Loudon at last meeting on 09-10 budget

School board request likely to cause debate at workshop

Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
LOUDON - The Loudon County school board's request for another $793,000 in operating expenses is expected to provoke lengthy debate as Loudon County commissioners meet this afternoon for a long-awaited budget workshop.
It's the first time most of the commissioners have looked at the complete $66 million 2009-10 county budget. The workshop is expected to last into the evening.

"The biggest challenge will be getting everyone on the commission to understand the budget from top to bottom," said commissioner David Mears.

It's a tall order to fill in just one meeting for a budget that, according to Finance Director Tracy Blair, runs hundreds of pages with thousands of line items to be discussed.

Budget committee member Don Miller said if commissioners grant the school board's request, "it would take away about $10 million from the school building plan."

That money is now assumed to go toward paying service on long-term debt for the school building plan.

Also at stake is the purchase of new school textbooks, delayed pending resolution of the budget.

The school building program is one of the issues that Greenback commissioner Bob Franke has been following closely. He's concerned some on the commission don't understand the connection between the increase in school operating expenses and the building program.

"I think the whole building program is at stake," he said.

Raises for teachers also are at the center of the school budget debate because they invite the discussion of raises for all county employees, Franke said. Many counties across the state are going without raises for county employees, he said.

"There are a lot of people lucky to have jobs," he said.

Commissioner Wayne Gardin said he's concerned that the scope of the budget review is almost too much to handle in a single workshop.

Gardin said that he will oppose pay raises for teachers and other county employees. "Under the current economic conditions I don't see how we could do that," he said.

Controlling expenses will be especially important during the next year or two because the revenue picture looks grim, Miller said. Property tax revenue as well as revenue from the state will be down next year, he said.

"I think we should be very cautious and conservative," he said.

Regardless of the complexity of the task, the commission needs to come to some quick decisions, Miller said. The county has been operating under a "continuing resolution" since June. The resolution prevents county departments from spending money on anything that was not approved for the previous year's budget.

"We're essentially operating on last year's budget," he said.

The current budget negotiations have been delayed while waiting for the school department to finish its budget preparations, Miller said. One of the problems associated with the delay is that new textbooks could not be purchased for the start of the school year, he said.

The commission needs to be ready to vote on the entire budget by October, Miller said.