Commission votes to freeze state/county shared revenues

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Who knew budgeting could be so tense?
   With only days remaining before the end of the state and county fiscal year, the Carter County Commission voted Monday to freeze county/state shared revenue in the county's general fund.
   The move comes as the clock runs down on the county and state fiscal year -- with no clear budget picture developing of the county's state funding.
   "It's going to be an interesting time," said Truman Clark, county executive, of the state's budget decisions in the coming days. "If you've wondered why you are a commissioner, you're going to find out in the next few weeks."
   Clark was referring to potential state budget decisions that would trickle down into the county, possibly forcing commissioners to vote on potential cuts in the county's budget.
   The freeze represents approximately $400,000 and includes the salaries of employees in county juveniles services, the election office, and reappraisal offices supplemented by the state shared revenues, among numerous other departments, Clark added.
   Harry Sisk, chairman of the county Budget Committee, said the freeze affected only the county's general fund. He said that if shared revenues were not equaled, the county would need an approximate property tax hike of 60 cents to cover the difference.
   The state and county fiscal year ends June 30.
   The commission voted to keep the county operating at existing budget levels in April. Clark told the commission that if they spent at last year's level and the state's funds were cut, the county would run out of money before the end of the year.
   "This is going to hurt you," said Clark, who added that when a commissioner of a state executive department was forced to make budget cuts, "the first thing that commissioner is going to lop off is what he gives to local government."
   Superintendent of Roads Jack Perkins said if state departments such as Tennessee Department of Transportation cut 12 percent of their budgets -- as was being considered under one budget plan -- 52 highway departments in Tennessee would be forced to shut down.
   Clark and Sisk also said the county's financial hands were essentially tied until the General Assembly passed the state's budget for 2002-2003.
   "We just don't know at this point," said Clark.
   The commission voted 22-0 to approve a resolution authorizing a contract between the county and TDOT for a grant to fund litter and trash collection along state and county highways.
   However, part or all of the $42,118 grant could be in jeopardy depending on what form a state budget plan takes when passed by the state Legislature.
   "We don't know if they are going to cut this or not, most likely they are," said Sisk.
   James Parrish, chief deputy of the sheriff's department, explained that funding for the litter grant was based on a beverage tax. To appropriate the grant money for another project, the Legislature would have to enact new funding legislation.
   "We hear the litter grant is going to stay, but it may be reduced," said Parrish. "If it does happen we'll do a bit of planning and reorganize to see if we can get some of it."
   The department's litter pickup program is directed by two deputies who oversee approximately 14 inmates who perform litter pickup for non-profit groups in the county. "That would be a lot of labor lost to the county," said Parrish, if the grant was cut completely.
   The commission also took another step toward hiring a finance director by selecting four commissioners to sit on the county's Financial Management Board. The commission selected Jo Ann Blankenship, Addie Hyder, R.L. Miller and Harry Sisk to the board.
   A handful of commissioners wished to postpone the selection until after the Aug. 1 election, which they felt could force the total realignment of the board in September.
   Clark said he had no problem with delaying the decision, but cautioned the commission that the finance director's job was not a simple matter of politics.
   "If some of you are trying to get a political appointment, you are making a mistake," he told the commission. "You've got to get someone to do the job."
   In addition to the commissioners, the board will be comprised of the county's director of schools, the county executive, and the superintendent of the highway department. The commission adopted the County Financial Management Act of 1981 as a guideline for developing the new position of financial director in April.
   In other business, the commission voted 22-0 for a resolution to accept a $50,000 grant from TDOT to fund re-striping the county's highways. The commission also voted 22-0 to enter a mutual aid agreement with the city of Kingsport. The agreement allows each municipality to provide law enforcement services to the other in the event of a severe emergency.