Litigation Tax Hike
Also Part Of Plan
OK'd By Budget,
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Greene County Commission will consider a resolution to increase the county's wheel tax by $10 and the county's litigation tax by $25 following action Thursday by the Greene County Budget & Finance Committee.
In order to enact the proposed increase in the wheel tax, the County Commission would need to approve the resolution by a two-thirds' vote during two consecutive meetings (June 17 and July 15), according to Commissioner Nathan Holt, who researched the issue for the committee during Thursday's meeting.
The public would then have a 30-day opportunity to gather a petition containing 10 percent of the voter turnout in the last gubernatorial election to require that the ma tter to appear as a referendum for a countywide vote.
If the 30-day deadline were to pass without submission of such a petition, the wheel tax would be enacted, Holt said.
The committee proposed the $10 increase to the current rate of $20 per motor vehicle.
This would generate an estimated $700,000 annually.
The committee proposed the increase due to a projected multi-million-dollar deficit in the county's general fund, the account from most county departments operate.
The general fund does not currently have any revenue from the wheel tax, according to Budget Director Mary Shelton.
Voting in favor of the wheel tax proposal resolution were Commissioners Hilton Seay, Robert Bird and M.C. Rollins.
Commissioner Phil King voted against the resolution.
Mayor Alan Broyles serves as committee chairman but does not generally participate in the votes.
The committee intends the litigation tax increase, which would apply to tickets and court charges, to aid in balancing the debt service fund by about $250,000 annually.
Implementing this increase, however, would take a majority vote by the County Commission, and would then go to the Tennessee Legislature for approval in early 2014.
The committee unanimously approved the litigation tax resolution.
In addition to increasing the revenues, the committee has studied a number of possibilities for balancing the originally projected $3.5 million in the general fund.
That projection included 13 new positions in the jail budget (12 new guards and one new maintenance staffer), as well as "zeroing out" $2.1 million in revenues for the housing of state and federal inmates.
Sheriff Steve Burns emphasized on Thursday that he made those requests in response to feedback from the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI), which decertified the jail in 2012 and recertified it under provisions this week that limit the housing of state and federal inmates.
Moreover, Burns noted that the TCI's annual inspection defined the jail as understaffed.
As to bringing in some revenue through the housing of inmates, Burns said he cannot add state and federal inmates back to the jail without losing certification.
With the addition of four guards at the minimum-security workhouse, however, he said he could house qualifying state inmates there.
Doing this, he estimated, would bring in about $500,000 in revenue.
WHERE TO BUDGET?
Burns said that such funds could greatly benefit the likely upcoming construction of a new detention facility.
"My personal opinion as an officeholder and as a citizen is that this is a perfect year -- as bad as it is -- to try to free up as much of this revenue as we can for the future," the sheriff said.
"I think that's the most responsible thing that we can do for the citizens," Burns added.
This would mean finding a different means of balancing the general fund and using inmate-housing revenue toward future jail construction.
Seay responded to Burns' comments with a sentiment frequently expressed by the committee. "It hurts me to sit here and say we're going to cut from the sheriff because [Burns] has given money back to the county," Seay said regarding past years' use of the jail inmate revenues.
"I think it would be unwise to budget anything he could bring in this year back into the general fund," Holt said.
While Broyles tentatively agreed, in face of the looming deficit he later asked Shelton to move forward with budgeting in inmate revenue a number much closer to an earlier maximum revenue projection Burns gave the committee -- $750,000.
The committee did not address Burns' request to maintain at least four of the 12 new guard positions, nor his request for an additional maintenance person.
Broyles has urged the committee to maintain the additional maintenance position due to the department's having only one such individual who works maintenance specifically for the jail and workhouse.
Prior conversation by the committee, however, has indicated that they will not likely support funding any new positions and specifically not the 12 guard positions.
At the committee's request, Shelton provided a cost analysis for these positions.
According to the information she presented, four new guards would cost an annual $168,000, while another maintenance person would cost $37,000, including benefits.
For informational purposes, the committee also previously requested that Shelton study how much of a property tax increase the general fund's deficit would require.
Shelton explained that the county budgets about $131,300 in revenue for each penny on the property tax rate. This will change, however, due to the current property reappraisal process because the state will set a new, certified tax rate.
For now, Shelton said she would still calculate the deficit at about $3.3 million, after reducing the number of guards from 12 to 4 and leaving the inmate revenue projections at zero.
Balancing this deficit would take just over 25 additional cents on the property tax rate, she said.
In addition, balancing the debt service fund's $240,000 deficit would take nearly two cents, Shelton said.
Also at the request of the committee, Shelton had analyzed the cost savings of cutting employee hours by 20 percent, or one workday per week.
By excluding emergency personnel such as Emergency Medical Services and the Sheriff's Department, the cost savings for a 20 percent cut and excluding all overtime would total $690,000.
Following the health insurance open enrollment, if the county also budgeted only the minimum required based on employee selections, Shelton said there could be another $200,000 in savings.
Broyles later asked that Shelton reduce these medical line items before the next committee meeting.
Shelton also reported that, if the committee chose not to exclude emergency personnel from the cuts and only excluded state-mandated salaries for elected officials, department heads and election workers, the savings would total $2.5 million, including the reduction to benefits.
"I don't see how that would work," Rollins said. "I'm against it, myself. There wouldn't be any money left for groceries and stuff like that. You're going to see people go on food stamps, that's for sure."
"I pretty well agree with you," Seay said. "I don't want to see a 20 percent cut on all employees; I don't want to see employees laid off."
"What's the alternative?" Bird replied.
Seay responded with his proposal for a long list of cuts that the committee dubbed his "wish list."
"I'm going to call names and departments, and I love them every one," he said. "I'm not out to hurt anyone, but I am out to balance the budget without a tax increase."
He requested that Shelton gather the cost totals for these possible cuts, which included:
* Reducing medical insurance in each department's budget to match open enrollment numbers so as to prevent the transfer of funds for other purposes. Seay specifically noted that Register of Deeds Joy Rader gave her employees bonuses this year out of savings in this line item.
* Reducing Emergency Medical Services by the amount Director Robert Sayne had shifted to create a state-required quality-control position. The committee originally denied Sayne this position and had him move the funds back into his line item for updating ambulances.
* Withdrawing the contribution the county makes to the Niswonger Performing Arts Center from the hotel/motel tax to help cover the cost of students attending events, and let the school system cover it instead.
* Reallocating two cents of the property tax increase granted to the Greene County Highway Department last year.
* Eliminating three positions in the highway department that Seay said were intended years previously as temporary positions. These had been implemented and never removed under a prior superintendent, he said.
* Pulling any funding from the now-vacant highway commissioners' positions from the highway department.
* Halting participation in the First Tennessee Development District's planning services because the county already has a planner, Amy Tweed.
* Using inmates wherever possible to replace the work of county employees.
* Eliminating any vacant positions; and,
* Increasing the wheel tax.
Road Superintendent David Weems objected to Seay's list, noting that his department is under a separate highway fund.
"You can't take [funds] from mine and put it in the general fund," he said. "I think you're hitting the Highway Department harder than you're hitting any other department in the county.
"We're not in a deficit, and we've worked hard to manage our money. Our funding has pretty much stayed the same and our costs have gone up.
"I feel like we're being punished for the general fund being in the red when we're not," he concluded.
Bird objected to these statements, saying that the county has treated the department fairly in providing the asphalt plant and a new heating system within the past couple of years.
The committee will meet again at 9 a.m. on Thursday, June 13.