By Jonathan Pleasant
Despite several recent meetings, the Johnson County Commission is still no closer to making a final decision concerning a possible $.04 property tax increase in this years budget. Last months recessed meeting reconvened on the 30th, however no action was actually taken due to an announcement from County Mayor Larry Potter that state guidelines now require a public hearing to be held prior to an actual vote. As a result there was another recess set to follow immediately after the hearing on August 5th.
The same issues were addressed at all three meetings, looking primarily at what cuts have currently been made and where the largest shortfalls have occurred. The commissioners faced similar problems last year when they chose to increase the wheel tax by $10, and although many were hopeful that this year would be better, the toll on the countys fund balance has been significant.
One of the biggest unanswered issues is the loss of investment income the county has received from interest. As interest rates have dropped, the amount of extra money coming into the county has also decreased from over $300,000 less than 10 years ago to just over $70,000 last year. To offset this former income the commission has taken funding out of the countys end of year balance, which at one time was well over $1,000,000.
The commission was forced to take over $500,000 to balance the budget last year and an additional $445,000 this year. Even with the proposed increase to help this drain, the county will end up with just over $500,000 left in the event of an emergency and to help fund the next budget year. The extra $.04 brings in just over $112,000, and if the proposal ultimately fails the county will have approximately $381,000 left that is uncommitted. Because this is actually less than the total that the commission has needed to balance the budget in the past few years, several commissioners have expressed their resolve that the increase is a necessary measure to prevent an eventual deficit. Citing the significant increases of surrounding counties, members of the budget committee in particular have voiced their belief that a series of small increases would be easier for the landowners of the county than a steep rise all at once.
However, other members of the commission have noted a general disapproval from the people of their respective districts and have stated their desire to see more efforts be made toward cuts before supporting an increase. Minor cuts reductions have already been accounted for in various line items including travel expenses and office supplies which have totaled more than $14,000. Mayor Potter also noted that the county has agreed to cut planning services with the First Tennessee Development District as well as reductions to Safe Haven and Watauga Opportunities. Yet, the biggest single effort made by an elected official was a $17,000 reduction made by Sheriff Mike Reece.
Comments were made at both the public hearing and the following recessed commission meeting inquiring whether other elected leaders might be willing to look within their own budgets for potential reductions. However, both Mayor Potter and Accounts and Budgets Director Peggy Horne pointed out that there had been no real requests for any kind of increase and believed it would be very unlikely that areas for additional cuts could be found. Those officials present at the meeting seemed to agree, with County Clerk Tammy Fenner explaining that she is already operating at maximum capacity and simply could not make additional cuts at this time.
Even those reductions that have been made only served to help alleviate some of the additional increases. Last year the county faced more than $50,000 in fees to cover juvenile detention services, $60,000 to replace the aging computers in the Circuit Court Clerks Office, $12,000 to cover state reductions at the Senior Citizens Center, and nearly $20,000 to cover upgrades for the Election Commission. Considering the two upcoming elections this year, the county will also be looking at an additional $40,000 cost as well as a $30,000 increase to cover state mandated pay raises for all elected officials.
This years budget does not include any increase for county employees, leading to several questions during the public hearing concerning the extra three to four percent for elected positions. Even if state lawmakers were able to pass legislation to allow the county to opt out of the required raises, it is too late for this year. Other concerns from the audience included questions about unpaid fines in the Circuit Court Clerks Office, which was one of the primary reasons for acquiring the new computer system. Hopefully the technology will pay for itself in labor and supplies saved, but it also allows for the office to easily send information concerning past due accounts. According to County Attorney Bill Cockett, short of working with a collection agency that can use this info, the only other way to recoup some of these unpaid fines would be to bring each individual case back before the court, a lengthy and burdensome process that can only be initiated by the District Attorney or the Circuit Court Clerk.
The new computers have only been in place for a few weeks, not providing much time to show any significant change, however, with the last bugs being worked out it is hoped that the investment will open doors that could have a positive impact on the next years budget.
The other big issue brought up in the public hearing involved a potential option to incorporate animal control in the county. Members of the Johnson County Humane Society were present to encourage the commissioners to consider an extra $.03 to cover the cost of hiring an animal control officer and to secure the Humane Societys state of the art facility in Butler. Noting that the sheriffs department receives more than 500 calls a year for animal related problems, Humane Society members stated their belief that Johnson County has a significant and serious problem that poses both a health and safety threat.
The Humane Society has been working alongside the county animal control committee for the past few months in the hope that an agreement could be worked out where the Humane Societys pet adoption center could be converted into a county animal shelter. The costs of building have been one of the biggest issues in the past and interest has been high, but there was no actual motion made to take action on the humane societys proposal. As a result the animal control committee will likely meet to see what other options are available.
With the conclusion of the public hearing the full commission reconvened to finally take a vote on the increase. Commissioners Emily Millsaps and Dean Stout were both absent with medical issues, leaving 13 present and requiring a vote of at least eight to constitute a simple majority. Commissioner Mike Taylor made the motion to approve the proposed budget as presented by the budget committee, and was seconded by Commissioner Huey Long. The vote was split with Commissioners Bill Adams, Jimmy Lowe, Jerry Grindstaff, Jonathan Pleasant, Jack Proffit, and Rick Snyder voting against and Commissioners John Brookshire, Jerry Gentry, Huey Long, Lester Dunn, Gina Meade, Freddy Phipps, and Mike Taylor voting for.
Even though more were in favor at 7-6 the motion did not constitute a simple majority according to county attorney Bill Cockett. Noting that the budget must be passed by September or risk having the state step in, Chairman Freddy Phipps asked the board to consider what other action they would like to take. Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant was the next to make a motion, suggesting sending the budget back to the budget committee for further consideration. Although seconded by Commissioner Jerry Grindstaff, this motion failed 7-6 as well, leaving the issue in an odd sort of stalemate.
With no clear direction, Grindstaff eventually made a motion of his own to recess the meeting to a later date and in the interim hold a budget workshop with the intent of inviting the county elected officials to get their input and discuss cuts. This time the commission consented, voting 9-4 in favor. With the August meeting fast approaching, the date for the once again recessed meeting was set for the 15th at 6:00, while the workshop will be held on the 12th at 5:00.
One of the most contentious issues the commission has faced in recent years, opinions have been very strong on both sides. Although divided, it seems that most members of the board do have the countys well being in mind. Although there is certainly no easy solution, hopefully Johnson Countys elected leaders at all levels will continue to follow their conscience and bear in mind the faith put in them by the people of the county.
By Jonathan Pleasant