BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Proposals for a tax increase on property-owners in Greeneville, and money budgeted from the county's savings left too sour a taste for many Greene County Commissioners during Wednesday's budget workshop.
The Greene County Budget & Finance Committee presented their 2013-2014 budget proposal to the County Commission at the workshop. The proposal includes many of the highlights of the budget based on recommendations made by the majority of the commission via straw polls at their workshop in early July.
Due to state law regarding publication of the proposed budget, the County Commission will not meet on Aug. 19, but will instead hold their monthly meeting during a called session on Aug. 30 in the Greene County Courthouse.
A public hearing on the budget will take place at 9 a.m., followed by the County Commission meeting at 10 a.m.
In addition to the committee's proposal, the commission expects to hear an alternate proposal raised by Commissioner Jimmy Sams, in which there would be no increased property tax on town residents.
Instead, those funds would come from the county's savings.
This proposal seemed to gain the most support of any during the workshop, attracting 10 votes during a non-binding straw poll.
July's non-binding polls indicated the commission's desire to see a budget that had absolutely no tax increases and featured cuts and property tax reallocations from other county funds to save the General Fund, out of which most county departments operate.
At that time, the General Fund faced a $2 million deficit produced by significantly lower revenue projections and a few anticipated increased expenditures.
Because of the call for cuts instead of tax increases, most commissioners felt in July that it was only fair for other funds -- such as the Highway Fund, the Solid Waste Fund and the Self-Insurance Fund -- to take a "cut" via reallocation of certain revenues into the General Fund.
The committee's study of this action revealed, however, that the General Debt Service and Self-Insurance funds were not healthy enough to absorb cuts.
In addition, the General Purpose School Fund is mandated by the state to remain funded at at least the same level as the prior year.
This left only the Highway, Solid Waste and Education Debt Service funds to face the reallocation.
The committee is proposing taking, for the County General Fund:
* three cents of the property tax levy, or approximately $363,000, from the Education Debt Service Fund (out of which capital projects and buses for the county school system are paid);
* two cents, or approximately $242,000, from the Highway Fund; and,
* a half-cent, or approximately $61,000, from the Solid Waste Fund.
Road Superintendent David Weems objected to this level of cut, noting that it is a much more significant cut to his Highway Fund compared with the cuts to the General Fund.
Such a revenue cut, if covered by the Highway Fund's savings, will leave the Highway Fund with about $400,000 by the end of next year, he said.
This projection assumes that gas tax revenue, which has been on a significant decline the past few years, comes in as projected, Weems added.
"If we had a major storm, we'd be in trouble," he said, recalling the $1 million spent from his fund after the April 2011 tornadoes.
Other objections expressed at the workshop related to the Education Debt Service Fund.
Greeneville property-owners do not pay the part of the property tax related to the Education Debt Service Fund since they utilize their own school system. But all county residents, including those in Greeneville, pay all other parts of the county property tax levy.
Thus, reallocating three cents from the Education Debt Service Fund to the part of the property tax that supports the General Fund -- which all Greene County and Greeneville residents pay -- would result in a 3-cent increased property tax on Greeneville's property-owners.
Realizing this result led to many commissioners, especially those representing Greeneville, refusing to cast their vote in favor of the committee's budget proposal.
Commissioner Jimmy Sams later proposed taking the $363,000 out of the General Fund's savings instead.
This proposal would double the fund's already $356,000 projected deficit and leave it with approximately $2.1 million in savings.
Commissioner Tim White objected to this approach, saying that such annual dipping into the fund balance by budgeting a deficit has been the source of the county's problem.
However, a straw poll of the 17 commissioners present at this point in the meeting revealed that 10 would vote for the budget with this change.
Commissioners Rennie Hopson and John Waddle had left the meeting by that time, while Commissioners M.C. Rollins and Anthony Sauceman were absent.
Sauceman will not be able to vote on the budget, because the county employed him after his election to the County Commission.
