County questions pay raises

Stephanie Myers-News-Herald

Loudon County commissioners quickly moved through their agenda Monday night until a discussion about possible wage increases for some highway department and animal shelter employees.

Early in the meeting, commissioners approved plans and funds for Project Tango and engaged in a heated debate over a piece of unclaimed property in Fort Loudon Estates.

When Tracy Blair, county budget director, introduced proposed wage increases on the agenda, the request slipped by with no commission action. It was a few minutes later when Blair introduced proposed amendments to the Highway Department Fund 131 that commissioners stopped and rethought agenda items they passed up.

Blair explained that since there was no action, some county employees in the two departments would not see a increase in pay. That's when Commissioner Harold Duff stepped in and asked for a clarification.

"Tracy, were those proposed wage increases within the existing budget or was that to come from the unappropriated reserve? I guess I should have asked that back when we were inspecting that," Duff said.

Blair explained the wages were included in the overall existing budget, but in fund 131 "there are several decreases and increases there and that's where wages are paid from."

Other questions followed from commissioners.

"Also, did the budget committee not recommend the animal shelter? And it is coming out of the existing budget and not new money? So I'm not sure. Maybe someone on the budget committee could tell us what changed," Commissioner Earlena Maples said.

"I'm not making excuses or anything but I do know this was approved unanimously by budget. I guess when that came up I was expecting a recommendation and next thing I know we dropped it for lack of motion," Commissioner Steve Harrelson said. "I was like, 'Wait. What just happened?' But I was just surprised that unanimous vote from the budget committee, that we didn't go ahead and approve that item."

Commissioner Austin Shaver stepped in, adding that he thought the wage increases for the highway department were exempt because of a built-in system Road Superintendent Eddie Simpson implemented for his employees. The animal shelter had cut an assistant director positions and that was supposed to save some county money, Shaver said.

"If we allowed those raises to take effect, we would essentially be nullifying any savings that were affected by it," Shaver said. "We gave Lisa's (Niles, Circuit Court Clerk). Eddie, my concern was that I thought that when we discussed employee raises I thought the highway department was out of that because they had their step structure.

"Again, that was just my reasoning for it," Shaver said. "And then for the animal shelter, where she is getting this extra money from is from what is now a vacant assistant position. So there is money in that line, but when we said we were going to put in a director here, we're gonna offset some of that director's cost by never filling this assistant's line.

"But if we divvy up that money amongst other employees, it is still getting spent," he said. "So no savings are achieved."

After a 20-minute back and forth discussion, commissioners voted 7-3 to discuss the pay raises at the next commission workshop and plan to vote on the measure in December. Harrelson, Duff and Maples voted against the measure.

Commissioners also briefly discussed plans for Project Tango.

When Commissioner Don Miller asked Loudon County Economic Development Agency President Pat Phillips when a decision will be made on the project, Phillips said, "It's going to be fairly soon because of timing on the project. They have to get these things up and open at a certain period of time. So we would expect some decision would be made fairly soon.

"Right now we are trying to stay on project and hopefully that will continue, but there has not been a decision made on this and we're just trying to stay in the process," Phillips said. "They did request we get resolutions approved so if we are selected we could move forward on this quickly."

Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to the Tennessee Department of Transportation requesting about $300,000 of funds through the state industrial access road program. The money would pay for curves and gutters.

Phillips said the program would fund that part of the project at 100 percent, but added that a portion of the $1 million committed by the county and city to Project Tango would be used. The state standard is a 24-foot-wide road with a 3-foot-wide gravel shoulder. Phillips said they would design for a 24-foot-wide curve with a 2-foot-wide gutter section.

The commission also approved the submission of a FastTrack Infrastructure Development Program application for Project Tango. The plan would include a $3.5 million request from the county to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development for utilities and site development.

"There will be no additional costs other than what you have already committed to," Phillips said. "Any cost that exceeded the grant sum, as well as what the city and county are allocating to the project, would be picked up by the developer."