Sullivan County mayor requests spending freeze

J. H. Osborne • Jun 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey, borrowing a page from his predecessor Richard Venable’s playbook, ordered budgetary “restraints” for some county offices last week.

It freezes capital spending, bans overtime and out-of-state travel, requires prior approval from the mayor’s office for any overnight travel, and says any full-time vacancies should only be filled with part-time employees — if existing staff can’t handle the increased workload, and if the county mayor’s office gives written approval.

Venable issued a similarly worded letter in January 2003 as the county grappled with unexpected school-related expenses (including mold cleanup at Sullivan East High School) and projected flat or negative growth in major revenues for the following budget cycle.

Godsey’s office issued two letters Friday — one to county offices without elected heads, and another to elected officials with authority over their own operations and employees.

Recipients of the latter letter received copies of the first so they could see what restrictions Godsey was placing on the offices under his purview.

Most county offices and employees do not answer to Godsey’s office.

The county’s constitutional officers — elected by county residents — aren’t under Godsey’s authority or control, answering directly to voters instead.

Those offices include: sheriff; trustee; property assessor; register of deeds; highway commissioner; county clerk; and circuit court clerk.

Godsey’s letter to those and other elected officials asks simply for their cooperation.

“While I cannot impose these limitations on your offices, it would be appreciated if you would voluntarily limit spending in those specific areas as much as possible,” Godsey wrote.

“Your cooperation is appreciated in following through on this policy implementation. Hopefully the budget situation will improve and these voluntary restrictions can be reduced or removed. We are operating in a voluntary mode until the 2009 (fiscal year) budget is approved,” Godsey added.

Limiting spending to the same level as the last 12 months is not an unexpected development — the County Commission approved a “continuing resolution,” a move required to keep county offices operating if a budget isn’t in place before the fiscal year starts.

And last Thursday, a day before Godsey’s letters went out, the county’s top finance officer sent a memorandum to all the county’s elected officials and department heads reminding them of the need to keep monthly spending to no more than one-twelfth of what was spent during the fiscal year that ended June 30 — and excluding all capital spending.

That memo, from Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey, calls on all departments to reduce fuel consumption — measured in gallons, not dollars — by at least 10 percent to help defray substantial increases in fuel costs.

“We appreciate very much your cooperation in helping manage our county funds during a difficult economic time for our county and our citizens,” Bailey wrote, telling department heads to contact his office immediately if they don’t think they can operate for at least the next three months at last year’s budget levels.

The fact that the county is operating on a continuing budget means a temporary “freeze” on pay raises set to be effective today for Godsey and other elected officials, including county commissioners.

Those raises will cost the county upwards of $65,000 per year, money that will have to come from somewhere in the already pressed budget.

That figure includes more than $25,000 to cover a pay raise for county commissioners, set in motion by a County Commission vote last year. The pay hike, an estimated $86 or $87 per month for each of the commission’s 24 members, is linked to a state-mandated pay raise for county constitutional officeholders.

That state mandate means Godsey and other constitutional officeholders will see bigger paychecks once the 2009 fiscal year budget is approved.

Bailey said their paychecks won’t get bigger until the budget is in place, but their raises will be retroactive to today.

According to information released by the County Technical Assistance Service, Godsey, Sheriff Wayne Anderson, Highway Commissioner Allan Pope, and other constitutional officeholders will be getting a nearly 4.9 percent raise.

Although the state mandates the raises, it does not provide any funding to implement them — that’s left up to the county, including another 22 percent or so for added benefits, Bailey said earlier this year.

Godsey’s salary this fiscal year is $95,792 — up from $91,572 last year, and up from the $89,235 salary of Venable during his last year in office. Beginning today, Godsey’s salary is roughly $100,560.

That’s where the raise for county commissioners comes in. Last year the Sullivan County Commission approved raising commissioners’ salaries from $250 per month to $500 per month, with future raises linked to the county mayor’s salary. That vote said beginning July 1 this year, each commissioner will be paid 7 percent of the county mayor’s salary.

Godsey’s roughly $100,560 salary means each commissioner will be paid about $7,040 per year — or about $587 per month, an increase of about 17.32 percent.

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