Residents upset with budget, commissioners

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Residents of Carter County attended a public hearing on the proposed County Budget Monday evening and expressed not only their displeasure with county spending and the proposed 44 cent property tax increase, but with the members of the Carter County Commission.
   According to County Finance Director Jason Cody, state law requires that the county publish the proposed budget in the local newspaper for at least 10 days prior to voting on it as well as hosting a public hearing on the budget at least five days prior to voting on it. The public hearing Monday night was part of the process the budget committee must go through before the full Commission can vote on the committee's recommendations.
   More than 30 people, both County residents and County employees alike, attended the public hearing to voice their concerns, comments and requests to the budget committee.
   Among the County employees speaking to the group was Carter County Clerk Mary Gouge, who requested that the budget committee approve a $1,000 a year raise for the seven employees working in her office on top of the 3 percent pay raise which the committee had previously approved.
   According to Gouge, the salary earned by employees in her office ranges from $14,000 to $27,000 a year. The 3 percent pay increase already approved by the committee would give between a $420 and $810 raise to the employees of that office. Gouge is requesting that a raise of $1,000 financed through an increase in the cost of vehicle registrations be added on top of the 3 percent raise, bringing the total of the raises to between $1,420 and $1,810 for her employees.
   Many residents raised concern over Gouge's request and some even resorted to personal attacks on Gouge claiming that she knowingly violates state law by issuing vehicle registrations to persons living outside of Carter County. Gouge responded by stating that if the person presents a Carter County address, whether it be a street address or a Post Office box, she has to issue them Carter County registration plates for their vehicles.
   Another issue that many in attendance voiced concerns about was the proposed building of a new Carter County jail facility. More than one resident who spoke at the meeting asked members of the budget committee why the County could not purchase the former Frank Schaffer Publications building located on Highway 91 and use it as a detention facility, thereby saving the county -- and subsequently the taxpayers -- money.
   Rose Marie Carden addressed the jail issue and asked committee members why the Frank Schaffer Publications building could not be used and why members of the Carter County Commission had stated that land may have to be acquired for the construction of a new jail facility. "People keep hollering 'There's no land. We need land,'" she said. "There's more land around here than you can shake a stick at. A jackass in the field can see that."
   Carter County resident Ralph Potter told members of the committee that he understood the position they were in. "You people, I realize, has a hard job to do," he said, but the he added that the current situation with the jail could have been avoided if the County had planned ahead. "This jail has come on us. It has been coming on us for the last twenty years. I think a lot of people have set back and waited 'til we got sued to do anything when we should have seen it coming."
   The lawsuit which Potter referred to is a class action lawsuit which was filed against the County citing "inhumane" conditions at the Carter County Jail due to overcrowding, inadequate facilities and inadequate inmate supervision.
   Potter also spoke out against requests made to the budget committee by members of the Carter County School Board in seeking funds for capital projects which could include the construction of a new school in the Stoney Creek community. "Our schools have done about as much damage to our kids as good," he said. "We've got kids coming out of schools with diplomas who can't even read good enough to fill out an application for a job."
   The proposed tax increase was another issue which Potter spoke to the committee members about. "We're spending more than we're taking in. I don't care if you raise the taxes, if you're spending more than you're taking in, it's going to catch up with you. Common sense tells you that," he said. "You can't keep raising the taxes, you're killing us."
   Towards the end of the public hearing, several members of the audience began to grow restless and even yell at commissioners. One individual in the crowd shouted out "Do you know what time it is? It's time to get rid of all these commissioners by voting them out next election."
   The full Carter County Commission will meet on Monday, July 19, to vote on the budget proposed by the budget committee.
   An emergency meeting of the Carter County Commission will be held tonight at the Carter County Courthouse in relation to the class action lawsuit currently active against the County over the jail situation. The specially called session will begin with an executive meeting at 7 p.m., which is closed to the public. The called session will open to the public following the executive session and no earlier than 8 p.m.
   According to County Mayor Dale Fair, the called session will regard the approval of an agreement of the lawsuit. Both meetings will be held in the Main Courtroom of the Carter County Courthouse, 801 E. Elk Ave., Elizabethton.