BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Another grim budget year has resulted in a hotly-divided end to the Greene County Commission's annual budget workshop.
The Greene County Budget & Finance Committee hosted the meeting on Friday, during which some commissioners called for tax increases and others expressed their vehement opposition to that idea.
"Speaking on behalf of the budget committee as chairman, we would like to recommend this [2012-2013] budget and also recommend the tax levy to be the same as last year," Mayor Alan Broyles said.
The total of all budgets for the county is $85 million, he announced.
In the General Fund, out of which most departments operate, Budget Director Mary Shelton projected revenues at $20,159,500 and expenditures at $20,980,100.
This leaves an $820,600 deficit that the budget committee proposed paying out of the fund balance (accumulated savings).
Broyles noted that department heads did not spend about $595,000 that was budgeted in 2011-2012, which he indicated could help offset the fund balance's loss.
If the County Commission accepts this scenario, Shelton estimated that the county would have $3.2 million remaining in the fund balance on June 30, 2013.
PULL FROM SAVINGS
"The General Fund balance is drawing down, which disturbs me," Broyles noted. "On the other hand, with the unemployment rate high for Greene County ... the budget committee felt that raising taxes was not an option right now."
He pointed out, however, that $3.2 million is very near the $3.5 million that the state recommends the county government maintain as a reserve.
Several other funds within the committee's budget proposal would have to balance an operating deficit using the fund balance, including:
* Workers' Compensation, with a proposed $4,000 deficit;
* Drug Control, with a proposed $33,000 deficit;
* Highway Department, with a proposed $1.4 million deficit;
* General Debt Service, with a proposed $285,600 deficit;
* Education Debt Service, with a proposed $31,000 deficit; and,
* Capital Projects, with a proposed $7,398 deficit.
"You can call it a balanced budget -- you can call it whatever you want to on paper," Commissioner Jan Kiker said. "We're living out of our savings."
Commissioner Ted Hensley noted, however, that "thousands" of local individuals have said to him that they do not want a tax increase during difficult financial times.
Commissioner Wade McAmis, who was wearing a T-shirt supporting a "yes" vote in the referendum on the proposed increase in the county wheel tax, told Hensley that those same people would also likely be the ones calling him if he decreased the services they receive from the county.
Currently, the county school system is projecting a $1.19 million deficit for 2012-2013 and is calling for additional funding to cover the deficit.
In response, the commission approved holding a countywide referendum to increase the wheel tax from $20 to $40: a proposal which will be on the Aug. 2 ballot.
"I'm hearing a different story [from Hensley's]," Kiker said. "I'm hearing that people want their schools funded, no matter what.
"I've talked to a lot of people, and a lot of people have talked to me -- I guess because I'm in education," she added, referring to her role as a county school teacher.
Kiker and Commissioner Robin Quillen frequently noted that there is likely never going to be a time that everyone wants to see their taxes increase.
They referred to pulling from the fund balances to balance the budget as being somewhat deceitful to the public.
Hensley, Broyles and others noted, however, that unemployment rates are high and many consider this to be a time of recession.
Commissioner Margaret Greenway read a constituent's letter to the commissioners, in which the individual pleaded for the commission to not raise taxes, sharing details of the family's difficult times financially.
"I feel for these people," Greenway said.
"We've got to cut somewhere," Commissioner Rennie Hopson agreed. While he said he wished everyone could get a pay raise, he added that he did not feel it is possible.
He suggested having the County Board of Education cut state pay raises and step increases out of the system's budget to decrease a significant portion of the deficit.
CPAS WEIGH IN
"You made a lot of good points, but I don't think what you're talking about is optional," Commissioner Nathan Holt said, referring to Hopson's suggestion about cutting out the state-mandated salary increases.
"I think it's a bad year for it too, but we can't not give them."
Holt, a CPA, also expressed his concern with seeing a deficit for the General Debt Service.
County Budget Director Shelton noted that Debt Service expenditures will increase by $10,000 next year and another $20,000 the next before payments will begin to decrease.
Holt noted that, at that rate, this fund's deficit could considerably exceed its fund balance in the coming year, a situation which could then require a revenue increase.
Commissioner Bill Moss, a retired CPA, also expressed his concern with pulling what he estimated at $3.75 million out of the county's various fund balances.
"We can't keep doing this," he said. "We cannot avoid forever a tax increase."
Calling it "horrible" that many county employees have not received a raise in nearly seven years, Moss said that the commission is just digging deeper into a hole.
He later added that he agrees with Greene County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk that the problem is too little revenue, not too many expenditures.
"You can't get blood from a turnip," Hensley later noted, suggesting cutting services rather than raising taxes.
He noted that the fund balances are savings from the "good times" for a rainy day.
"Well, it's raining like heck," he said.
"Here we sit with probably the fifth lowest tax rate in the state ... and yet we can't support our schools properly," Moss said. "That's ridiculous. It makes no sense."
"You're asking people to pay [a property tax increase] that don't have it," Commissioner Robert Bird responded.
He noted that $40 may not be significant to some, but it could make a big difference to others.
As the tension grew and the debate continued with no sign of a consensus, Bird, a member of the budget committee, called for the committee's recommendation to be brought before the commission at the next meeting on Aug. 13.
Any desired changes could be made by any commissioner at that time through 11 supporting votes, he noted.
The discussion concluded with Sheriff Steve Burns requesting that, if the commission considers a tax increase for the school system, the commission also remember the other departments needing raises and additional funding.
Highway Superintendent David Weems echoed that request.
"I agree with that," Dr. Kirk also said. "I don't want to see [the school system] funded at the expense of the other county departments. So if you consider a tax increase, consider their needs as well."