Raises, office split in budget plan

Jeremy Styron News-Herald.net
Although the county’s 2014-15 fiscal year budget has already drawn public criticism over a proposed 4-cent tax adjustment from education debt service to the county general fund, other components of the preliminary funding plan include a 2 percent across the board salary increase for county employees, the separation of the Planning and Codes Enforcement office and raises for certain department heads.

Planning and Codes Enforcement Director Russ Newman, who plans to retire at the end of June, said in 2009 the offices were separate, but at the time the department was providing services for Lenoir City, the city of Loudon and the county. The offices were combined after the retirement of building commissioner Bill Cox.

Newman has been with the county planning office since 1999 and has been director at the Mulberry Street location in Loudon for five years.

“It made sense to put the position down here and just combine it since most of the work between the offices, if somebody’s coming down here for a codes reason they need to probably talk to the planner as well,” Newman said, noting that the office currently has two building officials and a secretary.

While he didn’t know the specifics of County Mayor Estelle Herron’s proposal to separate the two offices, he didn’t anticipate the county would need to hire additional staff to implement the change.

“It would just be the planning position would be housed over in the county building as a single person office there, and they still have the codes office down here,” Newman said.

The proposed budget includes a $60,000 allocation for a planning director and $52,000 for a codes enforcement supervisor.

Don Miller, who sits on the budget committee, said board members still need to consider the proposal regarding the planning office.

“We had some discussion when we came to it — we’ve only had one budget committee meeting — we had some discussion on it and decided that was an item we would return to,” Miller said. “... Some of the ones where we had some question rather than hash it all out then we said, ‘OK, we’ll return to that,’ and this is one of those.”

Miller said one consideration would be whether the county generates enough activity to warrant two separate offices.

“That’s one of the things we need to talk about,” Miller said. “They’re kind of in one sense not related very much, but the question is, I think, what’s the most cost effective way to do this.”

He said the proposal to separate the two offices stemmed from some complaints directed at the mayor’s office.

“She (Herron) was getting some complaints that we weren’t spending enough time, that Russ Newman wasn’t spending enough time on planning because the building inspection was taking a lot of his time, but that’s all I know at this point, so we just need to revisit the whole thing and talk about it,” Miller said.

Herron took vacation after losing the May 6 election and was not in her office this week, according to her administrative assistant, Brenda Bright. Tracy Blair, the county’s finance director, did not return multiple phone messages and an email seeking comment on the budget.

In addition to the 2 percent wage increase for employees, the proposed budget also includes a 12 percent salary increase for the county’s animal control director, from $35,714 to $40,000, and a 9 percent increase for the information technology director, from $45,927 to $50,000.

Miller said salaries will be the final element the budget committee will consider as part of its recommendations to the full commission.

“We won’t talk about that until the very last thing,” Miller said. “Traditionally, that’s the way we’ve always done it. We’ve gone through the whole budget and pretty much got everything taken care of, and then at the very end we look at the question of salary increases, so I couldn’t even guess how that one will come out.”

He said the budget committee typically considers any department head salary hike on an individual basis.

“We really need to know how the whole budget shakes out and what the fund balances look like, etcetera, before we deal with that,” he said.

In other departments, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office has not requested more funding than last year, Sheriff Tim Guider said.

“We’re not asking for any new personnel,” Guider said. “Last year’s budget committee and county commission approved setting aside 1 property tax penny for sheriff’s vehicles for the future, so I certainly will be utilizing that.”

As part of the previous agreement, the county allocated 1 cent in property tax money, which amounts to about $160,000, for the purchase of five patrol cars for the Sheriff’s Office.

Guider said he was satisfied with the current deputy presence his office has at Loudon County Courthouse and at the county’s nine schools.

“I’m comfortable with the manpower we have right now,” he said. “Right now, it’s working.”

Eddie Simpson, superintendent with the Loudon County Highway Department, said his office receives about $380,000 as part of an 80-20 match from the state for bridge and road work.

He requested $1 million from the county for blacktopping roads but anticipated his office would receive $300,000. The Highway Department has a total budget of $3.1 million.

“It just doesn’t go very far,” Simpson said about the $300,000 allocation. “You can only do a mile on $100,000. We’ve got 550 miles of road. It’s hard to make that work when it only lasts 20 years. It’s just not a good practice to be in, but I realize that there’s not any monies without raising taxes. It’s just impossible to come up with money, so they’re going to have to come up with another source at some point, and I’m waiting patiently.”

Loudon County Homeland Security and Emergency Management has requested about $185,000 as part of the proposed budget, and Director Daryl Smith’s office is slated to receive $39,500 in the new fiscal year from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, an increase of $4,500 from the previous year.

“That was a good recognition by the state for us and the job that this office is trying to do,” Smith said.

His office has also requested $50,000 to replace an Ford F550 truck that was manufactured in 2005. The truck broke down twice in a period of six months, at a repair cost of $2,000 each time. Smith previously considered purchasing a Ford F650, but after speaking with dealers, he learned that the newer model F550 is more dependable than the 2005 edition.

“From what I understand is that the newer vehicles, they’ve upgraded, they fixed all the problems they’ve had in the past, and we believe that we’d be able to keep once we’ve replace it be able to keep that vehicle for a long time,” Smith said.

Loudon County Budget Committee plans to meet beginning at 1 p.m. Monday to continue budget talks.