County commission passes budget, but not without opposition

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Vigorous debate is said to be a good thing in government.
   The Carter County Commission passed the 2002-2003 fiscal year budget Monday night but not without opposition from a few commissioners who felt the budget was not clear on some expenditures.
   County commissioner Tom Bowers moved the commission table voting on the budget until new commissioners could understand more aspects of how the county was spending money.
   "I don't understand it. I've heard from other members of the commission, and they can't understand it," Bowers said of the county budget. "I would like to pass on voting until all the items can be explained and some department heads can explain their budgets."
   Bowers questioned salary appropriations in several county offices and various budget items including travel expenses of the Assessor of Property's office and the county's cost for copier services.
   Specifically, he asked why the county executive salary of $81,000 had been carried over from last year to this year.
   County Attorney George Dugger explained that each elected official had his or her salary set by the state of Tennessee. The commission could make the decision to pay additional money to the county executive if it saw fit.
   Each elected official currently made the maximum salary allowed by the state, said Dugger.
   Bowers said that while he understood the explanations of salaries and services, he felt the budget document did not accurately reflect some aspects of county expenditures.
   "The budget as it is does not represent the way things are," said Bowers.
   The 4th District commissioner recommended the commission take up budget workshops to clarify the budget.
   Budget Committee Chairman Wayne Holtsclaw pointed out that the county's budget is required to be submitted to the state by October 1, leaving little time for a wholesale re-examination of the budget.
   Commissioner Bill Armstrong moved to table Bowers' motion to delay the budget vote. Armstrong's motion was narrowly approved by the commission by a margin of 13-11.
   Commissioner John D. Snyder also asked why the county's industrial development agent received $35,000 from the county and who selected the industrial agent.
   Bowers' budget inquiries were essentially halted when Commissioner Charles Bayless raised a parliamentary point of order to call for a vote on the budget.
   Dugger ruled the point was in order and the commission took up the vote on the budget. A turn-of-events that did not sit well with Bowers, who said he was prepared to ask questions until he had answers.
   "Are you going to rule (Bayless' motion) was in order if we are going to be here until midnight, but if I'm going to finish in 10 minutes are you going to rule it's not in order?" Bowers asked Dugger.
   The budget proposal passed the commission by a vote of 17-5-2 with commissioners Snyder, Bowers, Terry Montgomery, Chuck Culler and Amos Stevens voting no. Commissioners Al Meehan and Jim Whaley passed on the vote.
   County Executive Dale Fair advised the commissioners they needed to have confidence the county's financial affairs had been properly managed.
   We have to have some faith that the previous Budget Committee did their work, and that the previous county executive did his work and move on, said Fair.
   The county's property tax rate stayed the same at $2.22 on each $100 of taxable real and personal property under the budget.
   The general fund budget came in just over $8 million with expenditures totaling roughly $292,000.
   The Highway/Public Works budget came in at $3.39 million and the general purpose school fund budget totaled $29.6 million.
   The property tax rate appropriated $1.24 to the general purpose county schools, 68 cents to the general fund, 22 cents to debt service and 8 cents to the county highway department.
   County employees and department heads will also receive a three percent cost-of-living pay raise on their current salaries as part of the 2003 budget.
   In other business, the commission also approved a new franchise agreement with Comcast Cable. The 10-year agreement requires the cable company to extend cable services in the county areas where 20 homes were located within a one-mile area.
   The contract stipulated that the five percent franchise fee received by the county would be paid quarterly instead of annually.
   The county receives approximately $50,000 annually through the franchise agreement with Comcast and roughly $40,000 from a franchise contract with Charter Communications, Dugger told the commission.
   Comcast has 2,408 customers in Carter County, according to Russell Byrd, area manager of Government Affairs for Comcast.
   Commissioner John G. Lewis questioned the length of the contract and also asked Byrd why the company had not done a feasibility study on extending services across the county before proposing their franchise renewal.
   "This is a chosen service -- it is not a service you have to have," said Culler, chairman of the Cable Committee. "We've lowered the term to 20 homes, and I feel with the adjustments we've made, we can get more cable in the county."
   Byrd said the company originally wanted a 15-year contract but had agreed to the 10-year agreement. The contract's length reflected the company leverage to fund its long-term investment in capital construction.
   He added that Comcast had invested millions of dollars stringing fiber optic lines and additional system equipment throughout the county and region.
   The commission also elected four new members to the Financial Management Committee. The committee was created in June to select a county financial director and provide oversight to his department.
   Committee Chairwoman JoAnn Blankenship was re-appointed by the commission. She will be joined by Culler, Robert Davis and Al Meehan, who were selected to the FMC.
   The meeting was Fair's first as county executive. He was elected chairman of the county commission by a 16 to 8 vote over Culler, who was nominated to the post by Snyder. Holtsclaw was elected vice chairman of the commission.