County balances very tight budget

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   If County Finance Director Jason Cody can figure out how to make ends meet in the new budget year, his face value should go up.
   Right off the top, he must come up with around $250,000 the state's probably going to keep this fiscal year, popularly known as state-shared revenue. Of course, one source of state-shared revenue is tax money from alcohol sales, which many county residents don't want anyway and probably won't mind losing out on.
   Two bad estimates in Fiscal Year 2002-2003 mean Cody needs $31,173 more than last year for Worker's Compensation Insurance, and another $237,905 for health insurance to make up for a 15 percent increase in rates, plus the underestimate from last year. State retirement amounts to $335,374, or a 13.4 percent increase. This leaves Cody to find $39,749 more than the $295,625 paid this fiscal year.
   In a year of slow economic growth, the county is looking at wage increases totaling 47.64 percent more than last year. Total compensation: $4,013,051. Employee benefits are up 14.70 percent, to $1,238,239.
   Cody said budgets for most of the county departments are coming in at three to four percent reductions. "That's really good. It helps me out because not only do I have to come up with the state-shared revenue short funds, I have to come up with these cost increases like insurance ... which are several hundred thousand dollars. If these folks weren't willing to help out like they are, it would be very difficult.
   "My hope is we can balance the budget within our own means and not have to do any property tax increase. Everybody is aware of the economic conditions we are in and what the community faces. It's not a good thing to throw extra burden on the citizens," he said.
   So how can the county give a 3 percent pay increase to its officeholders? According to Cody, "It's one of these things that we don't have any control over."
   The state-mandated increase is based on the percentage state workers received in the year prior. "If they got an increase, they dictate to us the following year that these elected offices have to go up," Cody said. "Minimum salaries are set based on population [and] every year it gets adjusted up and we have to absorb some salary increases."
   State law requires the county executive be paid 5 percent more than the sheriff and highway superintendent, who are paid 10 percent more than courthouse officials.
   Cody said the county executive's salary of $81,175 and the sheriff's salary of $69,200 are above the state minimums of $68,108 and $64,865, respectively. The sheriff's salary is higher than the range because of workhouse supplements, he said.
   In the proposed budget, County Executive Dale Fair's salary remains unchanged from the two previous fiscal years because he has taken a stance that he does not want a raise, according to Cody. "Times are hard and he's not expecting a raise and is not going to propose one. Because him and the sheriff are above the minimum, they're not mandated to be increased.
   "In the past, the county executive and the sheriff have both held the line on their salaries during tough times," Cody said. The Carter County Sheriff's Department will present its budget request during a 7 p.m. workshop next Monday.
   Salary for the county highway superintendent is set at the state mandated $64,856, while wages for the Agricultural Extension Service supervisor are unchanged at $69,554. The offices of trustee, circuit court clerk, juvenile, probate, county clerk, property assessor and register of deeds will receive the nearly 3 percent state-mandated increase, Cody said, raising salaries from $57,455 to $58,969. The administrator of elections is a bit less, at $53,072.
   Other courthouse supervisors will not receive the pay hike because they are not elected officials. Planning Administrator Chris Schuettler, for example, has been reclassified in the new budget, but his salary of $27,737 remains unchanged, despite the additional responsibility of enforcing new litter and stormwater regulations. To help Schuettler with the workload, $15,000 has been budgeted for a secretary, and $14,560 for two part-time workers (20 hours at $7 per hour).
   Veterans Service Officer Randy Lingerfelt, who shares Schuettler's office space, also will not receive an increase. His salary remains at $19,374.
   In the new budget year, Schuettler's and Lingerfelt's offices will be moved to one of two houses recently purchased by the county. County Executive Fair previously stated that the white frame house located behind the courthouse would be torn down to make way for parking. But after being inspected and found structurally sound, both houses will be renovated, using prison labor, and the smaller, white house will be Schuettler's and Lingerfelt's new "home".
   Mike Woods, Youth Services officer, also has been reclassified in the new budget. His salary originally was budgeted in the "other salaries and wages" category under General Sessions. "He shouldn't have been there," Cody said. "He's the juvenile officer." In the new budget, Youth Services Officer has been made a separate line item, with a change in salary from $20,232 to $46,598. General Sessions Court Judge John Walton will receive a 1.6 percent increase, from $101,849 to $103,479.
   The county attorney's salary, which dropped from $25,800 in 2001-2002 to $20,000 last year, will be brought back in line with reality this year, Cody said. County Attorney George Dugger will be paid $25,000, or $100 per hour. "The nature of the beast, especially with a new commission, is people are learning and they tend to ask more questions, so it's trying to bring his number more in line with the reality of how we use his services today."
   When Emergency Management Director Jim Burrough officially retires at the end of this fiscal year, salaries in the EMA office also will change. "Jim had a tremendous amount of experience, and when you try to get a replacement, you don't bring them in at what we were paying Jim," Cody said. The EMA director's salary will drop 4.7 percent, to $28,000, from the $29,394 set in 2002-03.
   Salary for the EMA secretary is set to increase from $19,437 to $22,000. Renee Bowers, EMA secretary, did not receive a pay increase when she became interim EMA director after Burrough's departure in early April.
   The county executive also appointed Bob Robinson, chairman of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, to a part-time position in the EMA office to manage Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) duties after Burrough left. Robinson's position has been retained in the new budget with a salary of $6,847, a 5 percent cut from the $7,207 paid in the current fiscal year.
   Wages for county custodial personnel will decrease 4.4 percent, from $26,140 to $25,000. The county also has hired a maintenance person with a budgeted salary of $20,000.
   Cody will not receive a pay increase. Though in the budget proposal it appears he has been allotted a hefty 25.3 percent increase, the $37,500 for 2002-03 was actually prorated from the time he began his new position in late September. Cody earns $47,000 annually.