If you have read The Newsleader this week, you will have seen the Core Civic ad on the last page. Their ad solicits new employees and announces a new hourly rate of $16.75 plus a host of benefits. This is another example of what is happening with our Sheriff’s Departments financial issues. This prison in Clifton is offering significantly better pay and a host of benefits that are not available to the staff at our own Sheriff’s Department.
As you may have heard or read, the Sheriff has initiated a “salary suit” on behalf of the men and women of his department. This legal action has resulted due to the Commission’s unwillingness to entertain ANY of the budget options that were negotiated between the Sheriff and the Mayor.
The Department is having difficulties in attracting and retaining experienced officers due to the low pay and lack of benefits offered by the county. Every county that surrounds Decatur has better hourly rates that are at least $5 per hour more than our current pay.
The ad in the newspaper indicates a similar problem in staffing for the prison as they have announced a new higher starting wage.
The Commission is aware of the pay issues that face our Sheriff’s Department yet have refused to address the problem. During budget talks, our legal counsel informed us of other area cases where Sheriffs have also sued local governments for proper funding and have prevailed in court. Even though the Commission was advised to be aware of a potential legal outcome, this was not considered and the budget that passed did not include funding that addressed the department’s needs.
During our last monthly meeting on September 23rd, the Commission had the option to vote on settling this suit rather than continuing forward with expensive litigation. We were told that moving forward with a suit would be a costly endeavor – one that you, the taxpayers, would be funding.
Additionally, we were reminded again that this type of legal action would most likely end in favor of the Sheriff’s suit based on the outcome of other area suits of the same nature. The Sheriff’s office is one of 6 constitutional offices of a county, and as such, is demanded proper funding by Tennessee state law. Because of the importance of this department, Tennessee specifically addresses “proper funding” in its legal statute to avoid situations like we have in Decatur County where the Commission refuses to act to properly fund the department out of political malice.
As a Commissioner, I am stunned at the actions of my colleagues in this matter. They have chosen a petty, vindictive approach due to personal agendas rather than do their jobs on behalf of the citizens they represent. Commissioner Cathy Phillips and I were the only two votes in favor of talking about a settlement to avoid incurring more legal debt. The balance of the Commission voted against settlement and, in turn, have voted for you to spend more tax dollars in legal fees for a suit that they realize has little chance of prevailing.
I am not against differences of opinion, that is a normal course of discussion. But, there has been no attempt at discussing a solution. There has been no willingness to come to some terms that would be agreeable by both parties. The Mayor has meet with the Sheriff on several occasions and brought options for the Commission to consider. All have been met with arrogant disdain toward accommodating any option.
The result of the Commission’s action has led to more of your tax dollars being spent to hire additional legal counsel due to conflict of interest with our county attorney – Jason Pearcy.
The ironic point in this inane debate is the reasoning that some of the Commissioners gave for voting against raising pay for the Sheriff Department employees has been “to keep the costs low for the people.”
It is astounding to this Commissioner that they fail to recognize that: 1) their actions COST the taxpayers money; and 2) they refuse to deal with REALISTIC expenses that our county incurs with its normal operations.
It is this type of behavior that has led our county to the financial crisis that we now see. As citizens, we must demand better stewardship of our money, and better analysis and planning by those we elect.
SEPTEMBER 2, 2019 - The Commission met on Saturday, August 31st for a final consideration on the FY2019-2020 budget and tax rate. After consultation with State officials , our county was informed that the legal deadline for submitting our budget was July 15th. Because the Commission had not yet passed a budget, the State allowed for one final opportunity to pass a budget, however, the options had to be one of the 3 eligible drafts (#6,7,or 8) as these had been passed by the Budget Committee and forwarded to the full Commission for consideration.
On the first round of voting, the Commission failed to adopt any of the three eligible budgets. The Mayor and legal counsel instructed the Commission that if no budget was passed on Saturday, that the budget would default to the proposed budget #6 that was the budget approved by the Budget Committee on July 15th.
After a short break, the Commission returned and finally passed a budget (#8).
You can watch the recorded meeting on FaceBook on TNL Today's page. Due to illness, this Commissioner was not able to attend the Saturday meeting.
The budget adopted for FY2019-2020 totals $ 8,464,599.00. [Note that this is only the portion of the budget - approximately 1/3 - that Decatur Co. is responsible for funding. The remaining monetary obligations - approximately 2/3 - are met by contributions from the Federal and State governments.]
This budget is $ 1 Million less than our audited expenses from 2018 . It will be difficult to meet the demands of the county with less money, higher expenses and no reserve money to fund overages. Below are the details:
The accompanying property tax rate to fund the budget will be $2.25 per $100 value of property.
