Is Claiborne County breaking the law?

Published 9:13 am Thursday, October 19, 2023

Members of the Claiborne County Finance Committee were given a puzzle to solve during its latest session on Oct. 16. The committee could very well have been breaking a state law since 2009, according to concerned resident Wayne Lee.

The Finance Committee, who historically handles budget amendment issues, could be going against statutes that seem to read to the contrary.

Lee referred to Section 4 of the Claiborne Appropriations Resolution, adopted on June 20 which points to T.C.A. 5-9-407 detailing how counties may handle budget appropriations.

“In that same section (of the county appropriations budget resolution) it says that one copy of each amendment will be filed with the county clerk, one with the chairman of the budget committee,” said Lee.

According to state law, Claiborne County is subject under the section due to its Chapter 21, Title V designation. Chapter 21 is the 1981 ACT under which the county works.

Lee said that, according to statute, the county is required to submit a budget request to the budget committee for its recommendation to the legislative body.

“Chapter 21 has a section in it that deals with minor adjustments of the budget and it states, ‘the budget committee may make transfers and adjustments within the smallest budgetary itemization of any subdivision,’” said Lee.

“My rhetorical question to you is, ‘what authority does the finance committee have to make any changes to the budget after its adoption in the appropriations resolution?’ Nowhere in the appropriations resolution or in (T.C.A.) 5-9-407 or 5-21-113 mention the finance committee. It has budget committee written all over it,”

Lee asked again under what authority the finance committee continues to handle amendments to the budget.

“Have you been doing it wrong,” said Lee.

Claiborne Finance Director Eric Pearson said the county is not required by state law to have a budget committee. When there is no budget committee, the finance committee takes on its functions.

Lee disagreed with Pearson, saying he had found a statute that contradicts what the finance director had just said.

“Well, that’s why we have to talk to CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service) because I think it is poor drafting in state law,” said Pearson.

He referred to the section in Chapter 21 that sets a requirement that counties must have a financial management committee. There is no requirement to have a budget committee, he said.

Lee pointed to state law.

“It plainly states that the finance committee is a policymaking committee. You can’t find anywhere in Chapter 21 where it says that the finance committee has jurisdiction or authority over budget amendments. But you certainly can find it over the budget committee.

“I don’t think the legislature passes laws that can be interpreted down to our level that they are ambiguous or that they are vague. It’s not up to local officials to do that. Local officials are supposed to follow the law as written. You can only do what the law says to do,” said Lee.

Committee Chairman Whitt Shuford weighed in on the subject. Shuford said that, technically, the county does not have a budget committee at this time, because the committee was not reassigned in September.

Lee pointed out that the finance committee has not yet been reappointed. The committee had last met in session in May.

County Attorney James Estep III spoke of the 1981 ACT.

“That statute says ‘under this system there is a county financial management committee. It consists of the mayor, the supervisor of highways, the director of schools and four members elected by the county legislative body. The committee establishes and approves policies, procedures and regulations…for administering the funds of the county,’” said Estep.

He said the finance committee has, as allowed by the state statutes, to take on the duties of those committees not mandatory by law such as budget, investment and purchasing committees.

Shuford said he felt safe to continue handling business as usual since the Tennessee Comptroller had yet to find a problem in his annual audit reports.

“One of the reasons why this was probably bestowed upon us is to try to save the budget. If you have to have your budget committee convene every time you have a budget amendment, they’re going to be meeting twice a month,” said Shuford.

After more discussion, the committee agreed, with Estep’s recommendation, to move forward with the night’s business. Meanwhile, CTAS will be contacted and the issue will be handled during the next session. A date for the next finance committee meeting has yet to be set.