Highway department banks on gas and motor fuel tax

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

   If the state of Tennessee chose to dip into the gasoline and motor fuel tax, the Carter County Highway Department probably would have to stop operating, according to Superintendent Jack Perkins.
   The good news, however, according to County Finance Director Jason Cody, is that the highway department probably will be able to count on the $1.64 million it received last fiscal year after all.
   The highway department presented its 2003-2004 budget proposal to the county budget committee Thursday evening.
   "Most of Jack's money comes from fuel tax," Cody said, "and the thing that's being presented right now and that's being voted on and is close to being finalized in the state is hands-off on the gas tax, so it looks like it's not going to be touched."
   "There is state-shared money in the bridge program that helps fund bridge building and it is still up for a 9 percent cut, but that's only going to affect us about $30,000. The fuel tax would have been a very big impact because we get about $1.6 million in fuel tax money. It's the meat of Jack's revenue source," he said.
   To get the gas tax money, Cody said, the highway department has to maintain a five-year average in local contributions. "If you drop below that five year average, it affects the fuel tax money that you get in, which is a big line item. What happens is you start losing dollar per dollar trade-offs, so it's very important that you maintain that five-year average in your local support of the highway department."
   The budget also assumes that the highway department will receive the same allocation this year that it received from last year's property taxes.
   The tax rate of $2.22 was divided so that the county General Fund received 68 cents; the highway department, 8 cents; county schools, $1.24 cents; and debt services, 22 cents.
   Cody cautioned that the budgets being presented are preliminary and subject to amendment, however, they are balanced budgets.
   The highway department budget for 2002-03 was $3,416,935. The proposed budget estimates total revenue for 2003-04 at $3,235,403. Included in that amount is fuel and gas tax of $1.6 million, which has been kept flat with the prior year.
   There are no pay raises for highway department employees included in the current budget proposal, according to Cody. "When we roll it all up, then we're going to look at it," he said.
   However, according to Gloria Winters who recently retired from the highway department, the budget does include $2,000 in bonus money for foremen -- who are not paid overtime -- to compensate them during the winter months when they are out all night clearing snow from the roadways.
   The budget also represents a salary decrease for laborers, from $268,000 last year to $250,000 in 2003-04, mainly because some at the higher end of the pay scale retired in the past year.
   Hot asphalt mix for paving was budgeted at $798,794 in 2002-03. In the proposed budget, that amount is increased to only $800,000. According to Perkins, there won't be as much paving in the new fiscal year.
   Perkins told the budget committee that in his nine years at the highway department, he has been through five disasters and the county didn't give him even $5 to help. "The money that came out of my budget.
   "I've said this two or three years in a row. I'd like to see them put $25,000 a year in a 'rainy day fund' so that if we have a disaster, we could draw from it instead of out of my budget. I'd like for the finance committee to consider that."