Tense moments mark Sullivan budget talks

J. H. Osborne • Jun 6, 2013 at 11:40 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — With about three weeks to go until Sullivan County’s next 12-month budget cycle begins, and with no budget proposal yet developed, the county’s Budget Committee voted Thursday to next meet more than a month from now.

Things were tense several times during the committee’s 2-hour-plus regular monthly meeting — and several members remained seated around the conference table, including longtime Chairman Eddie Williams, as reporters and members of the public left after the meeting officially adjourned.

Williams had returned to his seat after leaving the table immediately after adjournment to confront and chastise a reporter from another media outlet — warning that reporter to never again take something from the table in front of him.

Williams said the reporter had shown disrespect by reaching for and taking a meeting agenda — a public document typically made available readily for anyone in the public to take a copy — and he will not tolerate disrespect.

The reporter — after clarifying that what had upset Williams had happened more than two hours before — said no disrespect was intended and offered an apology if it was taken that way.

During the meeting, which saw little progress toward crafting a budget, Williams clashed with more than one commissioner about more than one topic.

Closest to the end of the meeting, as Williams tried to schedule the committee’s next meeting — and suggested July 11 (10 days after the fiscal year covered by the budget begins) Commissioner Ed Marsh pushed the committee to do better than that.

Marsh is not a Budget Committee member, serving instead on the Commission’s Administrative Committee.

Marsh said the Administrative Committee absolutely, without question, will complete its share of the budget development process by July — and urged the Budget Committee to try to do so as close to that date as possible.

Marsh said the earlier the Budget Committee acts, the earlier the full Commission can vote on a budget and tax rate — and the earlier the county trustee can begin collecting the much-needed revenue from those county property taxes.

Williams and other Budget Committee members said the full county budget can’t be completed until the County Board of Education approves a budget for the county school system — and that isn’t expected to happen before July 1.

Budget Committee member Mark Bowery said Marsh needs to worry about his own committee and let the Budget Committee set its own meeting schedule as it sees fit.

Earlier in the meeting, Budget Committee member Moe Brotherton insinuated Williams has been participating in meetings in which a plan is being hatched to let Kingsport and Bristol city school systems divide up the county school system.

Brotherton said that instead of that, all three systems should be consolidated.

Williams said he has been attending some meetings, that he thought it was public knowledge he’s been attending the meetings, and that at those meetings he’s “never, ever” heard it mentioned to split the county school system up between the two city systems.

Williams said consolidation of local governments has been put to a public vote more than once in the past and defeated by 7-1 and 4-1 margins against the move.

The biggest sticking point, Williams said, was the estimated cost to equalize pay for the school systems’ employees. Williams said in the 1970s or 1980s it was estimated it would take $3 million to get all teachers up to the same pay scale. Williams said now that figure would probably be $6 million or $7 million — and that alone would sour the public on the proposition, although it is something he “probably would like to see.”

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