After weeks of deliberation, Loudon County Commission on Monday approved its $17.3 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17, which includes a 2 percent wage increase for all employees except commissioners and no property tax increase for residents living in unincorporated areas of the county.

“I think it’s a good budget,” Commission Chairman Steve Harrelson said. “The budget committee was trying to put together a budget that would fit the needs and services of the county, but also keep in mind that the economy is tight, and we don’t want to put anymore restraints on the taxpayers as far as a tax increase. So, I thought overall we did a good job of providing a good budget that wouldn’t require any kind of a tax increase for the citizens.”

Commission voted in favor of the budget after a number of amendments were considered.

Lenoir City tax increase

While the county as a whole will not see a change in property taxes, residents in Lenoir City limits can expect a 2 cent increase because of an adjustment the county made in revenue allocations. Commission voted to move four pennies from the general purpose school and education debt service funds and to the county general fund to make up for anticipated shortfalls.
Commissioner Van Shaver motioned, and Commissioner Kelly Littleton-Brewster seconded. The vote passed 6-4 in favor, with commissioners Matthew Tinker, David Meers, Harold Duff and Earlena Maples opposing.
Harrelson said the decision was made to help offset costs in this year’s budget, including an additional $300,000 in insurance premiums for county employees and a $200,000 hole left by the Hall income tax, in hopes of lessening the blow to the county’s fund balance.
“That hit us a pretty good lick this year,” Harrelson said about health insurance premiums. “... I know that was a big factor in trying to fund some more money sources for this year. The Hall income tax too was probably going to hit that county about $200,000 this year, so that was definitely another factor.”
The county’s estimated fund balance for the coming year is about $5.2 million.
“Of course, in order to keep the tax rate the way it is in the future, the way to do that to keep our fund balance as healthy as possible, our reserve money, and one of the ways to do that was to shift four pennies over to our general fund and hopefully keep us from having to look at a tax increase anytime in the future,” Harrelson said. “But when we did move money out of the education debt service, which is paying for our school building program, the budget committee decided to then move a couple of pennies over because we were still meeting our debt obligation with the money that’s in there and were able to move those two pennies over to our fund balance.
“But in return, as part of that, the two pennies were added onto the Lenoir City citizens,” he added.
The tax rate for Loudon County currently stands at 1.8587, which is unchanged from last year. The proposed rate for Lenoir City residents is 1.5587, up from 1.5387 in 2015-16. With the change, the penny distribution for general purpose school and education debt service funds will be 0.9063 and 0.3000, respectively. The county general fund will be boosted to 0.5100 pennies.
“Residents of Lenoir City do not pay on education debt service, and if their (budget committee members) recommendation was to move two pennies out of education debt service and add them to the county general fund, residents of Lenoir City do pay on the county general fund,” Tracy Blair, county finance director, said. “Therefore, it would be a 2-cent property tax increase for residents inside Lenoir City. The overall tax rate didn’t change. It did not change, so all the residents would have paid the same amount. But that’s why because it’s taken out of a fund that they don’t pay on and to a fund that they do pay on.”
Blair said a 2-cent hike for Lenoir City residents is worth more than $300,000.
“I just hate to see us put that on Lenoir City citizens, but the reality is on a $100,000 house in Lenoir City the two pennies will be about a $5 increase per year, so it’s not a substantial tax increase, but it still is a tax increase on Lenoir City citizens,” Harrelson said.
During the meeting, Tinker motioned for an amendment to place two pennies back into the education debt service. The vote failed with 5-4-1 split.
Commissioner Bill Satterfield abstained. Commissioners Littleton-Brewster, Shaver, Leo Bradshaw and Henry Cullen opposed.
“That’s a number incurred by all members of the county, not just Lenoir City,” Tinker said during the meeting.

No cap for tourism revenues

Commission approved two amendments, including $3,000 for the Little Tennessee Valley Educational Cooperative and allocating 29 percent of hotel-motel tax revenues for Loudon County Visitors Bureau with no cap for the coming fiscal year.
Commissioners initially considered capping the visitors center allocation at $125,000.
While Shaver said the visitors center was a “fine organization,” he said he had an issue with removing the cap for the year.
“We had voted to set it at a fixed (amount of) $125,000, that’s what they asked for in their budget,” Shaver said during the meeting. “It’s a fixed amount. It’s set. It doesn’t change. There are several problems with this open-ended percentage thing. It’s all based on a percentage of the hotel-motel tax, so no matter how much would be collected they would get the 29 percent. ... It’s been well above their budget each year. That in itself I have a little problem of how much is going.”
Shaver said that each year auditors note that the county is unable to place a fixed number on how much the visitors center spends.
“My concern is the fact the county is carrying the absolute lion’s share of this one,” Shaver said, adding that visitors center officials should encourage municipalities to give a little more this year.
Shaver said last year Lenoir City received $345,000 from the hotel-motel tax. He said $125,000 from the county, not including funds received from either city, would be a “pretty good chunk of change when we know essentially it’s not coming back to us.”

Amendment fails

Commission also voted against an amendment made by Littleton-Brewster to transfer funds from the Loudon County Clerk and Master data processing account to a separate line item for the office’s chief deputy in an amount equal to the amount earned by the Loudon County Trustee’s chief deputy, including Social Security, Medicare and retirement.
The amendment failed 6-4 against, with commissioners Tinker, Harrelson, Duff, Shaver, Cullen and Maples opposing.
Shaver presented a letter from the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service advising that the county should seek an opinion from County Attorney Bob Bowman. CTAS questioned the legality of taking funds out of a data processing line item.
“CTAS said you can’t just pay everyday employees with it,” Shaver said. “This is somebody tasked strictly to deal with data and to deal with their computers and stuff, that would be a consideration, but a day-to-day employee waiting on customers, you could not use this money to pay them.”
The dispute came last year after Loudon County Trustee Chip Miller paid about $4,000 more to his chief deputy after additional room appeared in the department’s salary agreement.
“The big problem on why this had so much conversation was if Mr. (Fred) Chaney does it, Ms. (Darlene) Russell’s (county clerk) setting right there and the rest of them will be here wanting theirs,” Shaver said. “It came to about a $24,000 increase just for the pay. If you have to add the Social Security and retirement stuff on that, his $4,000 comes up to about $5,000 I think is what we figured out in the budget committee.”
The amount received would be $5,736, Blair said.
“If we do it this year for Mr. Chaney, Mr. Chaney could come next year and say, ‘Hey, my old computer system crashed. I have to buy a new computer system with my data entry fee money. I can’t pay my employee’s raise anymore’,” Shaver said. “So we would be faced — this body — the commission would be faced with either picking up that additional $5,000 just in the one office this time, or he would have to tell his employee, ‘I don’t have that money in my data anymore to pay for it’.”
Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said the consideration will likely be brought back up next month.
“I think just the legality of being able to take money out of that technology reserve fund to use it toward salaries, I know there were a couple of commissioners that that’s the reason they voted against it,” Harrelson said. “Just want to check with our attorney to make sure that that was legal as far as state law is concerned and just want to feel better about that before we move forward.”
In other business, commission:
• Reapproved a resolution for the county to act as a fiscal agent for the remediation of the Poplar Springs Landfill.
• Authorized the sale of property in Sugarlimb Industrial Park to Del Conca USA. About two acres will be used for the company’s expansion, and in total amounts to $15,000 per acre.
• Gave approval to sell eight acres in Sugarlimb Industrial Park to Restoration Services Inc. The land will be used for solar panels, and in total amounts to $7,500 per acre.