published Thursday, October 10th, 2013

Marion County budget passes despite opposition

JASPER, Tenn. — The Marion County Commission has approved the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year despite some strongly worded opposition to its contents.

The board voted 11-3 this week to approve the budget and voted 10-4 to keep the property tax rate at $2.1686 per $100.

Commissioner Tommy Thompson, who voted "no" to both measures, said there was not much about the budget that he liked, and he argued the property tax rate should be lowered because the county has a robust fund balance of $6.839 million.

"We've got a pretty good fund balance, and it looks like we're trying to spend it all," he said.

Thompson criticized the budget's lack of funding for rural volunteer fire departments, the addition of three new county employees, an almost $900,000 expenditure for the county school system, and a $351,000 price tag for the purchase of replacement police cars.

"No budget is ever 100 percent acceptable to everybody," County Mayor John Graham said. "Sometimes you just have to pay to have good government."

Several items in the budget are "one-time expenditures," he said.

"I watch the fund balance very closely," Graham said. "This budget does begin to eat into that fund balance. We have to be very careful with what we do with these budgets going forward."

Graham confirmed that the three new employee positions were not included in those office holders' original budget requests.

"As they came back [to the board's finance committee], there were additional requests by several elected officials," he said.

Graham did not say which elected officials were granted the new employees.

"We've got too many employees in the county now," Thompson said.

Commissioner Donald Blansett, who voted to approve the budget and tax rate, said the board should do "a little more due diligence" before it adds any more employees.

"We're not here to grow the government," he said. "People are having a hard time paying taxes. Adding another person in your office because we've got plenty of money doesn't mean the money will be there next year to keep them."

Personnel additions should be approved by the board's Personnel Committee, Blansett said, and then its Finance Committee before they are brought to the entire board.

County resident Max Howe said he and his family pay taxes on about 30 properties, and he can't understand how the property tax rate is not being lowered since the county is doing so well financially.

"We've got some people on low income who are having a hard time keeping just a little piece of land," he said to the board. "I don't see how [the board] can vote for that. Some of you ought to be ashamed of yourselves."

Each board member who works as a county employee is required to read a declaration before voting on the budget that acknowledges a conflict of interest, but affirms the vote is out of an obligation to constituents and the citizens of the county.

On Monday, five of the 14 commissioners present for the vote had to read that statement.

"All these conflict of interest statements is the exact reason why we can't control our money," Thompson said.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryan lewis34@gmail.com.

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