years of experience, or increased responsibilities. More than half are at a pay level destined to place an unexpected strain on county finances should the federal minimum wage increase to levels being discussed.

The private sector and federal government have taken some of the county’s best employees, and we acknowledge that will always occur. The absence of these experienced employees consumes twice the time previously allocated for tasks and spreads existing employees thin.

The commission must consider implementation of an improved pay scale. The proposed salary scale is projected at a cumulative cost of $513,000, including benefits and withholdings. Implementation of the salary scale over a limited period of time would be offset by the average annual addition of new growth and newly proposed budget controls.

The EMS ambulance crisis

Additionally, the Hawkins County Commission is pushing to challenge itself to confront a nationwide EMS crisis. The commission’s concern about EMS is twofold. First to ensure ample emergency services coverage for the residents of Hawkins County and second to attract the confidence and investment of retirees and businesses.

Hawkins County already contains the natural beauty, resources, and low cost of living to rival counties throughout the nation. EMS practitioners around the region call Hawkins County home. Many initiated their careers here and use their extensive experience in making our region one of the most competent in the country.

This commission proactively created an exploratory committee charged with one of the most prolific due diligence processes imaginable. The prior commission had the forethought of setting aside $10 of an unpopular wheel tax to support basic public safety goals and expectations. This commission will carry on that intended mission by properly allocating those funds to ensure the residents of Hawkins County have access to critical care response 24/7.

The $10 Public Safety Reserve generates approximately $500,000 per year. For reference, current fire department funding is $262,060; Hawkins County and Church Hill Rescue Squad are $49,000 each; and EMS allocation is $60,000. It currently also funds contributions for the Red Cross and Humane Society.

More questions than answers

While the issues listed above are difficult, this commission is up to the challenge. Listed below are further challenges to assess and investigate over the coming years. Does the daily deployment of assets and dollars in dealing with animal control issues justify a countywide animal control department? Are taxpayer property rights being adequately protected?

Can the loss of public safety personnel and public school teachers to competing counties and municipalities be reduced? Will residential and commercial growth, coupled with state reimbursement for school resource officers, and improvements in local option sales tax law provide the adequate parts of the puzzle required to generate revenues needed to fund the quality of life issues expected of your local government?

For the 2019-2020 year, the state of Tennessee reduced the county’s portion of state retirement. Hawkins County will take advantage of half that reduction and apply the other half to prepaying those benefits to stave off the potential for a future unexpected increase. Will that decision play a part in continuing to hold our property tax rate at the current level for the next budget cycle?

A private act to allow use of a biennial budget

These issues and more are at the forefront of concerns debated daily in the minds of your local government officials. All county residents are at differing stages of life and depend on varied resources more than others. Finding an equitable and proper balance is extremely complex and requires methodical determination.

My personal confidence in the fiscal responsibility of this commission is such that I will ask my fellow commissioners, by resolution, to petition the state legislature to allow adoption of a private act to implement use of a biennial budget when and where needed. TCA Code 4-3-305 permits the commission to establish a static budget for consecutive budget cycles.

This will allow more detailed monitoring of budget inflows, outflows, and tender decisions without “crisis-level” reactions.

John C Metz is the Hawkins County Commission’s chair pro tempore, Budget Committee chairman, and Public Safety Committee chairman.

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