Venable calls meeting on Sullivan County budget

J. H. Osborne • Jul 8, 2019 at 9:41 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable has called a special session of the Sullivan County Commission to try again at approving a county budget for the fiscal year that began a week ago.

The public meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

In calling the meeting, Venable did not make public anything new in the way of a budget proposal. As of Friday evening, no agenda had been publicly distributed.

The Sullivan County Commission spent about six hours in a called meeting June 25 deliberating and discussing a spending plan and 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 24-member, 100 percent Republican commission 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 that the value of each penny on the tax rate has actually decreased from a year ago.

At the called meeting last month, 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.

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.

Commissioner Todd Broughton and Commissioner Hershel 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 earlier on June 25 he had received a message from that person saying maybe not.

Commissioner Colette 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, Judy Blalock, Broughton, Michael Cole, Joyce Crosswhite, Glover, Terry Harkleroad, Dwight King, Tony Leonard, Angie Stanley, Alicia Starnes, and Doug Woods.

When it came time to adopt the guts of the budget, the main appropriations resolution, the “no” votes 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, Larry Crawford, Crosswhite, Glover, Harkleroad, King, Pat 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.

One thing that could be different Wednesday is the number of votes needed to make a majority. Shull resigned his commission seat as of June 30 — a day before he became Kingsport’s mayor. His seat has not yet been filled. As long as it remains open, there are only 23 members on the commission, dropping the number needed for a majority from 13 to 12.


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