Those employed with the county before their election must read a conflict of interest statement but may vote.
The budget will need a simple majority of 11 votes to pass.
"It's certainly not the best-case scenario, but as I see it, [Sams' idea is] perhaps the best option that I could see to get this budget passed," Mayor Alan Broyles said.
He also said that he does not believe depleting the savings to such an amount would impact the county's bond rating or financial standing, although he prefers maintaining at least a $5 million fund balance.
The county has not seen that much in savings in a number of years, however.
"All the funds have issues," Budget Director Mary Shelton said. "The only ones I'd be excusing from that would be the two school funds, General Purpose School Fund and the Cafeteria Fund.
"We have been budgeting from the fund balance[s] ... every year since I've been here," she added. "We either cut our expenses, or increase our revenues.
"One more year and every one of the funds will have to be issuing tax anticipation notes," Shelton warned.
Tax anticipation notes are similar to payday loans, in that they make payments on the projection that the county will collect enough property tax later in the year to actually pay off the notes.
These are necessary if the county does not have enough cash on hand in savings and fund balances to make month-by-month payroll and other expenditures during the year.
Despite some mandatory spending increases, such as salary increases mandated by the state for the office holders and department heads, the departments were able to cut their budgets 1.24 percent from the 2012-2013 beginning budget.
While not the percentage cut that the committee requested, department heads said it was the deepest they could make without impacting services or employee salaries.
Register of Deeds Joy Rader Nunnally called on any commissioner who thought they could run that office on less funding than she currently receives to run against her next year.
She said, however, that all possible avenues for saving money have been taken, including cutting up plain paper instead of buying notepads.
Commissioner Ted Hensley strongly urged to "cut, cut, cut" including cuts to services, further emphasizing, as White did, the need for the commission to begin looking ahead at more than just the next immediate budget year.
Commissioner John Waddle objected to some spending cuts, however, noting that the cuts included not purchasing an ambulance and other "fixed assets."
Commissioner Bill Dabbs objected to cutting the majority of the county's annual contributions to area agencies and non-profit organizations, saying that he would only support a "phase-out" of these contributions.
"I think this is a learning year for every one of us," Commissioner Robin Quillen said. "Maybe we should have done a 2-cent tax increase every year. Now we're in a hole, and everywhere we turn, we're going to be hurting.
"Hopefully we can make decisions that don't affect the services that we rely and depend upon."
These cuts are largely because Sheriff Steve Burns had to reduce $2.5 million in projected revenues from the housing of state and federal inmates due to the jail's 2012 state decertification because of overcrowding.
Traditionally, the county has leaned heavily on the prisoner-boarding revenues.
The sheriff has since proposed housing the same number of state inmates but very few federal inmates by adding to his budget another $160,000 for four additional guards at the workhouse, the county's low-security jail facility.
This would allow the county to project more than $1.5 million in inmate revenues.
The continued reliance on these revenues, as well as the corresponding increase in the sheriff's budget for additional guards, was also a point of contention for some commissioners.
"The sheriff has said for years that we've needed to wean off that money," Quillen said.
"It's not up to him to balance our budget. He feels like we're putting the pressure on him now to balance the budget, and we shouldn't be doing that."
Burns agreed that he would be fine with not adding the additional guards, although he added that both jail facilities remain understaffed.
He said, however, that removing the $160,000 for the four extra guards would require him to reduce projected revenues by approximately $500,000 since he needs to carefully balance how many inmates he keeps at the detention center in hopes of not losing certification again.
Commissioner Jan Kiker maintained strong objections to the Sheriff's Department's budget, noting that it has grown by about $1 million since 2006-2007.
Kiker remained one of the most vocally-opposed commissioners to the budget proposal.
She urged every other commissioner not to vote for a budget that utilizes inmate revenue, allows growth in the Sheriff's Department budget, and does not make deep cuts to those budgets that have grown the most in recent years.