Assessor faces ‘tremendous’ budget crunch
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Newly-elected Blount County Property Assessor Tim Helton is seeking to restore $255,866 in budget cuts made by his predecessor.
When he took office in September, Helton said he discovered that the 2012-2013 budget put in place by lame duck Property Assessor Mike Morton was not sufficient to pay existing staff past January 2013.
“They didn’t fund the back-end of the budget to pay the staff,” Helton said. “... We’re doing everything we can. We’ve dug out from under the mess. We’re getting back on our feet, but the budget problem is tremendous.”
Back in March, Morton’s budget request for 2012-2013 dropped from $1.9 million the year before to $948,537, a 20.2 percent decrease. Helton is asking for the increase at Monday’s Budget Committee meeting.
“That will keep us in compliance with the state and pay the staff,” Helton said, adding that it would also fund enough gasoline for the assessors employed by his office to do their jobs. “We are not going in and asking for more money than what we need. We’ll make it until next summer.”
Assistant Assessor Gabe Looney said Helton’s request would just restore some funds that had been cut. “We are not asking for additional money,” he said. “We are asking to get back to where we were.”
During the last year of his tenure, Morton made other reductions in the budget. In June 2011, he laid off five employees and decided not to fill a vacant position. He cited the paltry growth of the local real estate market since the economic crash in 2008.
“On my first day, the first thing I did was pull the budget to see what we were working with,” Helton said. “Turns out it had been slashed. There had been a budget turned in prior to the election, and it had been pulled and replaced by the one that had been slashed.”
Morton could not be reached for comment.
County Finance Director Randy Vineyard was unable to confirm the timing of any of Morton’s budget requests but said it is apparent there is not enough money in the adopted budget to fully fund staffing through the whole fiscal year. Morton’s budget request came in prior to Vineyard starting his job with the county at the end of March.
County Commissioner Steve Samples, who sits on the Budget Committee, said he had some concerns when the budget was presented, but, “We usually take the recommendation of the office holder and whatever they are forecast what their needs will be for the upcoming year. I have to rely on the office holder to tell me how many people he needs to get the job done.”
Samples said he is looking for more information concerning Helton’s request. “At this particular time, I’m trying to find out how many people we’re talking about that Mr. Helton needs and what the state requirements are for that office. I’ve asked for the state standards and how many people are included in that budget request.”
Beat former boss
Helton won a hard-fought race for the property assessor’s office in March, toppling Morton, his former boss, for the Republican nomination for the office. He was unopposed in the general election.
Helton has 8½ years of experience as field assessor. He was one of five employees of the property assessor’s office that Morton let go in June 2011.
“We’re going great,” Helton said. “We have gotten so much support from county and state officials. They have been willing and eager to help with the situation. We have dug into the problems we have and have straightened out all the problems left by the previous administration that we know of.”
Helton praised his employees. “They have been fantastic. The employees have kept this office running in the worst of circumstances. I have commended each of them. It is an honor to be their supervisor.”
The office is playing catch-up in order to get back on schedule with assessments. “We’ve got to double up on work, double up on time,” Helton said. “The work will get completed. This will include me going out in the field and helping out.”
The last reappraisal occurred in 2010. The county is currently scheduled to complete another in 2014, but Helton said he is going to seek approval to move to a five-year cycle. “The market has just not moved enough to justify reappraisal,” he said.