Budget looms as big county issue in 2013
By Joel Davis | (email@example.com)
Various members of the Blount County Commission were asked to share their priorities for 2013 with The Daily Times. The upcoming 2013-2014 fiscal year budget was at the top of the list.
Commissioner Gordon Wright said the County Commission will have to be prepared to wrestle with budget issues “like a bear.”“Probably the biggest thing we’ll face will be the budget,” he said. “We’ve got a deficit even though we’ve been able to access more revenue like the Airport Hilton. We’ve got it back on the tax rolls.”
Wright chaired an Ad Hoc Committee to Study Lost Tax Revenue that looked at ways to increase county revenues outside of the property tax.Commissioner Holden Lail agreed that the biggest issue will be county finances. “It’s going to be handling the budget and dealing with some of the federal cuts that are coming down that are going to hit the state and are going to hit us. Dealing with those issues will be the biggest things we’ll have to do.”
The county will have to wrestle with a projected $5 million deficit in the Blount County Schools 2013-14 budget. In fiscal 2012-13, school officials allocated all available funds in its fund balance above the state-mandated 3 percent. Fund balance represents 4.4 percent of all budgeted funds.
“The big issue will be enough money for the schools,” Commissioner Kenneth Melton said. “From all I’ve heard from the director of schools ... it’s a big increase in their budget. That will be a big issue.”
Since 2008-09, school officials have budgeted nearly $8.1 million in fund balance. They have also allocated about $3 million in nonrecurring revenue, including more than $2.3 million in Education Jobs Fund revenue to fund 26 regular education teachers and Prospect Elementary School’s new employees.
School officials have also paired the use of one-time monies with budget cuts. The district eliminated $1.5 million in expenditures, including 10 unfilled positions, for this fiscal year.
Commissioner Monika Murrell said school funding is the big issue for 2013. “It is definitely going to be whether we have a tax increase or not because of the situation that the education department is in,” she said. “It’s something that all the commissioners are going to have to consider.”
The Blount County Commission voted to leave property tax rates unchanged at $2.15 per $100 of assessed value during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which began July 1. It approved a $44.3 million general fund budget and an $84 million schools budget.
Commissioner Steve Samples agrees budget is the looming issue. “I think it’s just going to take an effort of everybody coming together and realizing that we’re going to have to come up with just a bare-bones budget and do everything we possibly can to avoid a tax increase,” he said.
‘Missed the boat’
Commissioner Ron French thinks the budget will be the most important issue and that the decision of county voters to defeat a proposal to hike the local sales tax rate from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent during the Nov. 6 election was a mistake.
Approving the hike would have matched an increase passed by Alcoa voters in August. If the referendum had passed in Blount County, the county schools would have received an estimated $2.35 million annually from the increase. Because it didn’t, the increase in revenues will only go to Alcoa.
“I think we missed the boat as voters when we had an opportunity to pass the sales tax referendum,” French said. “It’s not very often that we get an opportunity to get help with the tax situation. This thing we were going to get help from people outside the county, outside the state, and anybody that visited the county. ... Personally, I think we made a mistake.”