Fine-tooth comb Sullivan commissioner seeks budget scrutiny

J. H. Osborne • Apr 5, 2007 at 6:09 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Sullivan County Commissioner Wayne McConnell says he's been criticized by some other county officials for trying to "micromanage" parts of the county's budget.

After advice he offered to other commissioners Wednesday, his critics might just call him "nit-picky."

He said catching alterations to the county's budget require a fine-tooth comb - and said he's taken to using a lice comb for the job.

McConnell, chairman of the Sullivan County Commission's Executive Committee, urged members of the group to look closely whenever a final draft of the county's fiscal year 2008 (FY08) budget reaches their desks.

"After they do the budget, you need to go through it with a fine-toothed comb," McConnell said. "They're about to break me. Now I'm going through it with a lice comb."

Earlier, McConnell had won the committee's support for a resolution he sponsors to get a new $17,000 tractor for use at county-operated Observation Knob Park.

McConnell is asking the full commission to approve spending the money out of the county's multi-million dollar fund balance.

The new tractor was included in the park's operating budget this year, McConnell said, but a sharp decrease in revenue after the park was purged of long-term campers had apparently left no money for the purchase.

McConnell said he'd asked other county officials how the park's budget - as approved by county commissioners - could be cast aside by others.

And he was told he was trying to micromanage things, McConnell said.

Later, McConnell said the method used to develop the county's budget each year allows some commissioners to add or remove items without other commissioners knowing.

"I don't understand how somebody on the Budget Committee can put something in the budget without the other committees knowing about it," McConnell said. "Last year, it came as a big surprise to me after we voted on the budget that Kingsport Tomorrow had gotten $10,000. I didn't know it was in there."

Commissioner John McKamey decried "last-minute" budget changes.

"A lot of these things are known earlier," McKamey said. "But it never happens until the last minute."

"Where nobody can look at it," Commissioner Darlene Calton said.

The county's annual budget process, which entered full swing this week, works like this:

The 24-member County Commission is divided into three primary committees: Administrative; Executive; and Budget. Each is assigned particular county departments and services to consider during the budget hearing process. The Administrative Committee, for example, receives and debates budget requests from nonprofit organizations, and public safety departments such as the sheriff's office and fire departments. The Administrative and Executive committees vote on the departmental budgets under their purview. The Budget Committee takes those recommendations and compiles a comprehensive budget proposal, including projected revenues and a supporting property tax rate. The Budget Committee's proposal then comes to the full commission for a vote by all 24 commissioners.

The Administrative Committee began its budget hearings earlier this week. The Executive Committee met in regular session Wednesday and is scheduled to begin budget hearings next week. McConnell ended the meeting by handing out the budget requests to be discussed next week.

The requests include:

•A budget increase of more than $253,000 from Commissioner of Highways Allan Pope for five new employees.

•A budget increase of about $198,000 from Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns for five new employees. An attached explanation says fees collected by the clerk's office will more than pay for the five new hires.

•A budget increase of about $50,000 from Register of Deeds Mary Lou Duncan for two new employees.

•A budget increase of $250,000 from Pope for six tandem dump trucks.

•A budget increase of $35,000 from District Public Defender Steve Wallace to add a third county-funded assistant public defender position. Wallace's request includes a letter pointing out more than enough revenue is generated by existing court costs to pay for the added position without taking money from the county's general fund.

Sullivan County's fiscal year runs from July 1 each year through June 30 of the following year.

The county's largest source of revenue is property taxes. The county's property tax rate this year is $2.53 per $100 of assessed value. Most of the tax rate is dedicated to school funding. Each penny of the tax rate generates about $276,000 in revenue for the county.

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