Carter County facing a shrinking budget

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   While a discussion of Carter County's tight budget wasn't exactly on the agenda for Monday's county commission meeting, the reality and the threat of reduced revenue did fuel remarks and influence decisions made by county officials during yesterday's session.
   "Cuts are coming," proclaimed County Executive Truman Clark in his opening remarks to commissioners. "We've already seen some cuts in state funding since the beginning of the fiscal year. So far they have been minor. So far."
   Clark told commissioners that the county has recently received notice of reduced funding for three state grants and that he is expecting further reductions in funding to local government.
   "What we're seeing now is just the $110 million in cuts mandated by the state legislature," said Clark. "But if revenue is doing what news reports indicate it's doing, the situation is certainly getting no better, that's for sure."
   Just yesterday, State Finance Commissioner Warren Neel announced that Tennessee may be facing a shortfall of as much as $1 billion next year after legislators opted to use $560 million in tobacco funds to balance this year's books. Neel said the possible shortfall is the result of past "anorexic budgets."
   Clark seems to believe that state budget shortages will inevitably trickle down to affect local government and that the county is just now beginning to feel the first little pinch.
   Commissioners consented yesterday to a contract for a state litter grant reduced by more than $11,000 since last year. Litter grant money is used by the sheriff's department for cleanup along county roads.
   Clark said that decreased litter funding is not the only reduction in revenue facing the county this year. The state has also cut $20,000 from a "tire grant" used by the county to pay for the disposal of old tires. Money to Juvenile Services was also cut, Clark said.
   "There's just not enough money in the general fund to pick most of these things up," said Clark.
   County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins announced to commissioners that state aid to the highway department had been cut 17 percent this year -- a loss of close to $48,000, he said.
   Commissioners adopted a resolution yesterday in protest of further cuts affecting state-mandated programs.
   The resolution states that "the Tennessee Constitution...provides that 'no law of general application shall impose increased expenditure requirements on cities or counties unless the general assembly shall provide that the state share in the cost.'
   "...Although significant state funds have been provided for local roads and streets and for public education, the percentage of funding by the state to local governments to fund essential services has continued to diminish even as new legislative mandates for spending have been imposed on cities and counties without a corresponding increase in state-shared funding."
   Later in the day, Clark said he expects to see "a real battle from local governments opposing cuts in state-shared revenue."
   Clark also told commissioners that the county is facing losses not directly related to state cuts.
   "You're also looking at a loss of $67,000 in additional sales tax from businesses that have moved to the city [of Elizabethton]," Clark said.
   However, the biggest hullabaloo at yesterday's meeting was not prompted directly by Clark's comments, but by an unlikely source of controversy -- the Elizabethton National Little League Association.
   When Little League Representative Barbara Hurt requested a donation of $5,000 from the county to help pave a parking lot, it was obvious that commissioners wanted to make the contribution. However, it was also obvious that most commissioners were hesitant to commit funds to anything in the face of present uncertainties.
   "If you really want this money, I ask that you urge all of your Little League supporters to vote for the wheel tax," Commissioner Jeff Treadway advised Hurt.
   Harry Sisk withdrew a motion to table the proposal until after Nov. 6, the date set for the wheel tax referendum, after several commissioners lead by Charlie Bayless expressed interest in "finding the money somewhere."
   "Where?" quipped Clark.
   The proposal was eventually referred back to the county budget committee for closer examination.
   In other news, commissioners authorized the signing of a Community Development Block Grant application for the North Elizabethton Water Co-op. The Co-op is seeking $500,000 in state funds to improve deteriorated water lines in the North Elizabethton District.
   Representatives from the Co-op said yesterday that they are losing as much as 60 percent of the water they now purchase from the City of Elizabethton due to aging transmission lines.
   The grant requires $75,000 in matching local funds. Clark said that the local match will have to be paid by the Co-op for lack of county funds.
   In other matters, the commission voted to release $25,000 in funds reserved for building projects to hire an engineer to inspect ongoing flooding and possible air quality problems at the jail and courthouse annex.
   In a brief meeting of the building and grounds committee following yesterday's session, members said that they would look to get the "most bang for their buck" when hiring a consultant.