Sullivan budget vote seems unlikely before late August

J. H. Osborne • Jul 25, 2013 at 10:49 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County isn’t likely to have a budget — or property tax rate — in place for the fiscal year that began three weeks ago for at least another month or six weeks, based on comments made during a called meeting Wednesday of the Sullivan County Commission’s Budget Committee.

The group met for about 2½ hours, including roughly one hour of comments from audience members voicing support or opposition to proposed funding for particular programs or services — and a “break” of about 30 minutes.

And most members of the committee lingered in the room after the meeting seemed to have adjourned officially.

In fact, some observers had left the room when one vote occurred in almost hushed tones. The committee took action — although just what action wasn’t entirely clear to all participants, let alone observers left in the room — on a proposal to reduce county commissioners’ pay.

The commission’s Executive Committee — which, in the budget development process, first hears the funding request for commission-related spending — voted earlier this year to decrease commissioners’ pay, rather than increasing it by 4.61 percent.

The Executive Committee recommended reducing commissioners’ pay to $500 per month each — a move proponents have said will save county taxpayers $35,000 for the current fiscal year.

As the Budget Committee’s called meeting unfolded Wednesday, longtime chairman Eddie Williams — himself once the county’s budget director (in the early 1970s) — said the group has agreed to accept most of the recommendations of the Executive Committee and Administrative Committee.

Williams said that as a final budget proposal is created, it would include all the recommended cuts or increases sent to the Budget Committee by the two other committees — unless the Budget Committee specifically votes to exclude or strike particular cuts or increases suggested by those recommendations.

Williams said that earlier this month the Budget Committee voted to reject recommendations to cut funding to the county’s Educate and Grow scholarship program and to reduce funding to fire departments and rescue squads throughout the county.

Later in the meeting, the Budget Committee voted to leave in place funding for Sullivan House, operated by Frontier Health to provides court-ordered programs for juveniles .

When someone pointed out that the line item for County Commission pay included a notation that the recommendation was to reduce the funding, Williams indicated that reduction wasn’t necessarily to be included in the budget — at least not yet.

Williams said the Budget Committee talked about it in an earlier meeting, but didn’t make a decision.

Bill Anderson, the county’s budget director, asked for clarification from Williams — did the cut need to stay in, or be taken out?

Williams said that hadn’t been decided yet.

Later, after the Budget Committee agreed to continue its budget development process next week — and as members began to scoot back from the table and have more relaxed, personal conversations — the issue of whether or not to include the pay cut in the budget came up again.

In relatively low tones, a vote was taken, which some believed meant the Budget Committee will propose rejecting the cut in commissioners’ pay.

Moments later the Times-News asked first a Budget Committee member and then the secretary keeping minutes of the meeting whether or not the motion had been approved — and got two different answers.

The commissioner said he didn’t think so. The secretary said yes, it was approved.

A scramble ensued, in which various committee members switched how they had voted, with the secretary ultimately walking around the room to poll each member again.

After that, she told the Times-News the vote failed — meaning the pay cut proposed by the Executive Committee would stay on the budget development spreadsheet — at least for now.

“Do you want me to include it in the budget or not?” Williams asked no one in particular.

After more conversation around and near the table, several participants told the Times-News no action was taken on the pay issue.

As for the overall budget, Commissioner Ed Marsh said it appears unlikely a final vote by the full commission can happen any earlier than Aug. 29 — and that’s if the Budget Committee succeeds in bringing a proposal up for a first reading at the commission’s regular monthly meeting Aug. 19, and the commission then meets in called session 10 days later for second reading and a vote.

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