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Friday, August 11, 2017

Budget work
The Cocke County Finance Committee meeting Thursday evening talked and talked, but made no changes to the proposed 2017/18 budget. Commissioner Calvin Ball made a motion to include only $60,000 for funding of the animal shelter, the same as last year's level. The Friends of the Animal Shelter have said they will need $100,000 from both the city and county to operate the facility, and city officials have voiced a willingness to contribute that amount. Ball's motion died for the lack of a second. He also made a motion to cut the fuel appropriation for all departments by 15 percent. That would save $25,000 in anticipated expenditures, however Finance Manager Anne Bryant-Hurst pointed out that Sheriff Armando Fontes had earlier removed $5,000 from his fuel budget and the Fire Department had cut it's request by $2,000. The motion to cut fuel funding failed. There also was a motion by Ball to hike the employee's insurance premium from the current $25 per pay period to $35. Currently the county pays $500 and the employee $25 for health insurance. Mayor Crystal Ottinger said employees in most surrounding counties pay a higher portion of the insurance cost. A move to hike the employee payment would have saved $21,000, however that motion also was defeated. The mayor added that hiking the employee portion for health insurance to $100 per pay period would cut the county cost by $300,000 annually. "Is there any particular reason on the 'no' vote...should we keep trying to cut"? asked Mayor Ottinger. Chairman Andy Tritt argued that some county employees such as jailers, have a low pay and are on food stamps, that was his basis for his decision to oppose the insurance hike for employees. The mayor in response said there are lots of taxpayers who have salaries lower than a jailer, but a tax hike will mean they will have to pay higher taxes. Tritt said a 41 cent increase on the property tax rate will mean the owner of a $100,000 home will pay an additional $18.75 per month in property taxes. Commissioner Terry Dawson pointed out that the committee has asked department heads to reduce their budget, and some have. "We've made an effort and I want the public to know that. We've asked and asked every department." Tritt again argued for disbanding the non-profit Partnership, with the employees working for the city and county. But there was no support for that proposal. Despite the recent decision to cut marketing money for tourism to $25,000, Tourism Director Linda Lewanski said she is doing the best she can with the current level of funding. She pointed out that the county is 33rd. out of 95 counties in it's tourism visitors,"so we have done well with what we have." The mayor pointed out that the committee can put additional money into the budget to add to the marketing money, if it chooses to do so. Commissioner Robert Green suggested an across the board cut of five percent in all departments. But Bryant-Hurst said areas of the budget that are not discretionary could not be cut, and several departments must keep funding to meet the state's “maintenance of effort” requirement. She did say if the county does not approve a budget the state will cut out all discretionary funding including the volunteer fire departments. Tritt said closing the fire departments would mean a dramatic increase in property insurance rates. Chair of the Commission Clay Blazer pointed out that the county has cut funding every year recently, using up all the fund balance and leaving the county in the current financial condition. "We moved things around and cut everything as much as we possibly could.We eliminated the fund balance, borrowed from all the areas, and now we need 31 cents just to break even without fixing any problem and leaving us in this position again next year. "Blazer pointed out."There may be some fat but to be fiscally responsible, we must build up our fund balance." Blazer conceded that the move will add to the burden of property owners, but he pointed out that the members of the commission also are land owners and will see a property tax increase. The County Legislative Body is scheduled to vote on the budget at it's August 21 meeting. There will be public hearings for input at 5;30 and 5:45 pm before the 6 pm meeting. The commission will be presented with two options; one to increase the property tax rate by 31 cents to balance the budget but little more, and an option to hike the tax rate by an additional 10 cents to put $600,000 into the Capital Projects Fund. That fund would provide financing for a jail and industrial park, both of which have a price tag in the $30 million range. If necessary the body will meet in special session at 6 pm on August 28 and 31 to finalize the budget.

Return to Today's News Stories - Front Page

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