County tries to fund shortfall
Five raised hands at the conclusion of Thursday’s Budget Committee meeting at the County Courthouse indicated the members would reconvene at a future date with numbers from County Executive/Mayor Larry Waters and Finance Director Karen King on how the instigation of a wheel tax compares with a rise in property tax rates toward funding the budgetary shortfall the county must face following a cut in monies from the state and the general downturn in the economy.
In trying to cover a fiscal shortage of about $1.8 million to the general fund and $4.3 million to the education fund, according to figures obtained from the county Executive/Mayor’s office, commissioners are scrambling for solutions. That number is based on all requests the county has received for funding.
In reaching for solutions to the funding gap, the representatives reluctantly considered a rise in the property tax rate by 8 cents, which based on the average values of county homes, would bring in new revenues of around $1.6 million.
A wheel tax of $25 per vehicle on the approximately 70,000 automobiles registered in Sevier County would bring an additional $1.75 million to the coffers, with the extra $150,000 going to the education budget.
The committee heard requests for funding in a marathon session held Tuesday, June 24. In it, all county departments, elected officials, and non-profit organizations made their budget requests for the next year.
In Thursday’s meeting, the committee heard testimony from School Superintendent Dr. Jack Parton that without new funds, the county education system would be forced to eliminate 15 positions, scrap plans to install defibrillators in the schools, and find the money elsewhere to replace the ailing cooler in the air conditioning system at Seymour Intermediate School when it finally fails.
There is no fat to cut from the school budget, Dr. Parton reported, telling the assembly that this is “the most lean budget since 1990.”
“People don’t want any kind of taxes, but they also want services. We’ll have to decide whether to recommend an increase in property tax, a wheel tax, or no tax at all,” said Ben Clabo, Chairman of the Budget Committee, at the second session of the meeting.
Ninth District County Commissioner Ray Godfrey spoke at the meeting in favor of a wheel tax. “The county is growing, and people want services,” he told the committee. Several commissioners at the meeting agreed with the sentiment, noting that if services were going to be increased to cover the rise of population in the area, funding would have to be secured from somewhere.
The committee discussed the breakdown of where the money from a property tax increase would be dispersed, with 62.5 % of the increase reaching schools, 12.5% going towards road projects, and 25% into the county’s general fund.
Increases in the general fund would go toward purchasing an additional ambulance and personnel to operate the new vehicle, which the county needs to cover an emergency services area which is beginning to be stretched thin by its burgeoning population.
Without the funding increases, the county would not only be without the new ambulance, but also have to eliminate all new positions. They would try to retain the 1% cost of living allowance (COLA) increase for current employees.
The committee is tentatively scheduled to reconvene July 17 to review the new numbers from the Office of the County Executive/Mayor and determine exactly what services would and would not be covered under the two proposals.
The shortfalls stem from both a lack of funding from cash-strapped Tennessee state government, and from a general downturn in the economy, which has reduced sales tax revenues for the county, originally budgeted at 4%, to about 2%. Increases in the costs of insurance for county employees, a sizeable percentage of which is picked up by the county, have also impacted both the general and educational fund.