Sullivan County budget: no plan in sight

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jun 27, 2019 at 9:21 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — No word yet on what plans Sullivan County officials have, if any, to try to move forward with the development of an annual budget for the fiscal year that begins Monday, July 1. That would, of course, include adoption of a property tax rate.

The Sullivan County Commission spent about six hours Tuesday deliberating and discussing a spending plan, potential amendments, and voted three times in an attempt to set a tax rate. The sticking point seems to be a majority, or at least a near majority, of the commission’s 24 members (all Republicans) aren’t necessarily opposed to approving new budget items — but they don’t want to pay for them if it means a tax increase.

And they don’t want to keep the current tax rate and drop the new items, which include: a 2 percent pay raise for county employees; 20 new jail employees; and 14 new school resource officers (which the commission was told would cost 2 cents on the tax rate when it approved the new hires last fall).

Some seem to think there’s money, somewhere on the county’s books, to pay for it all without a tax increase.

The full commission was told early this year that there was no growth in revenue and the value of each penny on the tax rate has actually decreased from a year ago.

At the called meeting Tuesday, commissioners agreed right out of the gate to add $369,000 to the general fund’s bottom line to cover debt service for a renovation plan for Sullivan County Emergency Medical Services facilities across the county. And soon after they agreed to another $297,000 in new funding for fire departments. Those two items apparently are to come from the county’s general fund surplus, at least this coming budget year.

The commission considered a dozen amendments to the budget as drafted, with mixed results. The two above were approved.

Commissioner Pat Shull offered a series of cost-reducing amendments. One was to reduce the proposed employee pay raise by half to 1 percent. Five commissioners voted in favor: Judy Blalock, Colette George, Shull, Angie Stanley, and Doug Woods. It failed.

Another amendment from Shull would have eliminated the automatic pay raise commissioners themselves will receive beginning Monday. Eleven commissioners voted in favor: Blalock, Darlene Calton, Joyce Crosswhite, George, Terry Harkleroad, Tony Leonard, Hunter Locke, Shull, Alicia Starnes, Gary Stidham, and Woods. It failed.

Shull’s third amendment would have cut the number of new jail employees in half, from 20 to 10. Five commissioners voted in favor: Blalock, Shull, Starnes, Stidham, and Woods. It failed.

Shull’s fourth amendment would have reduced funding to all nonprofits by 2 percent. Only Shull and Woods voted in favor. It failed.

Starnes proposed an amendment to eliminate all funding for two nonprofit speech and hearing organizations, totaling $26,000: Mountain Region Speech and Hearing and Bristol Speech and Hearing Center. Four commissioners voted in favor: Michael Cole, Crosswhite, Hershel Glover, and Starnes. It failed.

Starnes and Todd Broughton proposed an amendment to cut the $10,000 the county provides to Healthy Kingsport, which has undertaken multiple programs countywide including installation of water stations in all county schools and free water bottles to all county students. Five commissioners voted in favor: Broughton, Crosswhite, Stanley, Starnes, and Woods. It failed.

In a 20-3 (with one absent) vote, the commission did approve the resolution required to list appropriations to charitable and civic organizations. The “no” votes came from Larry Crawford, Shull, and Stidham.

Broughton and Glover proposed an amendment that some said would bring the county to the brink of a lawsuit: to take $7.8 million from money now in the school system’s budget as maintenance of effort and use it to pay debt service on the bonds issued to fund school facilities projects currently underway, including the new high school. Broughton said he has been discussing the possibility with someone in Nashville and had initially gotten a green light that it was possible under state law. But Broughton said that on Tuesday he had received a message from that person saying maybe not.

George said she had a copy of the same email and it absolutely said what Broughton and Glover were proposing is not legal. Broughton said he thought it was open for interpretation, and maybe the county should be willing to do it and fight any potential court challenge. In theory, Broughton and Glover said their proposal could potentially reduce the county’s tax rate significantly.

Their amendment came within one vote of adoption. Twelve commissioners voted in favor: David Akard, Blalock, Broughton, Cole, Crosswhite, Glover, Harkleroad, Dwight King, Leonard, Stanley, Starnes, and Woods.

When it came time to adopt the guts of the budget, the main appropriations resolution, the “no” had it — and the lineup was very similar to the dozen who voted for the Broughton/Glover plan to test the legal waters by taking money from the schools maintenance of effort funds (Broughton had ultimately amended it from $7.8 million to $2.5 million). Those voting against the appropriations resolution were: Akard, Blalock, Broughton, Crawford, Crosswhite, Glover, Harkleroad, King, Shull, Stanley, Starnes, and Woods.

Crawford said he’d like to change his vote, noting this was not the resolution to set the tax rate. On the re-vote, the only change was Crawford’s. Leaving it 12 for, 11 against and one absent. So it failed a second time.