County Budget passes, but changes are to come


By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff
After a month of debate, the Carter County Commission finally passed the 2003-04 budget Monday afternoon.
Nevertheless, several unsatisfied commissioners plan to amend it during the months ahead. All commissioners present voted to approve the budget except for Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers. "I have questions and disagreements about the budget, and I want to vote no," he said.
After presenting a balanced budget without a tax increase, commissioners discussed several line items on the agenda to arrive at an anticipated budget allocation resolution, or summary.
After the vote was taken, commissioners had the opportunity to make motions to amend it.
Joe Woods, commissioner from the 3rd district, made a motion that a line item for part-time salaries in the county trustee's office remain the same as it was in the 2002-2003 budget at $2,860. The motion did not receive a second. However, County Finance Director Jason Cody addressed the issue and stated that, because Trustee Randall Lewis might be better able to determine how much part time help he needs during the tax season, the idea should be deferred until later in the year in an amendment.
"Any department can come back ... and can have a special need. This is a working document. It's not in concrete. Each month, each time we meet we have amendments and alterations to it," County Mayor, Dale Fair, said.
Commissioner Al Meehan voiced concern about the 1.5 percent pay raise included in the budget for county employees. Although he praised Cody's hard work, he said he believes more money can be found for an additional 1.5 percent increase. He specifically questioned the employee benefits package.
The county provides 100 percent health insurance coverage for its employees; however, due to an increase in insurance claims last year, the county had to plan for a 15 percent increase this year.
Meehan motioned that, if the final cost for insurance amounts to less than the 15 percent allocated , that the difference be given back to county employees as another 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase.
A major problem with the motion, according to Cody, was that doing so would guarantee the additional 1.5 percent increase even if the excess from the total insurance cost wasn't enough to cover the raise. The county would then be obligated to come up with whatever funding was needed to provide the additional 1.5 percent, or approximately $150,000. Unless insurance costs are less than last year, which is highly unlikely, there would probably not be enough money to cover the cost.
Eleven commissioners voted yes to the motion, and nine voted no - not enough for a passing majority.
Jack Buckles, commissioner from the 1st district, rephrased the motion, stating that the amount left over from insurance costs should be converted to an increase for county employees but should not be limited to 1.5 percent. Buckle's motion also didn't pass, with 12 commissioners voting yes, and seven voting no. A majority would require 13 votes.
Bowers also asked to amend the budget so that $240,000, or 75 percent, of the rescue squad budget be used for the cost-of-living increase for county employees.
"The rescue squad and fire department lure businesses into the county. If you take money from the (rescue) squad and (fire) department you're shooting yourself in the foot," Buckles countered.
The motion to move 75 percent from the rescue squad fund failed 8-10 with one commissioner abstaining.
In other business, Haynes Elliot presented a report from the Economic Development Board. He said the county's unemployment rate is as low as it has been "in a long time" at 5.6 percent. It is also below the national average of 6.4 percent, he said.
Elliot, Fair and Charles Stahl, Elizabethton City Manager, have created a new Carter County Web site with links to the city of Elizabethton, school systems, and county history. The Web site also includes a a video that highlights the county.
Also, Buckles cited concerns of residents over zoning in the 1st district in Stoney Creek. He motioned that the Carter County Planning Committee review the topic in that district. "They (residents) don't like it. They're not for it. They weren't for it when it went in. They don't like somebody from different parts of the county telling them what they can do with their land," Buckles said. The motion to refer zoning in Stoney Creek to the committee passed with no opposition.
Cody told commissioners at the end of the meeting that he believes the budget is cost-savvy. "I think we've got a good solid budget to carry us into next year. I am very satisfied with getting it passed, because operating on a continued budget poses some problems ... I am very satisfied we got it passed. It accomplished several things. It gave the employees raises, and it didn't increase their taxes. We were able to increase our fund balance to position ourselves for capital improvements for years to come."
Fair said he agreed with Cody's statements. "It was a tough year in that we had some cuts. Our economy is down. We decided to try to tighten the belt and live within our means," he said.
"There will probably be some changes that will be made over the next 12 months. But we will address those as they come up."