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Panel: Just the basics, please

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
The Unicoi County Finance Committee continues to seek cuts in the 2012-2013 Fiscal Year budget by asking office holders to consider needs rather than wants.
Members of the committee are asking office holders to request only what is needed and return to the commission for future and supplemental monetary requests.
Finance Committee Chairman Loren Thomas said at the start of the Thursday, Aug. 16, meeting that the committee had $589,977 left to cut after Tuesday’s proposed cuts. After the Thursday meeting, $600,907 remained to be cut after proposed cuts were defended by office holders.
After Tuesday’s proposed cut of an additional $97,695 off the bottom line, the commission asked office holders to attend Thursday’s meeting before cuts were approved for each county service considered so far.
On Tuesday, Thomas briefed County Trustee Paul Berry, Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey, members of the Election Commission, Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle and a few citizens about the county’s financial situation.
“This year we’re facing an extremely tough year with our budget,” Thomas said. “We have had some unexpected costs come in this year and have been added to our bottom line that we are trying to work on cutting down.”
Thomas said expenses such as the 911 lawsuit, state-increased salaries and health insurance increases helped to raise the amount of budget cuts needed to about $728,000 overall.
Tuesday’s meeting yielded a total of $181,000 in proposed cuts while in previous finance committee meetings $20,000 of revenue was added. The committee has recommended all offices reduce requests for travel and office equipment to $1,000 and come to the commission to seek additional funds if necessary in the future. It was calculated the county would save $14,750 from travel, cut to $1,000 for each office. State-mandated travel was exempt from the proposed cut.
“We are looking at making any cuts that we can possibly make,” Thomas said. “We’re asking all the office holders to work with us.”
On Tuesday, the committee discussed a $3,700 cut from the trustee’s office, which Berry agreed to on Thursday. Cuts were made in areas of communication, maintenance and repair, travel, office supplies and equipment.
Berry mentioned that the way cuts are being proposed for the upcoming year seems like the county is penalizing office holders when they return funds to the county fund balance at the end of every year.
Commissioner Bill Hensley supported Berry’s notion by saying that the county should, “encourage office holders to not use all money allocated in those funds,” he said. “If they turn it back into us then we would not punish them by cutting their budget the next time. I’d like to restore it back to [previous amounts] and if they turn it in next year, give them a pat on the back.”
Committee member James “Mickey” Hatcher said office holders have done a “wonderful” job of turning in leftover funds to the county. “If everybody had spent all their budget, we’d be in a lot worse shape than what we are,” Hatcher said. “We would not have a fund balance at all going into July 1. What we’re looking at is a more realistic budget. We’re not taking anything away from them because if you have an inflated budget to begin with you have to take tax money based on that figure.”
Commissioner James Howell said that compared to other budgets, Berry’s wasn’t cut nearly as much. “In other budgets we’ve had to cut a lot more,” Thomas said.
The committee also requested that Tittle agree to a $7,000 cut from her budget while noting she did not make the 2-percent cut request the previous year. Tittle defended her budget by pointing out contract obligations to pay for certain line items the committee cut too low. “I have things that are already set in place,” Tittle said. Tittle also made the committee aware of equipment concerns and necessary index book repairs. The committee was able to finalize a cut of $5,770 from the Register of Deeds office budget.
Tittle expressed her concern that cutting travel expenses may hinder educational opportunities for some offices, but not others that may receive state subsidies to attend conferences.
“This isn’t just travel to me, it’s education,” Tittle said.
Thomas said office holders will be able to request funds for educational opportunities through regularly scheduled meetings after a budget is finalized.
Assessor of Property Patsy Bennett was charged by the committee with reducing her proposed $293,095 budget to $235,000 on Tuesday.
The committee addressed a salary cut of a full-time employee to part-time status. Thomas said the County Commission and Bennett agreed the employee would be switched to part time after the county’s property reappraisal this past fiscal year.
Commission Chairperson Sue Jean Wilson asked Bennett why the employee could not be put back on part time. Bennett said the employee could go back to part time, but, “I would just like to keep her full time.”
Thomas, who pointed out that the employee was in the room, said he understood the delicacy of the situation. “This is probably the most difficult [budget] we’ve had to deal with so far,” Thomas said. “This is a very difficult decision to make.”
Thomas explained that the year before the reappraisal Bennett’s actual budget spent was $228,919, while her proposed budget for this year after the reappraisal is $293,095, which is a difference of $64,176. “We didn’t go through your budget and change any specific lines, we just changed the bottom line,” Thomas said. Bennett guided Thomas through some cuts she declared to be made for lines including postal charges, printing, travel and office supplies.
Bennett also expressed office equipment concerns for which she requested the budgeted amount of $6,000 to remain.
The committee agreed to have Hensley meet with Bennett on Friday to search for line items to cut. “We need to work this thing out with the part-time help,” Thomas said. The committee requested Bennett to not exceed $245,000, which is $10,000 more than the original cut request.
Bailey was able to negotiate with commissioners to restore funds to the mechanics line item, which contained an error, while proposing an additional cut of $300. The commission proposed a $4,000 cut to Bailey’s budget on Tuesday and were able to cut a total of $4,300 on Thursday. Line items cut included electricity, office supplies and office equipment.
Hensley suggested the county may need to increase the bottom line to account for about $300,000 in road damage caused by recent flooding. “We don’t think we will get any assistance from the state,” Thomas said.
Commissioner Doug Bowman said he was aware the county road department has an emergency fund.
“I think his (Road Superintendent Terry Haynes’) reserve could cover that,” Bowman said. Wilson also recognized the sheriff department’s potential budget increase for overtime accrued for increased patrols during the flood. Neither Haynes nor Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley’s budgets have been discussed in detail by the finance committee during their regularly scheduled meetings.
The finance committee will meet again on Tuesday, Aug. 21 at 5 p.m. when County Clerk Mitzi Bowen expects to hear proposed cuts to her budget, which includes prior discussions to close the drive-through service.