The Loudon County Budget Committee met with members of the public Monday to hear feedback on the proposed $61.4 million budget that includes a $36 million allocation for Loudon County Schools and a 2 percent raise for county employees that will help offset an increase in health insurance.
Tellico Village resident Richard Anklin argued to commissioners that the school system could not use excess money in its fund balance for recurring expenses. He cited a Tennessee attorney general opinion 11-73, the Tennessee Education Finance Act of 1977 and other documents.
He previously pointed out that the district’s Fund 141 balance was not $4 million but $6 million.
Anklin asked how the county could pass a budget with unanswered questions about how the school district was using the money.
“If it is not non-recurring and is strictly recurring items, as some interpretation of these statutes imply, and the attorney general comes back and says, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that,’ how do you take that money back?” Anklin said.
Don Miller, budget committee member, said after the public comment session that while using the school system’s fund balance for recurring expenses was not a good business practice, it was permissible under Tennessee Code Annotated.
“The governing statement is the TCA, and the TCA says — without reading it all — says that you can use accumulated fund balance for ‘any educational purposes’,” Miller said. “It doesn’t say whether it’s recurring or nonrecurring or books or salaries or anything. It says, ‘Any educational purposes’.”
Miller also said the attorney general opinion simply reiterates state law.
“To me the language in the TCA does not restrict you from using fund balance for recurring or nonrecurring, and since it doesn’t restrict you, it implies that that’s OK,” Miller said, noting that the attorney general’s opinion only speaks on nonrecurring expenses.
“But it’s silent on using it for recurring expenses, so there’s some confusion there, and that’s the reason we asked for the attorney general’s opinion, which is going to take several months,” Miller said.
During the meeting, Director of Schools Jason Vance gave a presentation highlighting some of the school district’s successes in testing and achieving high grade-point averages.
He said Loudon County was essentially tied for third among East Tennessee school districts based on grade-point average. Meanwhile, the system continued to fall behind in teacher salaries, he said.
“The bottom line is that we’re not third” in instructor compensation, Vance said. “We’re not even average, so I’d like for our teachers to at least try to get to the point where we’re average.”
Vance said while the budget committee’s recommended $36 million budget was not ideal, it was serviceable, adding that more resources would be needed to comply with new Common Core standards and to implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers test.
“I don’t want anybody to be mislead and believe that we can continue doing business the way that we’ve always done it and not expect to do greater things in the future,” Vance said.
Miller said he was pleased with the academic achievements of the school system but balked at the notion that the county had been funding education sparingly.
“You kind of left an impression — and maybe I read it the wrong way — that we’ve been kind of stingy with money, we’ve been flat, and just looking at the operating budget that is true,” Miller told Vance. “But you didn’t mention the fact that we just put up $43 million in facilities. Now, that’s a capital budget. You can say that’s different, but it isn’t. It’s coming out of the same taxpayer pot.”
Miller said county commission was charged with looking at the full picture when divvying out resources.
“If you look at what we’ve been doing over the last couple of years, we’ve been kind of shorting the rest of the county in order to be able to put more money into the school system,” Miller said. “So, I just want to make the point that we have not been tightfisted with the schools. You have to kind of look at the whole picture, and that’s what we have to look at.”
He said the county has raised property taxes three times in the last six to seven years, amounting to about 60 cents in property tax revenues.
“Almost all of it has gone into the school system, which I supported,” Miller said. “I’m not saying that was the wrong thing to do. I’m saying that we have to keep all this in perspective.”
During the public hearing, Lenoir City resident Pat Hunter suggested some ways the county could trim the budget in the future, noting that the county should evaluate cellphone usage among sheriff’s office personnel and look at the alleged practice of using county vehicles for personal use.
“What I worry about is when I’m out traveling and I see — and I’m going to pick on the sheriff tonight — I see the patrolmen, and I don’t see them on their patrol radios,” Hunter said. “I see them on the cellphone, and that bothers me because we’re paying a lot of money for those radios that are in their vehicles, so I think that needs to be addressed.”
Mayor Estelle Herron said the county was in the process of performing an inventory of all county vehicles and equipment, including cellphones and other county-owned devices.
Budget committee member David Meers said another item the county would need to consider in the future was the Tate & Lyle and Kimberly-Clark property tax assessment appeals. Meers said if the companies win their cases, the county could lose “several pennies” in tax revenue.
“That will have a great effect upon our budget for next year, and regardless we do not have a contingency plan,” Meers said. “We’ve been trying to do some things to hold a line for that purpose, and once we have that information then we can try to look at that.”