Reductions, cuts and a deficit face county Budget Committee

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Increasing the low salaries of Carter County public school teachers and the specter of higher insurance premiums for county employees highlighted the county's Budget Committee meeting on Thursday night.
   The Committee met in its final incarnation to set the budgetary table for incoming county commissioners who will be sworn into office at the next commission meeting on Sept. 9.
   The county's proposed general fund budget came in at $7.6 million. The county's general fund balance was roughly $349,000 under the proposed county budget.
   However, county officials discussed how insurance or other emergency factors could exhaust those dollars quickly.
   "I am going to guess it will be 12 percent at least," Truman Clark, county executive, told the committee of potential rises in insurance premiums for county employees later this year. "You don't have any idea what that increase is going to be."
   The county general fund balance was $78,000 in the red at the end of the 2000-2001 fiscal year, according to budget numbers.
   Carter County Schools (CCS) Superintendent Dallas Williams told the board the school system had felt the severe nationwide trend of rising insurance premiums.
   The system had absorbed an approximate $650,000 increase in insurance premiums for personnel this year, he said.
   Williams spoke of the county school board's decision on Tuesday to approve $436,000 in cuts for the 2002-2003 CCS budget. The reductions included the elimination of seven teachers' positions and two paraprofessional positions.
   The county system's budget had faced over half-a-million dollar deficit given combined funds of $29.7 million and $30.2 million in budgeted needs, according to Williams.
   Those cuts still left the system with a $75,000 budget deficit.
   "Our board members are very familiar with the county commission and we really wanted to show a good faith effort to cut our budget as much as possible," said Williams. "We realize that is asking a lot from the county commission to do."
   "We realize there are times you can't do anything, but it won't be because you didn't know about it," Jerome Kitchens, city finance director, told the committee.
   Williams said the county teachers had requested him to ask the commission to fund a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and 3 percent pay increase for paraprofessional personnel in the county's budget.
   Williams and School Finance Director Jerome Kitchens requested $225,000 to fund the system's $75,000 shortfall and fund the pay increase proposal.
   Kitchens said CCS provided insurance through the state of Tennessee's insurance system. He added that while the neighboring Johnson City Schools System contracted with Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance -- for a marginal cost savings -- the system enjoyed a benefit by using state insurance.
   "The reason we have it through the state program is we get funded a portion of the costs because it is a state program," he said.
   Committee member Phillip Nave also questioned costs of the system's policy to provide insurance to retired teachers until they reach an age of Medicare-eligibility.
   "We are in negotiations to eventually cap that, but you really don't get that many teachers doing that," said Kitchens. "We don't have a lot of teachers who can afford to retire early."
   Clark and Kitchens discussed one scenario that could provide additional funds for the school system involved reallocating debt service money.
   The county gave the school system $115,000 in interest from the debt service account, according to the budget proposal.
   The proposal would keep that money in the county's debt service account. The county would then allow the school system to keep $266,000 the CCS would pay into the debt service account for capital expenses.
   However, that would only represent $151,000 for the school system.
   The county's debt service fund balance was $2.97 million, according to the budget numbers.
   The Budget Committee unanimously passed budgets presented by the Highway Department ($3.3 million); the Solid Waste Fund ($488,678); the Carter County Health Department ($169,000); and the Courthouse/Law Library ($8,000).
   All budgets approved by the committee must be approved by the full county commission.