County Commission pay - $49,789
Landfill - Legal costs - $200,000
Board of Equalization pay- $807
Beer Board pay - $1,615
Budget / Finance Committee pay - $2,153
Other Committees pay - $1,615
County Mayor's Office - $236.729
County Attorney - $40,000
Election Commission - $176,001
Register of Deeds - $115,563
Planning - $0
County Buildings - $123,935
Property Assessor's Office - $161,032
Reappraisal Program - $40,760
County Trustee Office - $162,185
County Clerk Office - $145,236
Circuit Court Clerk Office - $165,096
General Sessions Court - $123,593
Chancery Court - $116395
Juvenile Court - $40,103
Victims Assistance Programs - $18,000
Sheriff's Department - $993,071
Jail - $740,686
Juvenile Services - $74,682
Work Release/Community Corrections - $504,446
Fire Prevention & Control - $123,500
Civil Defense - $119,928
Rescue Squad - $10,000
Emergency 911 - 419,808
Coroner/M.E. - 55,995
Local Health Center - $50,461
Ambulance Service - $1,239,088
Crippled Children's Services - $796
General Welfare Assistance - $13,000
Sanitation Education Information - $44.200
Senior Citizens Assistance - $89,399
Library - $71,368
Parks & Fair Board - $223.267
Tourism Development - $900
Chamber / Industrial Development - $35,000
Airport - $52,939
Veteran's Services - $13,339
Other Charges (Insurances, Bonds, etc.) - $372,972
Contributions to other Agencies - $25,000
Employee Benefits - $265,700
Miscellaneous - $87,228
TOTAL BUDGET ALLOCATION - $8,464,599
To My Constituents:
Many of you have asked me what the outcome of the vote on the budget and tax levy at the meeting was this past Thursday night. To be frank, I do not know – and apparently, no one does yet. The Mayor has informed the Commissioners that he is awaiting word from the state on the legalities of the vote vs. the statute under which our County operates.
During Thursday’s meeting, an 8th version of a budget was presented to the full Commission for consideration and vote. Below I will detail this proposal, but first it is important to establish some facts:
TOTAL OPERATING COSTS
1. The cost of operating our County is far beyond our ability to fund. The estimated total operational cost is just over $27.3 Million.
2. It takes significant funds from Federal and State governments to supplement our operating expenses. Together, they provide about 2/3rdof our budgetary needs or about $19 Million.
3. The County’s portion of costs is the difference between these two figures, which runs just under $10 Million.
4. Our school system incurs the greatest amount of expense at around $14 Million, most of which is funded from the State (around $10 Million) with the remainder coming from County funding ($3-4 Million).
5. Second highest cost is that of the Highway Department which runs about $3 Million. The Highway Department is funded almost entirely with State revenue from gas taxes and only receives a small contribution (Less than $100,000) from Decatur County via the Mineral Severance Tax.
6. The remainder of the budget consists of the various departments and programs which in total require approximately $9-10 Million. (*See #3)
It is important to understand the significance of the State and Federal subsidies to fully appreciate the true operational costs. It also helps to put our share into perspective when compared to the whole. It is obvious that our locally funded budget portion is not exorbitant as it only represents one-third of our true costs.
When we talk about our “budget,” we are actually only referring to the local portion – the one-third.
BUDGET PROPOSAL – Local Contribution Only
The Budget Version #8 reflected a total budgetary obligation of $8,464,599.00
To pay for this amount, the property tax rate would need to be levied at $2.25 per every $100 value of property.
During our brief discussion period at the meeting, I raised my concern about the actual costs that we had incurred over the past fiscal year. According to the documentation I received from the Mayor’s office, our County was forced to overspend our FY2018-2019 budget by $2 Million; $1 Million attributed to hospital operations, and another $1 Million in general overages shared among the various departments. Most of these costs were due to hikes in fixed rates/expenses or unexpected repair/replacements over which the departments had no control. [Examples would be increased costs such as in software subscriptions that are used by each department that interact with the State, broken HVAC units, burned out generators, etc.]
I explained to my colleagues that we had permitted these expenditures at each meeting when we were asked to approve amendments to their various budget lines. We were told that we were merely moving money from one fund to another – for some items that was the case. What we did not realize was that we were supplementing these additional costs from our reserves – which now stand at $0. We have none.
My point was that we were not dealing with realistic figures in the proposed budgets, and that we needed to adjust our estimates to include these additional costs.
Further, I was astonished that, even without the knowledge of the tally of the amendments, our AUDITED budget figure from FY2018 showed $1 Million more than this new proposed figure for this year. Why would we consider an amount LOWER than what we already knew to be real costs?
Apparently, this did not concern my colleagues enough to entertain more discussion; nor did the fact that we had completely expended our reserves and have no money available for any type of emergency.
I believe that our problems lie in two simple facts: 1- We don’t fully understand our budgetary requirements; 2 - We don’t want to discuss real facts with the people.
