Committee irons out final budget items before commission meeting

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The Carter County Budget Committee voted to approve the final general fund and county department 2002-2003 budget proposals on Tuesday night.
   "There are two objectives here," County Executive Dale Fair told committee members. "Not to raise the property tax and the other is getting the fund balance at a decent level so the county doesn't have to borrow any more money."
   The largest proposed budget increase came from the Carter County Sheriff's Department (CCSD) at $96,000.
   Chief Deputy James Parrish told the committee the department's largest increase came from a projected $60,000 paid to the CCSD by the state for boarding state prisoners at the county jail.
   "We are dependent upon the revenue," said Parrish of the state funds for housing state prisoners. "We would rather not have them."
   Parrish said the CCSD budgeted $280,000 in state board fees last year. The actual total received was roughly $375,000, he said. The department budgeted $340,000 in board fees for the 2003 fiscal year.
   The county received around $29.50 per day for each state inmate boarded, Parrish said. The cost included food and medical costs, he added.
   New commissioner and Budget Committee member John G. Lewis questioned Parrish and Sheriff John Henson if the county could simply refuse to house state inmates.
   "If they don't give us beds at the prison, we have to keep them," said Parrish.
   Henson and Parrish pointed out that state prisoners were not the primary contributors to the county jail's overcrowding problems.
   "We've got people who have been waiting for three months to go to the penitentiary and they haven't gone yet," said Henson.
   "We're overcrowded because of pre-trial felons," Parrish added. "We are going to work toward lessening the number of pre-trial felons, but it's going to take the help of the district attorney's office and the public defender's office.
   "We are going to tackle this pre-trial felony problem. That's what is causing us all this grief."
   The department's remaining $36,000 came from a new student resource officer (SRO) and a new law officer to work with the CCSD through the 1st Judicial District Drug Task Force. The SRO position was funded through a grant.
   The committee also approved approximately $97,000 as part of a three percent cost-of-living pay raise for the Sheriff's Department, Highway Department and courthouse employees.
   The CCSD's budget implemented a "step-pay" raise for deputies based on their years on the job.
   The county appropriated approximately $320,000 to the Highway Department last year. The cost-of-living increase added around $26,000 to the department's 2002-2003 budget.
   The Highway Department received the majority of its funding from the state of Tennessee. The lion's share comes by way of $1.6 million allocated from the state gasoline and motor fuel tax.
   The committee approved a proposal from the Carter County School (CCS) administrators that allowed salary increases for teachers and staff.
   The proposal allowed the school system to keep $266,000 the CCS would pay into the county's debt service account for capital expenses. The county will keep $115,000 in interest from the debt service account paid back to the school system creating $151,000 in funds.
   School Finance Director Jerome Kitchens said the money swap would be used to provide a three percent pay raise for school aides and staff members and a one-half percent pay increase for county teachers.
   The system had originally asked for a one percent pay raise for teachers. The county school board voted to eliminate seven teachers positions and two paraprofessional positions due to budget constraints earlier this month.
   The committee also voted to appropriate an additional $10,500 funding increase for the county's seven volunteer fire departments.
   Each department received $36,000 from the county last year.
   Volunteer Fire Department Association President David Nichols said vehicle and equipment purchases coupled with higher insurance premiums had already spent those dollars for several departments.
   Fair also told the committee that insurance premiums for county employees possibly could represent another budget increase later this year.
   The committee also voted to increase funding to the following agencies:
   * $5,000 increase to the city/county public library.
   * $2,500 increase for parks and recreation.
   * $2,000 increase to the Elizabethton/Carter County Senior Citizens Center.
   The county's general fund budget is estimated at $7.9 million after Tuesday night's budget shuffling. New general fund expenditures totaled roughly $292,000 after the committee's line-item budget vote.
   All budgets approved by the committee must be passed by the full county commission, which will meet Monday.