Commission Member Tom Bowers' brainstorming buoys budget brouhaha

By Thomas Wilson and
Kathy Helms-Hughes

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twilson@starhq.com;
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   After honoring the players in "The Wataugans" outdoor drama, the Carter County Commission experienced a mild revolution of its own Monday night.
   In a budget committee meeting held just prior to the county commission meeting, Commissioner Tom Bowers questioned several aspects of budgetary spending and lobbied the county budget committee and later the full Commission to give county employees an additional 1.5 percent cost-of-living pay raise.
   "I'd like to see them get a 3 to 4 percent raise," Bowers said of county employees. "They need something to have other than 1.5 percent to live on."
   The committee approved a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase in a meeting earlier this month. Bowers adamantly pushed for the committee to give county employees an additional 1.5 percent raise to a total 3 percent for the year.
   County Finance Director Jason Cody said a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase translated to roughly $150,000 new dollars. He added that while pay raises were good, they opened the door for a permanent expenditure that would carry through to the next fiscal year.
   "Once you get into a raise, you've got to do it not just for this year, but next year and next year and next year," Cody cautioned.
   Bowers moved to grant all county employees a 3 percent raise by reallocating existing budgeted expenditures such as a projected $50,000 renovation project to the county's Register of Deeds office. Bowers, Committeemen Lawrence Hodge and Joe Woods voted for the motion while Bill Armstrong, Jeff Treadway, Committee Chairman Wayne Holtsclaw, John G. Lewis and Charles Bayless voted "no".
   Cody recommended the committee approve allocating $150,000 from the estimated $575,000 fund balance as a cash reserve fund. Cody also requested the committee approve borrowing $1 million from the county's Debt Service fund to cover potential costs for the coming year. "I will try to keep it to $800,000," he told the committee.
   The committee voted 7-1 to approve both requests with Bowers voting "no" on both.
   After hearing Cody's recommendation in the full commission, Bowers asked if that amount would be enough to give county employees an additional 1.5 percent pay raise. When Cody said it would, Bowers moved to table Budget Committee Chairman Holtsclaw's motion to establish the money for the cash reserve fund. The motion to table failed.
   County Executive Dale Fair told the full commission as he opened discussion on the proposed budget, "Before we can amend or adjust, we have to vote on what came out of committee."
   Bowers said, "I would like the record to reflect that though the budget committee voted on the budget, it was by no means unanimous."
   On the issue of pay increases, Commissioner Chuck Culler said it was important to look at the total compensation package, rather than just the proposed 1.5 percent increase.
   Cody agreed, saying, "We have an excellent benefits package."
   Some county employees in the audience apparently felt otherwise, and Commissioner Jim Whaley, who also is a county employee, voiced disagreement. "I beg to differ," he said.
   Looking at the bigger picture, according to Cody, the county is absorbing a 15 percent increase in health insurance and a 3 percent increase in Worker's Compensation costs "without asking for anything from employees. This raise is what we can afford right now," he said.
   Culler asked whether the 1.5 percent increase was per department.
   Fair and Cody both said that was not how they figured it; that the increase was per employee.
   Bowers said, "If you give somebody who makes $40,000 a 1.5 percent raise and somebody who makes $13,000 a 1.5 percent raise, that's a big difference."
   Commissioner John D. Snyder said that in previous years, the county had taken the number of employees and the amount of money available for raises and had divided it equally across the board.
   Cody suggested the money could be divided among departments for distribution. "I think it would be better to leave it up to the department heads," he said, to determine how much each employee gets.
   Fair said that if the proposed budget and pay increase is approved at next Monday's meeting, commissioners could then direct them on how to allocate the 1.5 percent.
   At a previous budget committee meeting, Bowers had advocated reducing the county's appropriation to the Carter County Emergency Rescue Squad by 75 percent, or roughly $207,000. He had made a motion to implement the cut at the committee's last meeting, but the meeting was adjourned by County Executive Dale Fair before it was brought to a vote. Committee member Jeff Treadway moved to table Bowers' motion at the last committee meeting as well, but that motion was also unmoved because of adjournment.
   The motion failed again Monday evening, this time when Armstrong, Treadway, Holtsclaw, Lewis and Bayless voted "yes" to Treadway's motion to table while Bowers, Woods and Hodge voted "no".
   Bowers said his proposal was not directed at the rescue squad's ability of service, but about accountability of spending county money. "The service to the county is not in question," he told the committee. "We're entitled to know where this money is going.
   "If we provide almost 65 percent of those salaries, we should have the right to see what those salaries are," he said. "One reason to cut 75 percent is because they won't tell us what those salaries are."
   The committee also approved paying off a $52,000 bond note for the Carter County Health Department building and purchasing a tract of land in the Little Milligan community along U.S. Highway 321 for $4,500. The motion also was approved by the commission.
   The committee also voted to hold the county property tax rate at $2.22 per $100 assessed value and to move 4 cents from Debt Service to the General Fund to try to improve the fund balance.
   At the committee meeting, Bowers questioned whether the full commission would be able to vote on the proposed budget as a line item when it votes next week.
   "If that motion is made and it carries, we will vote item by item, order breakfast and plan to spend the night," Fair said.