Despite impending budget crisis, supervisors vote not to dip into Highway Safety funds

Last updated: June 11. 2014 2:37PM - 1923 Views
By - aworrell@civitasmedia.com

Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner
Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner
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Carroll County Supervisors voted against a plan Monday night to use Highway Safety revenues generated by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office to help balance future budgets.

Board members have already expressed how tight the recently approved budget for Fiscal Year 2015 was to compete without a tax increase. With future budget years looking even worse, Supervisor Sam Dickson unveiled a plan Monday he hoped would help Carroll financially moving forward.

During the board’s May meeting, Dickson asked fellow board members to look at Highway Safety revenues as a possible county funding source. He followed that up with a motion Monday.

“First of all I would like to say I am not targeting the sheriff’s department for any reason other than I see a way of increasing the county’s revenue without harm to anyone. Fines and forfeitures in Carroll have increased over the past years and everything collected goes to the Sheriff’s Department,” Dickson said, adding the Sheriff has collected about $980,000 in fines and forfeitures this fiscal year. “The budget committee approved projected revenue from fines and forfeitures at $1.2 million.”

Dickson said he thought it was time for the county to do like its neighbors and retain a percentage of Highway Safety revenues for general county use. For instance, he said Wythe County retains 20 percent from the program and has the lowest real estate tax in the area at 44 cents per $100 of assessed value. Without an interstate, Floyd County’s tax rate is 50 cents per $100, Dickson said, while Carroll’s is 68 cents per $100.

“Carroll has invested large amounts of dollars recently for school construction and economic development while our revenues have suffered due to a lagging rural economy. Carroll will benefit from these investments,” Dickson said. “Meanwhile you heard last month from the budget committee that this year’s budget was not an easy process. (Phil) McCraw stated it was the tightest budget he had worked on and it had been a tough year. They didn’t want to increase taxes because citizens are struggling, but the county really needed one. (Tom) Littrell said we all had budget on our minds and all the pennies going out will be a little flatter in the middle where we squeezed them. (Joshua) Hendrick stated this is his first time on the committee and this budget is interesting and has some lofty goals that will require cooperation from everyone in the county.”

Dickson said the county has already started this cooperation by not filling vacancies and by combining jobs. It is time to look for additional revenue that doesn’t harm any department or raise the tax levy.

“Another incentive for action to do this is our cash flow analysis which shows a minus $3,124,631 balance, which is the lowest in six years. The county fund balance is down from $13.7 million to $10.7 million. This is still a good balance but it is showing a trend downward,” Dickson said. “On top of this we have a possible public hearing in July regarding a tax revenue anticipation loan and that type of loan hasn’t been necessary for several years.”

Dickson said he is not targeting the sheriff’s department, but they have an abundance of funds compared to other county offices. Since January of 2012, the department has made numerous purchases. He said he couldn’t think of anything the sheriff’s office would need to replace for the next few years that would exceed the small portion the county would take.

“I can think of some county needs such as replacing many old school buses that have 250,000 miles and older models without current safety standards such as high-padded seats. CCHS students are placed in danger while being outside moving from one building to another,” Dickson said. “Our rec department needs many things, one of which is a water park or at least a large pool. I am not saying the sheriff’s department purchases were not necessary, but future purchases should be considerably less.”

Dickson also noted the Commissioner of the Revenue recently stated her office is understaffed by 4.59 people and the Treasurer also recently stated she is understaffed. The Clerk of Court’s Office is also short staffed, which possibly caused a bad audit, Dickson added.

“The need for more employees will join with the many other funding problems that will remain next year. We can add to that a new school debt for $1.5 million, which will also begin next year,” Dickson said. “I have a plan to lessen the burden on the finance committee but it needs to start now. If the county keeps 15 or 20 percent of fines and forfeitures revenue we will have at least $125,000 by next budget time. If we place our fund balance on interest we should receive possibly another $125,000. Add these together and project the same for 2016 and the committee will start with $500,000 more revenue than they had this year.”

