The public came out last week to voice concerns to members of the Claiborne Commission about the new fiscal year budget and the possible 27 cents property tax hike.
One resident said he had reviewed the proposal and noticed the County Road Department had about $500,000 less in its budget than last year, prior to the adoption of the new wheel tax implemented for county road repairs.
Commissioner Steve Mason said there has not been sufficient time to collect the anticipated funds from all vehicle owners living inside the county.
County finance officer Sam Owens said the money collected from the new wheel tax is placed inside the 176 fund balance to prevent ‘maintenance of effort’ from interfering with its intended use.
“If you reduce the maintenance of effort – the 131 fund – it costs you dollar for dollar out of the gas tax money,” said Owens, adding that fund balance was less than anticipated.
The resident said the majority of the county was against any type of tax increase.
“I hope the commission puts aside any kind of personal opinions and represents the people of this county. That’s why we elected you. We elected you to represent us,” said the resident.
A district one resident addressed the proposed jail expansion project, saying she had not paid attention when the project was first proposed four years ago.
“We didn’t catch on to what was happening. When we started going to the jail meetings, then it dawned on us that it got so far – that they got with the architects. They had decided what type of bricks they wanted outside. They thought that we didn’t have any choice. Well, we did say that we did not want the bond issue. And, I think that’s pretty obvious, when you look at the numbers,” she said.
The resident then said she “knew” how the decertification of the Claiborne County Jail came about, at which point a small skirmish broke out between the woman and Sheriff David Ray, who apparently took offense at the woman’s statement.
“Excuse me, Sheriff Ray, I’m speaking and it’s my turn. You’ve had your turn. I’ve sat here listening to you at several meetings. We know how it got decertified.
“You tell us that the eighth amendment to the constitution tells you to have a jail. They don’t tell you to have a bed and breakfast. We don’t need all those other prisoners (the state and federal inmates). You’ve also spoken a number of times and said that you can go out here and round up one- to two- hundred drug dealers any time. Well, why don’t you? You let them run rampant in our county,” she said.
The woman then said the county does not need an expansion to the jail.
“Don’t tell these people (county employees) that we’re trying to cut off their funds – their bread and butter. We don’t mind paying the people that work there, but we don’t want another big debt,” she said.
Owens said that, due to the loss of discretionary prisoners, the revenue in the general fund balance is short by about 17 percent.
He pointed to the necessity of adopting a county budget by the state enforced Sept. 30 deadline.
“By law, Claiborne County will lose authority to spend money on Oct. 1. There will still be money to pay salaries, but we will not be able to spend it,” said Owens.
Approximately 270 county employees would have been affected if the budget had not been adopted later that evening during the reconvened meeting. All school system employees, however, were by law exempt from the regulations, Owens said.
Commissioner Charlton Vass asked whether the reportedly $1.77 million shortfall was “inflated,” since the county was currently receiving funds from the continued housing of those discretionary prisoners that had not yet been transferred out of the now decertified jail.
Owens agreed there were additional funds currently being generated from the state and federal prisoners. However, he said, the county cannot continue to count on that money when preparing future annual budgets.
From July 1 through Sept. 26, discretionary prisoners had generated $343,139, according to County Mayor Jack Daniels.
Last fiscal year, Daniels said the county had received $1,793,539.51 from the housing of the discretionary inmates.
In just over two months, $343,139 was turned into the county, he added.
Commissioner Bill Keck questioned the reason why the extra funds from the discretionary prisoners had not been included in the proposed budget.
Keck said he had maintained for years that anytime the jail budget went over $1.4 million, the county would be facing a jail overcrowding issue.
Owens spent a bit of time going over county debt. According to his figures, about $5.5 million is still owed on the existing Claiborne Justice Center. The county still owes approximately $32.7 million on school system debt.
The county road department owes about $485,000, he said.
As of June 30, the total county principal debt was $54.38 million. Since 2010, the county has paid $16.325 million in principal, Owens said.
None of the three major debts are paid by property taxes. The school system receives funding from sales taxes while the county road department is funded by fuel taxes. The Justice Center receives funds from the first $25 wheel tax, he said.
“There is enough money in the budget, this year, without raising additional taxes to pay off all the debt (owed this fiscal year) in the county,” said Owens, adding the debt owed each fiscal year has been paid for the last several years, since he took office.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.