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Wheel tax increase, insurance changes, no property tax increase in county budget

After much deliberation and a specially called workshop meeting last week, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners finally agreed upon and approved this year’s budget. Reconvening the regular July meeting, County Mayor Larry Potter discussed the various changes to the proposed budget, beginning with the controversial decision to make cuts to some employees’ insurance.
Looking at a shortfall of more than $100,000 even after taking over $500,000 from the county fund balance, the budget committee submitted an initial recommendation to place a $5,875 cap on employee insurance. By doing so the county would save approximately $42,000 bringing the deficit down to around $80,000. Unfortunately this would have meant that employees who have plans that include their spouse, children, or family would be forced to make up the difference beyond the cap. For several employees this would mean that the majority of their salary would be consumed by insurance costs, and as a result the commission discussed other options.
After looking through several ideas at the workshop, a compromise was eventually reached that would establish an $8,000 cap on those employees already enrolled in a family plan and would lock in those employees with single plans at their current level. The compromise would also ensure that any new hire would fall under the $5,875 cap. Although raising the cap on those grandfathered in would cut some of the county’s savings, the change still accounted for nearly $20,000.
The commission looked to other areas to bring down the deficit as well. In the proposed budget the committee originally increased the number of hours that the employees could work to 40 each week. This was an effort to homogenize the various departments where some employees work the state standard of 37.5 hours weekly while others, such as the Clerk and Masters Office work 40. However, after discussing the issue, the commission decided to leave the hours as they are currently, saving the more than $20,000 it would have taken to provide the extra time.
The original budget also allowed for a three percent raise for the county employees to help offset cuts to their insurance. The raise would have meant an additional $20,099 dollars added to the shortfall, which concerned several commissioners. As a result the raise was also cut from the altered budget.
Other cuts included a reduction in funding for one position in the tax assessors office, an idea posed by Mayor Potter prior to the recess. Having received the approval of several of the candidates running for the office of property assessor, the commission voted to save the $30,000 from combined salary and benefits.
Yet, even after going through the budget document very closely and trying to find ways to cut back, the commission was still faced with a shortfall of tens of thousands of dollars. To make up the difference the original budget called for a five cent increase on the property tax, but after spending the week talking to constituents and looking at all alternatives, the commission reached a consensus that the fairest and best choice to have the least impact on the taxpayers would be to raise the wheel tax instead.
Increasing ten dollars, the wheel tax will not only cover the deficit this year, but should put the county in better shape to prevent an increase next year. Additionally, more than a dozen county bridges are in dire need of repair or replacement and as a result two dollars of the increase will be placed in a general capital project fund which will be solely utilized for that purpose.
Following a detailed discussion of each of the changes to the proposed budget, a motion was made to approve the altered document, which passed unanimously. A second motion was then made to allow the county property tax to remain at $1.77 instead of the proposed $1.82 in light of the decision to go with the wheel tax option instead. Unlike a property tax increase the wheel tax requires a two-thirds majority and must be voted on twice. Although the motion to raise the tax carried without conflict, the commission will have to vote a second time before it becomes official. If passed, the increase will take effect at the beginning of 2013.
Following the passing of the budget Mayor Potter thanked the budget committee and all those involved in the budget process, stating that despite its financial troubles, Johnson County is still blessed and has been very fortunate to avoid some of the serious situations facing a few of the neighboring counties.
Circuit Court Clerk Carolyn Wilson Hawkins was also present at the meeting to witness the commission’s decision concerning the employee insurance. Although unprepared, Chairman Freddy Phipps asked Hawkins about a recent discussion concerning the collection of delinquent fines. Hawkins stated that her office has collected more than $350,000 in fines this year, which is higher than some of the larger surrounding counties. She went on to say that former Commissioner Ronnie Perkins had been pursuing a possible course of action to collect some of the older unpaid fines but had failed to deliver results after his health had declined.
Questioned by Commissioner Jack Proffitt whether she would be willing to pick up where Perkins left off, Hawkins stated that she would work with the commission and would welcome any of the commissioners to come to her office and observe the day-to-day operations there. She believed such observation would prove that she simply has too much on her plate to pursue further collections. Hawkins went on to say that the state had passed a new law which will suspend a violator’s license if their fine is not paid within a year, regardless of the offense, although the law does not affect fines that occurred before this year. An exact amount of uncollected funds was not available at press time, but is in excess of three million dollars.
Aside from the budget the commission also addressed several other issues, beginning with a decision on recent request to the county lease on the airport. Coming before the commission earlier in the month, Bob and Cindy Johnson who currently operate the airport under Doe Mountain Aviation LLC, have decided to leave the business and requested that the commission reassign their remaining two years to their close friend, pilot, and local entrepreneur Dave Gariss. Although the commission acknowledged the Johnson’s recommendation there was still concern that few of the commissioners knew Mr. Garris, and as a result members of the airport committee requested to hold a meeting before a decision was made.
Following that meeting last week, the committee came back with a strong recommendation to go with Gariss’s and Johnson’s request, furthering that it also include the possibility of an entirely new five-year lease. Having received his pilot’s license at the airport several years ago, Gariss has since built and flown four of his own planes, a process he hopes to continue under his own LLC, Doe Mountain Aviation Services.
Discussing his intentions, Commissioner Bill Adams informed the board that Gariss was concerned that his investment in the airport would not have enough time to reach maturity in the two years remaining on the original lease. As a result, county attorney Bill Cockett was asked to draw up a new lease similar to the Johnsons’ original, with the time extension included. Making a motion to that effect, Adams requested that the commission go through with the switch which carried unanimously.
Mayor Potter kicked off a discussion concerning a piece of property that joins the state’s recently acquired Doe Mountain Project. Located on Harbin Hill Road, the 4.22 acres that make up the property is also the main access point for the mountain, and includes a 2,400 square foot office that was originally built to be the main office for the failed Daniel’s Trace Sub Division. Featuring space for a possible welcome center, gift shop, and fee collection office among other possibilities, as well as handicap accessible restrooms, Potter sees the building as a key part to the success of the Doe Mountain Project.
To read the complete article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.