Panel firm on no raises

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

Although it reversed a previous recommendation that the county transfer 8 cents in property tax money from the school building fund to the general fund, the budget committee held firm on another previous decision.

The budget panel did not change course on salary increases and will recommend that the full commission issue no pay raises in 2012-13.

The county's more than 340 full- and part-time employees did receive a 1.6 percent raise with a bonus in 2011-12.

Loudon County Commissioner Sharon Yarbrough, who is part of the budget committee, said she anticipated that members of the full commission would propose some type of salary increase during the board's June 28 meeting to vote on the proposed budget.

"It's not something that I'm going to go back on because I believe we reviewed it substantially at the time of the budget," Yarbrough said.

She said last year county employees spoke out in favor of salary increases and, in turn, the commission acquiesced.

"They did that to us last year during the full commission meeting," Yarbrough said. "They were upset with us over insurance, and they were upset with us on pay, and then they came back and forced us to give them their raises and insurance. This is not the fun part of being commissioner is management by intimidation."

During a recent commission workshop, board member Steve Harrelson proposed a salary increase that would offset an increase in insurance, which the committee recommended be increased from the current rate of 12 percent of the premium to 15 percent.

'Lean budget'

Budget committee member Bob Franke said the budget panel took a close look at the funding plan and cut as possible without having to drop any jobs.

"If somebody wasn't spending their money, we took it away, so I think it's a pretty darn lean budget," Franke said. "The only way you can do that is if you start laying off people and nobody seems inclined to that, so we're kind of stuck with where we're at."

The committee also recommended during the workshop that the county reduce total commissioner salaries from $80,000 to $40,000. Commissioners each make $8,021 per year or $668.42 per month.

Mayor Estelle Herron, who makes $80,210 annually, said commissioner salary rates are set by the state. The mayor's salary must be at least 5 percent higher than the highest paid constitutional officer. Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider's salary is set at $76,390 for the next fiscal year.

"That salary is all kind of set in legislation," Herron said. "Commissioners make 10 percent. That's based on the mayor's salary."

The committee took some additional cost-saving measures. The panel denied a request from the Highway Department for about $1.036 million in increased funding. If the budget passes, the sheriff's office will also not receive the three additional patrol deputies, three more corrections officers and 10 vehicles as requested.

The panel recommended two new full-time employees for the accounting department for a total of $70,000 and one full-time information technology employee at the sheriff's office for $40,000.

The commission in 2011 voted on a 20-cent tax increase, with 8 cents earmarked for the school construction debt fund. After some wrangling with school officials and the public, the budget committee this past week recommended that the commission keep the 8 cents in the school fund and move money from the capital projects coffer to offset reductions in the general fund.

The committee recommended that 1 cent in property tax money be moved plus $1 million from the capital projects fund. A $300,000 allocation for additional space at the county office to address limited storage capacities was also recommended to be transferred.

Yarbrough said she was in favor of moving money from the capital fund because she thought the planned addition to the county office was building was not an emergency expense.

"I wasn't as concerned about it because we haven't gotten all of our data, but I guess in looking at what we were spending in capital projects, we didn't need to be building a building when he had other needs, and the general fund seemed to be more pressing than the capital projects," Yarbrough said. "It wasn't an emergency item in my opinion. Obviously, (it was) one that the capital projects committee saw there was a need for but not as an emergency."

A workable plan

Commissioner Roy Bledsoe said the committee's recommendation to move money into the general fund was a tenable plan.

"That should boost us back up in fairly good shape, and so that's the reason I didn't really want to take the 8 cents out until we see exactly where we're going to wind up on our schools," he said in response to the committee's recommendation.

Franke said he thought at least one other possibility might be floated during the upcoming budget meeting regarding the 8 cents in the education fund.

"It wouldn't surprise me if somebody said, 'Let's take 2 cents and put it against the debt and just leave the other 6 cents there,' and I can live with that. It's fine with me if that's what they want to do," he said.

Yarbrough also said that would be a feasible plan as long as the remaining cents are used as they were previously intended.

"I think that would be a popular thing that would help appease part of the citizens' request," she said. "I don't have a problem with that if we use those 6 cents to proceed with phase 1."

The final vote on the budget is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the courthouse annex.