All further discussion was abruptly cut at our Commission meeting when the Mayor called for an adjournment motion immediately after the vote.
Results of the vote to adopt the version #8 Budget were 8 - yes, 7 - no; however, this did not reach the requirement of 2/3rd votes for adoption. Technically, the vote did not pass the budget. However, there is a proviso in Tennessee law [T.C.A. § 5-12-210 (2018)] that allows a budget to move forward if a County Commission cannot agree on a budget, by authorizing the last budget submitted by the Mayor or Budget Committee.
By adjourning the meeting, the Commission does not have enough time to provide legal notice to reconvene before the State’s budgetary deadline of August 31st.
Whether or not Decatur County’s situation meets with the requirements of this statute is not yet clear. I will provide further information to you as I receive such.
Tonight's meeting of the County Commission was a regular monthly meeting - however we had been expecting to discuss our budget for the FY 2019-2020. A budget which had been drafted by the Mayor and approved by the Budget Committee for presentation to the full Commission was put before our body. There were several issues that concerned this Commissioner about the proposed budget:
Passing inaccurate budgets that do not truly and adequately address our operating costs has led to the depletion of our reserve funds and the debt situation we find our county in to date.
A vote was taken on the budget which failed 0-17. Continued budget meetings will be convened next week on Monday evening.
The State of Tennessee and its counties begin their fiscal year on July 1st of each year. All budgets are due June 30th; however, the State allows a grace period to accommodate counties that have problematic issues.
Decatur County has not only missed the budget deadline, but did not even begin serious discussions of our finances for the next fiscal year until the 3rd of July.
This action – or lack of action – appears to be indicative of our attitude toward our own governance…apathy. Not only is this apathy by the government officials, but also apathy in us – the citizenship. We have developed an attitude of indifference toward our county; toward planning for our future, to growing our economy and bringing in jobs, and, even, taking responsibility to do our civic duties by participating in the governance or community affairs. We have become complacent and it has cost us industry, jobs and growth, as well as the tax base which would have been generated from such.
As the years roll by the cost of living has continued to increase but our county government has not acted in your best interest to address the escalation on an annual basis and adjust our tax rates to accommodate the additional costs. We have not insisted that our officials take action. This is the history which brought us to our current state of affairs.
So, what is the state of our county? In a word, we are bankrupt. In the documents provided by Mayor Creasy, our general fund balance was listed at $310,000; and that was a couple of weeks ago. Payrolls must be funded with this money which will leave our county flat broke within a week or two. At this point we will no longer be able to fund our general services and, one would assume, that temporary layoffs and closures will ensue.
THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. This is negligence - by us all.
This commissioner has been very concerned about our financial state for many months. I have consistently asked how much money we really have, what our true debt is, and what is the plan for the upcoming fiscal year. Neither the Mayor nor the Commission have seemed interested to discuss these issues. At the Mayor’s request, the Commission approved a loan of $975,000 last September which was to be used to replenish our general fund after it had been depleted with repeated funding of the hospital.
We all knew that this loan was due to be repaid at the end of our fiscal year on June 30 as required by Tennessee law. Repayment of the loan plus applicable interest was to be secured by the revenues generated from the property tax collections of February 2019. This meant that most of the tax revenues we collected in February, which would be the normal monies used to fund the upcoming fiscal year, were already earmarked to be used to repay this loan; leaving us without sufficient funds to operate in the new fiscal year.
What we did not know – and still do not - was how we were going to fund our upcoming annual budget.
Being an arm of the State government, a county must comply with certain statutory rules. One of these is that a county cannot take out a loan for operating capital; it must be able to fund its operations through its appropriate tax revenues. Loans for a government entity are most often in the form of bonds. These are used to finance large capital expenditures, such as new facilities, schools, jails, courthouses, etc. The Comptroller’s office of the State must approve all major monetary actions taken by counties, such as loans or bonds, or major transfers of money from one fund type to another (i.e. highway fund to general fund, or school fund to hospital fund, etc.).
According to State officials, in a situation where a county would become bankrupt, the State would have to issue a funding bond, which is a temporary bailout. At this point, the county becomes a temporary “ward of the State” and all finances are managed by the State. Every penny spent must be approved by the State – the county government would no longer have the power to set or regulate financial decisions.
Additionally, to rectify the county’s financial position, the State will assess the budgetary needs of the county and set tax rates which will fund an appropriate budget and reserve. Counties are required to keep a percentage (no less than 10%) of their total budget in a reserve account to offset emergency spending.
Currently, our county is without sufficient funds for a budget of any amount, moreover for adequate reserves.
The state of our county is extremely perilous, and we will all feel the results of the measures to rectify it. I urge all citizens to become aware of this situation and join the Commission on Monday night to discuss our limited options.