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Tax hike on table as budget process grinds on in Sullivan County

June 18th, 2012 10:52 pm by J. H. Osborne

BLOUNTVILLE — There’s not much movement yet on development of a budget for Sullivan County government for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But county commissioners involved in the process have for the first time at least mentioned a property tax increase.

A three-hour called meeting of the Sullivan County Commission’s Budget Committee on Monday ended with a 20-minute discussion about when to meet next.

The group appeared to have concluded to meet again Wednesday at 6 p.m.

As a “collective summary” of points discussed, longtime committee Chairman Eddie Williams said it would take a 35 cent increase to the county’s property tax rate to fund everything laid on the table during the meeting.

Fifteen cents of that is needed to cover the county school system’s proposed budget, Williams said.

“We could start at 35 cents and see where you want to go ... see how far we come down until we get enough votes,” Williams said.

No one responded.

Earlier, Williams had distributed a spreadsheet he’d worked up to outline nine possible options on the budget. The final two options on the sheet included tax hikes: one for 10 cents; the other for 20 cents.

One vote was taken during the meeting Monday: Asking all department heads to once again look through their departmental budgets to identify any cuts that can be made to reduce funding levels.

That came after Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns suggested doing so — rather than potentially have the committee simply recommend an across-the-board 5 percent reduction to all accounts.

Kerns and other elected and appointed officials said such a move, possibly coupled with elimination of all capital funding — proffered by County Commissioner Bob Neal — would cripple basic services to county residents.

Register of Deeds Bart Long reminded the committee that many county departments and offices have maintained operations at the same funding level for several years — despite average inflation rates of 2.5 percent to 3 percent.

Long said he and other elected officials have already increased efficiency in order to have basically absorbed the resulting 15 percent reduction in buying power during those years.

Kerns and Long also pointed out their offices, as well as other fee-collecting offices in county government, generate more revenue for the county’s general fund than what their offices cost to operate.

Kerns said his office’s capital fund more often than not is needed to supplement his annual budget for supplies.

“We don’t go out and blow your money ... the taxpayers’ money,” Kerns said. “We’ve been good stewards. We still have to have money to operate. In my budget, 5 percent would have to be people. You need to sit down and talk to each of us. You can’t just make sweeping cuts to things you don’t know about. We’ve not gotten anything in so many years, we’re to the point if there’s any more cutting, it’s going to be people.”

Williams said the state has laid off thousands of people due to the economy, and so, too, has the federal government.

Long, who has been lauded by county commissioners for cost-saving measures in the register of deeds office, also said such a mandate would mean letting someone go.

“If I have to cut 5 percent this year, y’all will just have to come down (to the register’s office) and pick out the girl,” Long said.

Administrator of Elections Jason Booher offered what might, to those who depend on voters for their places in county government, be a much grimmer specter of what an arbitrary 5 percent cut could bring.

“We will close early voting in Kingsport and Bristol,” Booher said. “We’re only required to offer one location.”

That location would be the Election Office in Blountville, Booher said — noting 60 percent to 65 percent of county voters cast their ballots during early voting. The heaviest turnout typically is in Kingsport.

Eliminating early voting at satellite locations in Bristol and Kingsport would likely push many of those voters to instead show up at their regular precincts on Election Day — and cause long waits in line, potentially a two-hour wait in the presidential election in November, Booher said.

Turnout then is expected to make it the biggest election ever held in Sullivan County, Booher said.

“That’s really the only option we have and be able to maintain state mandates,” Booher said. “It doesn’t hurt me. But it hurts the voters.”

Comments from various committee members throughout the meeting pointed toward an emerging consensus to commit to some level of cuts if a tax hike is to be considered.

As the committee prepared to adjourn, County Trustee Frances Harrell stood among other onlookers and asked Williams if the committee was going to address the need for cash flow to get through the next few months.

“We’ve got to get operating funds (to pay bills) from now until October,” Harrell said.

Williams did not offer Harrell an answer.

After adjournment, the Times-News asked Williams what the county would do for money to pay its bills in July.

Williams said that won’t be a problem because the county will have money coming in — more than $8 million in what’s left of June and on into July.

Earlier in the meeting, Williams told the committee the general fund’s fund balance — sometimes called the “surplus” — doesn’t have anything left to go toward balancing the budget that begins July 1.

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