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Sullivan County budget in limbo five days out from new fiscal year

J. H. Osborne • Jun 26, 2019 at 9:01 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County government’s budget process is in freefall after a called meeting Tuesday of the Sullivan County Commission, ostensibly to approve the budget and a property tax rate to support it, disintegrated after nearly six hours of votes, revotes, recesses, breaks and a lengthy diversion into whether the county can take $7.5 million from the school system’s general fund to pay debt service on school bonds.

When the meeting began, and as advertised to the public beforehand, the budget proposal at first included a seven-cent property tax increase. That, however, was quickly reduced to six cents when it was made known a proposed penny for EMS funding wouldn’t be needed because other revenue sources had been identified. That change was made official when a majority of commissioners approved an amendment to the appropriations resolution of the budget to add $369,000 to the general fund’s bottom line.

A majority of commissioners rejected a proposed amendment, from outgoing Commissioner Pat Shull, that would have cut in half — from 20 to 10 — the number of new jail employees included in the budget at a cost of roughly two cents on the tax rate. That leaves the impression they’re in favor of hiring the 20 new employees. But not so fast on the funding, at least not from the tax rate. It turns out no matter how many times and ways they tried Tuesday, a majority couldn’t agree on any tax rate — not even the current one ($2.55 per $100 of assessed value).

After dealing with a dozen proposed amendments, the commission couldn’t reach a majority vote in favor of the main guts of the budget: the appropriations resolution. It’s what lists which department gets how much money for the fiscal year, which begins next Monday (July 1). The first vote ended with 11 in favor, 12 against, and one absent. A simple majority of 13 is needed for approval and adoption. County Mayor Richard Venable, chairman of the commission, called for a five minute recess. At least one commissioner said he’d changed his vote, however, and another said he wanted to do likewise after he clarified the vote did not include the tax rate. Under the commission’s procedural rules, a commissioner voting with the side that got the most votes can ask for the issue to be reconsidered. That happened. The commission then had to vote on whether to reconsider. A majority said yes. The second vote ended with 12 in favor of the appropriations resolution and 11 against (with one absent).

There was some talk of amending the resolution and putting it up for another vote, but County Attorney Dan Street said that couldn’t happen because the commission’s rules state a resolution can be considered only twice.

“Y’all got yourself in a mess now,” Street said. But a few minutes later he offered a way out: “You can suspend the rules ... and do whatever you want.”

And so they did.

Street said the resolution, however, would need to be reintroduced and renumbered as if it were a completely new measure. Venable suggested while that was being done the commission could move on and consider the resolution actually setting the county’s property tax rate. The original seven-cent increase would have meant a rate of $2.62. But the removal of the penny for EMS would have dropped that to $2.61.

That six-cent increase could be broken down thus: two cents for school resource officers, OK’d by an overwhelming majority of commissioners months ago and with it well laid out at the time that it would cause a tax increase; two cents to help fund 20 new employees at the long-overcrowded county jail, which an overwhelming majority of commissioners voted to send to the Budget Committee for consideration in development of the budget; and two cents for a 2 percent pay raise for county employees. Shull also had proposed an amendment either eliminating or cutting in half the employee pay raise — but a majority of commissioners rejected Shull’s amendment.

Commissioner Mark Vance presented an amendment to set the tax rate at $2.58. Vance said that would include two cents for the SROs and one cent for the jail employees — and the raise for employees would come from within current departmental budgets. Commissioner Colette George clarified with Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey that the minimum for funding the jail employees was two cents. George asked Vance to amend his amendment to a tax rate of $2.59 and he agreed. It failed. Vance then proposed $2.57, saying that would cover only the SROs, which have already been hired and were approved months ago. That, too, failed. Finally Vance asked for a vote on keeping this year’s tax rate of $2.55 and eliminating the SROs, new jail employees and pay raise for employees. That, too, failed.

The commission adjourned with no future meeting time set. Venable said the Budget Committee will likely meet later this week.

The county has not approved a “continuing resolution,” a tool the state requires for local governments to continue operating under this year’s budget until next year’s in approved. But Bailey said he thinks the county, under state law, can continue to operate at its current level until at least July 15.

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