‘Much to do about nothing;’ commissioners stalled on county budget

Published 11:49 am Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Claiborne Commission pushed late into the night wrestling with the new fiscal year budget and getting nowhere fast. The 21 commissioners came away from the June 20 meeting with no more than they went into the budget negotiations with – a shortfall with no concrete answers in sight.

This means the commission could schedule a special-called meeting to continue budget talks rather than wait until the regular session on the third Monday in July. If so, the called meeting could cost the county an additional $7,350 in commissioner pay because the June session was adjourned rather than recessed.

A formal vote on whether to recess the meeting followed a request by Commissioner Dennis Cook who said he needed a bit of time to process all the information gathered during the protracted meeting. The call for a recess failed by a vote of 15 to 6 with Commissioners Zachary Bunch, Dennis Cook, Mitchell Cosby, Rosemary Barnett, Carolyn Brooks and Steve Mason voting in favor.

Email newsletter signup

Those voting down the measure were Commissioners Whitt Shuford, Haley Barker, Gary Poore, Nathan Epperson, Mike Campbell, Stacey Crawford, Zach Mullins, Tim Shrout, Anthony Rowe, Steve Brogan, Eric Jones, Sherry McCreary, David Mundy, Quintin Rogers and Dustin Wilson.

Moments before adjourning, Commissioner Shuford asked that the meeting be recessed but was told by Commissioner Epperson that it would be difficult to gather everyone together to resume the discussion. Adjournment means the meeting will need to be publicized 10 days prior to its date.

The commissioners are under the gun to adopt a budget in a timely manner or look down the long barrel of the state as it takes over financial management of the county. If that were to happen, the first order of business would be major cuts to balance the county budget.

The county has until the end of August to submit the new fiscal year budget.

The nine-member budget committee began its new fiscal year review in March. As it currently stands, the 13 meetings cost the county $20,475 based on the $175 per meeting – half the regular commission meeting pay – each member receives.

During those labored meetings, the budget committee managed to make two cuts – occurring late in the process. After much deliberation, they decided to amend the annual charitable contributions by donating a respectable $79,250 and keeping the remainder – $27,550 – in the county coffers.

The second cut was realized as a sort of consolation prize when the committee decided not to attempt to take away salary increases – in particular, those proposed for the Claiborne County Sheriff’s Office employees. Instead, they cut $150,000 from the CCSO that would have gone to purchasing vehicles.

The nine-member budget committee came into the June 20 commission meeting with a total of $177,550 in cuts to satisfy balancing the budget. Meanwhile, County Finance Officer Eric Pearson has spent more than a few hours since March attempting to make it understood just what the county is facing in shortfall if sufficient funds cannot be secured. Pearson stated in a recent report to the commissioners that the county will be out of money by September to pay vendors and salaries if the General Fund cannot be “replenished.”

Replenishing the fund would involve raising property taxes and/or creating another wheel tax since the committee could not find anywhere in the massive budget proposal to cut sufficient spending. Pearson said during the commission meeting that it would take up to $2 million in cuts to balance the budget without raising property taxes.

Meanwhile, Pearson is planning to ask the Tennessee Comptroller to allow “interfund” borrowing to fill the gap. That would mean borrowing some $600,000 from the Claiborne Highway Department and another $1.2 million from the Debt Service Fund.

The full commission was clearly divided on several key votes. More than a few resolutions failed due to this division. At least, the public won’t be paying an additional wheel tax.

Resolution 2023-057 failed during its second reading by a vote of 13 to 8. Those against the wheel tax were Commissioners Bunch, Cook, Barker, Poore, Cosby, Barnett, Brooks, Mason, Brogan, Jones, McCreary, Mundy and Rogers.

Those voting for the wheel tax were Commissioners Shuford, Epperson, Campbell, Crawford, Shrout, Mullins, Rowe and Wilson.

Resolution 2023-068 setting the property tax levy at $2.30 per $100 of assessed value, failed with a vote of 13 to 8. Those voting against the measure were Commissioners Bunch, Cook, Shuford, Barker, Poore, Mullins, Rowe, Cosby, Barnett, Brooks, Brogan, Jones and Rogers. Those voting in favor of the tax levy were Commissioners Epperson, Campbell, Crawford, Shrout, Mason, McCreary, Mundy and Wilson.

The controversial Resolution 2023-072 failed by a margin of 11 to 10 votes. If adopted, funds going to the Claiborne Highway Department via an existing wheel tax would have been transferred to the General Fund. The Commissioners voting against the resolution were Bunch, Cook, Campbell, Crawford, Cosby, Barnett, Brooks, Mason, McCreary, Mundy and Wilson. Those voting in favor were Commissioners Shuford, Barker, Epperson, Poore, Shrout, Mullins, Rowe, Brogan, Jones and Rogers.