Commission still hammering out budget issues

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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As the final deadline for submitting the Claiborne budget approaches, county government still has much work to do.

The Claiborne Commission struggled through another protracted meeting July 17, gaining little ground. The commissioners did manage to successfully resolve one budget-related issue. A majority gave voted to reinstate ‘5 cents’ of the tax rate to the school system used to pay one-half the cost of maintaining school resource officers. The county historically chipped in the other half.

The school board asked that the funds be put back into the system now that the Claiborne County Sheriff’s Office is receiving some $900,000 in grant money specifically earmark to fund the SROs.

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Director of Schools Meredith Arnold said the ‘5 cents’ in extra funds would go toward upgrading security cameras and other security measures at each campus.

Former Director Bob Oakes fielded questions, one of which involved whether any safety grants were being realized for the system. Oakes said the board could apply for one safety grant averaging about $30,000-$60,000 per year. The grant would depend on whether the school district could prove it qualified under the criteria.

He said the grant is a minimal amount that doesn’t go far when considering there are 50 cameras in just one high school.

Juanita Honeycutt, who is the 2nd district school board member and former county commissioner, said she believed it was unfair to place the money generated from the 5 cents in property taxes into the general fund. Rather, she said she would like to see it placed back into the school fund “to help the children.”

“The five cents was a ‘pass through’ – a voluntary thing because you can’t split liability,” Honeycutt said. “The schools can’t pay for part of the SROs because they work under the Sheriff’s Department. The agreement was made for that five cents to be a pass through into the general fund to go directly to the Sheriff’s Department for a line item for SROs as long as it was needed.”

At one point during the hour-plus discussion, board member Shane Bunch mentioned the idea of using the money to place a second SRO at each campus.

County Mayor Joe Brooks attempted to paraphrase Bunch. Brooks said he understood Bunch as saying it was OK to keep the 5 cents in the general fund as long as the monies are used only for maintaining SROs and not for balancing the budget and reducing the tax rate.

Honeycutt said if the time ever came where additional funding was needed to maintain school safety, it could be renegotiated. She said the funds were never supposed to be in the general fund once it was no longer needed.

“It was supposed to be left in the school system’s budget. If we don’t move that back to the school system now, it’s not going to happen next year, because this year is when the new SRO grant money is there (in the CCSO coffers),” said Honeycutt.

After more wrestling with the issue, the Commission adopted the resolution with a vote of 14 to 7, barely making the needed two-thirds majority.

Commissioners Zachary Bunch, Dennis Cook, Haley Barker, Nathan Epperson, Stacey Crawford, Tim Shrout, Zach Mullins, Anthony Rowe, Mitchell Cosby, Rosemary Barnett, Carolyn Brooks, Steve Mason, Sherry McCreary and Dustin Wilson voted in favor of transferring the funds to the school system.

Those voting against the measure were Commissioners David Mundy, Whitt Shuford, Gary Poore, Mike Campbell, Steve Brogan, Eric Jones and Quintin Rogers.

Early in the meeting, County Finance Director Eric Pearson said the plan to do inter-fund borrowing this fiscal year was nixed by the Tennessee Comptroller.

Pearson was referring to the proposal to transfer some $1.2 million from the debt service and highway fund balances into the general fund to help maintain enough money to pay the county bills. This would tide the county over, he said, until fresh revenues begin to come in.

He said the comptroller would not approve inter-fund borrowing until the 2024 budget and tax rate are adopted.

The reason? The fund that borrows the money must by statute pay back the money before the end of the year.

Pearson pointed out that the county is already into the new fiscal year, operating under a continuation budget. He urged the commissioners to “adopt the budget tonight” to insure authorization for inter-fund borrowing, if needed, and to allow the collection of the new fiscal year property taxes sooner rather than later.

In response to Pearson’s report, Commissioner Barker reintroduced a resolution from last month that, if adopted, would have moved funds from the $25 highway department wheel tax to help balance the budget. The failed resolution, needing a two-thirds majority vote, called for an end date of Dec. 31, 2025.

The funds from this resolution would have dropped the tax rate by 8.8 cents, generating about $596,000 this year with higher yields expected next year. The lower return this year is due to the need for a second reading of the resolution, delaying the start date the wheel tax revenues would have been transferred to the general fund, according to Pearson.

Those voting against the resolution were Commissioners Campbell, Crawford, Cosby, Barnett, Brooks, Mason, McCreary, Mundy and Wilson.

Those voting in favor were Commissioners Bunch, Cook, Shuford, Barker, Poore, Epperson, Shrout, Mullins, Rowe, Brogan, Jones and Rogers.

The commission rejected, by a vote of 20-1, to adopt a motion to add back charitable contributions that were previously dropped this year.

The county also has yet to reach an agreement on the property tax rate set at $2.30 per $100 of assessed value. An amendment reducing the tax rate to $2.25 failed as well. The 5-cent reduction would have been achieved by reducing the county employee pay raise to a 3 percent hike across the board.