Dickson’s motion fails

After his presentation, Dickson made a motion for Carroll to take 15 percent of fines and forfeiture money from Highway Safety revenues. No supervisor seconded Dickson’s motion. Dickson then asked for a vote so it would be on record.

Before the vote, Hendrick said he sympathized with Dickson’s desire to look anywhere possible to find money. But Hendrick also noted he told Carroll County Sheriff J.B. Gardner when he was elected that Highway Safety revenues belong to the sheriff’s office. Hendrick said he felt the county would be in an even tighter budget arena next year. The year after that will be even worse.

“Nobody wants to say we are going to raise taxes, but it is going to be on the table I guarantee it unless something changes. I don’t want to see any fees go up, taxes go up, things of that nature. I also don’t want to see the Sheriff’s Office lose money,” Hendrick said.

He’s thought for the past 2.5 years that the county is headed for a budget crisis, especially with the $1.5 million school debt payment set to begin.

“Some of the board on here now was on here then and you should have known in that amount of time it would come due. It is other things in that time that has come on line,” Hendrick said. “It is not just the schools, it is the PSA, it is everything. It’s time to pay the piper. And we will have to make some critical decisions over the next two years to pay for this stuff… but to me I don’t look to the sheriff’s office to fund it.”

McCraw said the sheriff’s office has purchased over 24 cars over the past couple of years. If that hadn’t been paid for out of highway safety funds, the county would have had one heck of a tax increase.

“The Sheriff has men out there putting their lives on the line to raise this money. I am an old bullheaded boy from down below the mountain. I can think of the way I might look at it when I find out they are going to dip into our money my deputies are working so hard to raise,” McCraw said. “I might pick up my phone and say the board has cut this and that, I want the radar units took off these cars tomorrow. That is something that has crossed my line. That is just the way my old conniving Cana mind works. And I just feel like we have an opportunity to maybe work with the Sheriff and come up with some plans.”

Perhaps the Sheriff could work with the county and put a certain amount of dollars into a special fund each year designated for a school bus or a fire truck in four years, McCraw said.

Littrell said he has eyed “that little pot of gold” for a while himself, referring to Highway Safety revenues. He’s talked with Gardner, however, who has expressed concerns that he is audited on how those funds are spent. Littrell said the sheriff also told him he would also be willing to help with county projects that are safety related.

“I feel this would be a better way to access those funds than to actually assess a percent to those funds,” Littrell said.

Supervisor Bob Martin said if he had to vote Monday, he would vote no. But if something doesn’t change in Richmond in regard to the state budget, then everything is on the table. Martin said he is concerned about the shortage of investigators the Carroll Sheriff’s Office has compared to other localities. Hutchins said he felt like Highway Safety revenues belong to the sheriff’s office.

“I guess then the plan for next year is to raise the tax levy and that is what we will do. I am not opposed to raising the tax levy if you try to save what you can,” Dickson said. “We can wait until next year and start about May and figure out how we are going to meet all that extra money. I wish you a lot of luck. I still ask the question so that the voters can see who is voting for a tax increase and who is not.”

Hutchins said he wasn’t sure supervisors were voting for a tax increase.

“You are voting to not help out,” Dickson said.

Dickson then asked for a vote of support for his motion to use a percentage of Highway Safety revenues. The vote failed 5-1 with Dickson casting the lone yes vote. McCraw, Littrell and Hutchins all stated they were not voting for a tax increase when they voted against Dickson’s motion.

After the vote, Gardner addressed the board.

“I am a taxpayer, too, so I am here to help you. There are things I will be more than happy to do and I think we should sit down and have a conversation about it sometime as long as it is safety related. I just think that is part of what we should do,” Gardner said. “I pay taxes in this county, too, and you are right, we have financial problems coming. If we can take part of the burden off that, we are for it. There are things we can do to help and we are absolutely willing to help.”

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