County's departments brace for the worst

By Thomas Wilson


   Some Carter County employees are watching the state's budget debate with one eye on their bank accounts.
   If the General Assembly hasn't passed a budget of some kind when the state and county's fiscal years end June 30, some county departments will be without state supplemental funding for salaried employees.
   "We're waiting to see if they're going to do anything," said Jack Perkins, Superintendent of the Carter County Highway Department, which is staffed by 40 employees and maintains 860 miles of county roads, including subdivision roads and all public roads not maintained by the state. The department's highway and bridge maintenance fund totaled approximately $1.6 million for the 2001-2002 fiscal year.
   "If they take state aid money and state bridge money, that will eliminate all of the bridges and all of the asphalt money," said Perkins. "I'd have to put a freeze on all of the asphalt and all of the bridge work. It will have a drastic burden on us."
   Perkins said the department collects approximately 7 cents of every county tax dollar, representing roughly $380,000.
   "Almost all my operating money is from the state. The biggest part of it comes from the gas tax."
   The state's executive branch departments, such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education, have been warned by Gov. Don Sundquist that a 12 percent, across-the-board cut could be on the table for each department.
   "That's what I'm afraid of. I'm going to stave off as long as I can," Perkins said.
   Tracey Harris, Carter County's Administrator of Elections, also echoed the feeling of county and city employees across the state. "I really don't know anything yet, until they tell us something," she said. "At a seminar we went to this month, they were telling us they were looking at taking away state funds."
   The county commission voted Monday to freeze roughly $400,000 of shared state revenues in the county's general fund.

The county will not pay supplements for Harris and other county employees until the state officially appropriates the money.

   The pay freeze would cut 35 percent of Harris' salary.
   "It took a lot of studying and going to Nashville to take the test to get certified," said Harris, who became the administrator of elections almost one year ago.
   "I've had the supplement about two months, and now I'm going to lose it. I really feel sorry for all the other administrators who have been in jobs for years, and are going to get theirs taken away," she said.
   Harris was certified by the state after passing the election coordinator's certification exam on her first try in December. Her certification took time because the state only gives the exam every six months, she said.
   The shared revenue freeze does not affect all the county's departments.
   Register of Deeds Johnny Holder said his salary and the salaries for the department's three employees were essentially self-supporting through service fees turned into the county's general fund each year.
   "Now, we turn over more than enough to take care of our office," Holder said.
   The House Finance Committee approved a revised version of the Continuing Adequate Taxes and Services, or CATS II, budget plan Tuesday. If the state fails to pass a budget by Sunday night, state government would shut down because no money can be spent during the next fiscal year unless the Legislature has appropriated it.
   Despite the potential loss of salary, Harris said she considered herself lucky that her office wasn't facing personnel layoffs -- and those layoffs don't include her.
   "I'm just thankful I still have a job," she said. "I know a lot of other people are losing theirs."