April 24, 2014 - 14:41
Budget committee still looking for funds
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The county budget committee met Monday night with members of the school board and Director of Schools Dr. James Jones in an attempt to find a way to fund the school request approved two weeks ago.

The county budget committee met Monday night with members of the school board and Director of Schools Dr. James Jones in an attempt to find a way to fund the school request approved two weeks ago. $74,770 was added to the projected funds available by increasing the estimated amount of tax collections from 90 to 91%. Another $60,000 still needs to be found in order to avoid a property tax increase.

Jones told the board he walked away from the meeting two weeks ago under the impression his request for two preschool teachers and aides, and an assistant principal at Benton Elementary had been funded. Buster Lewis said they had been unable to get a 5¢ increase to pass.

“We started school today with those people. You told me I was getting it,” Jones said.

James Woody said the budget had not been adopted and they were still in the planning stages.

“I don’t feel that way,” Jones said. “I was here that night you weren’t. This body voted to give it to me.”

County Executive Hoyt Firestone said the county commission had to officially adopt the budget before anything was official and he regretted Jones had that interpretation. Jones asked Firestone what kind of game he was trying to play. He said Firestone himself had told the board they would need to cut more or add revenue to cover the request.

“I’m not playing any kind of game,” Firestone said. “Workshops don’t hold up, they have to go back to a regular county commission meeting to vote on the budget and haven’t done that yet.”

John Pippenger said he did leave that night with the idea the 5¢ was given to the school system. Jones said it had been discussed in detail that night. Buster Bramblett said his understanding was that Jones needed to know if he was getting funding and that’s what the board did. Greg Brooks said he agreed with Jones’s perception of what they did.

Brooks said he supported the schools and Dr. Jones but asked if there was anywhere else money could be cut from their budget. School Board member Mark Williams said they had already cut to the bone. Jones said they had already cut four teaching positions. Gary Silvers said some teachers who retired last year were not replaced.

Brooks said when he was on the school board seven years ago there was a perfect bus rotation, but Dr. Bill Wade chose to use bus money to fight a court battle with teachers over the dress code.

Silvers said Dr. Wade had nothing to do with the current problem. He said the bus laws had changed and that it was no longer permitted for buses to be used more than 15 years. “When they come up, they come up,” Silvers said. He said there would be 10 more buses coming up in 2014.

Pippenger asked if they were planning to set aside money for buses that will be needed in 2014. He said the county’s debt service would not hold that. Jones said he understood that, but he “was much more concerned at the moment with having started preschool today.”

Williams said they had cut $400,000 from their budget this year. “We’ve cut, cut, and cut until it bled,” he said.

Jones said state money had been cut every year he had been director and that money from the state had to be spent where they were told to spend it. He pointed out he had not come to the commission asking for anything before this year.

Woody said he understood money was tight but “Sometimes you gotta do without.” He said he was thinking about the people out there paying taxes. Silvers asked if the commission would be raising taxes for any reason other than the schools; they would not.

Daren Waters asked if the board would entertain a motion to raise the amount of collections to 92%. He said it would add an extra $149,000 to the projected revenue. Firestone said they had never collected 92%. He said 90% was a good average. Waters said was told the rate had been set higher in the past. He said he believed collecting 92% at the current tax rate would be easier than collecting 90% if taxes were raised. Firestone said if everyone paid their taxes this year it would still mean a shortfall next year because penalties and interest were factored in.

Brooks suggested it was possible to tread water, then take what was needed from the fund balance at the end of the year. He said increasing the sales tax could make up some of the money for the schools. If commissioners decide to raise the sales tax, it will have to appear on the November ballot and be voted on by residents.

Brooks asked the school board if they would be able to find $60,000 if commissioners raised the projected collections to 91%. Silvers said one preschool would be $78,000. Jones said it would be a shame to cut a preschool. Brooks said there had to be somewhere in their budget to cut $60,000.

Williams said a lot of their budget is teacher salaries and they had no control over that. “What do we need to cut? Tires on buses?” Williams said commissioners wanted them to cut real money while they were playing with a crystal ball. “Someone will have to be sent home,” he said. Silvers said they couldn’t cut light bulbs, they had to cut people.

Brooks said several years ago there was a possibility to give the school board the right to tax, but the school board did not want it. Silvers said it was not that they did not want to responsibility to tax, but that it was better having two different groups come together to work things out than to have two different bodies taxing people. Brooks asked the board why they didn’t think of this when they were voting for Dr. Wade’s dress code.

“Let’s forget 10 years ago and let’s just talk about today,” retorted Commissioner Randy Collins. Collins said he was concerned there were big expenses with the buses for no reason. He said a bus had gotten a new motor and transmission, then was sold the next year. He said the man who bought it offered to sell him the motor and transmission.

Silvers and Williams said they did not recall voting on any such expense. Williams said Charles McClure would have made that decision and it did not sound like something he would do.

Waters made a motion to raise the projected collection to 91%. Brooks seconded. Mike Curbow, Bramblett, Collins, Waters, Brooks and Lewis voted yes. Woody and Pippenger voted no. Sheena Gaddis was absent.

The budget committee will meet again August 16 at 7 p.m. at the Community Center in Ducktown. The school board meets next Monday at 7 p.m. and will have a budget committee meeting beforehand, at 6 p.m.

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