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The consensus of several visitors in attendance at Monday’s meeting of Trimble County Fiscal Court was that Judge-Executive Jerry Powell and magistrates, Stephen Stark, Nolan Hamilton Jr., Kirby Melvin and David Scott should find ways to cut the budget rather than implement a tax on insurance companies for the privilege of doing business in the county.
Another popular idea among those who chose to address the government body was to implement an occupational tax on persons working in Trimble County.
“I believe the first thing the county needs to look at is their spending and not the money they’re taking in,” Phillip Wright said. “You need to be fiscally conservative and save some money. I’ve looked at your budget. I’ve looked at it real good, and you all know more about it than I do, but I think there’s room in there.”
“I’ve been over this budget backwards and forwards,” Powell said. “You would have to cut 20 percent of the budget to save $450,000. There’s not 20 percent to be cut anywhere. It’s not there. There’s not any fat left to cut.”
“There’s all kinds of room in that budget to cut if you want to address them,” Wright countered. “Do it 20 percent across the board.”
“Twenty percent across the board is $460,000 and we can’t cut $460,000,” Powell said.
Wright and others asked if Powell and the magistrates had been to each of the county department heads and asked where they felt cuts could be made.
“The clerk is elected to her job, the sheriff is elected to his job,” Powell said. “I don’t want to micromanage those guys.”
Powell and several magistrates said that the road department budget is untouchable because it is mandated by the state.
“We have no control over that,” Powell said. “Whatever is in the road budget can only be used for that.”
Some asked if salaries of county employees could be cut. Powell said there are 28 full time employees and 17 part time. A substantial amount of the budget is spent on Social Security, Workmen’s Comp and retirement benefits.
“Those kinds of things we have no control over,” Powell said. “We pay it or the state’s going to fine us if we don’t. If you average all the county employees’ salaries it would be about $25,000. I want to take care of the employees. If you all want to be mad at me I don’t have a problem with that. I will tell you that I took a $10,000 cut to come into this job. Hopefully, that makes some of you happy. I could’ve stayed in the clerk’s office and been $10,000 better off than I am right now.”
Magistrate Stark cited as an example that the position of county jailer is not a big salary job. “You’ve got two employees and a part-time employee and their vehicles are worn out,” he said. “When you’re spending $17-20,000 a month, 95 percent of that is paying for the inmates” to be housed.
Milton resident Jon Edwards questioned the expense of the new animal shelter and the personnel required to run it. “We’re paying to house dogs that nobody wants,” he said. “We spent $300,000 for that shelter to house dogs that nobody wants.”
“The state tells us we will do it,” Magistrate Melvin said. “We don’t have a choice.”
The subject of an occupational tax was raised by several in attendance. Powell said there are no hard numbers to indicate what kind of revenue an occupational tax would generate. “Assuming there are 500 jobs in the county—counting the school and LG&E, the landfill, banks and other small businesses in the county—and assuming that 70 percent of those people live in the county—that’s 350 people. Figuring that 150 people are driving in to work in the county but live somewhere else that puts the burden on 350 people in the county to pay all of this. It generates a lot of revenue for Carroll County but they’ve for thousands of people working down there.”
If there is anything fair about tax, Powell said, a tax on insurance premiums would tax anybody whether they’ve got one vehicle or they’ve got 10 vehicles.
“I don’t know any fair way to say anybody is going to pay X number of dollars and it’s going to be equal for everyone,” he said. “I don’t know any solution to solve that. I do know our tax rate right now is 7.6 percent. That’s on real estate and tangibles. In 1985—27 years ago—for real estate was 8.1 percent and tangible was 8.8 percent. The tax rate is lower now than 27 years ago. They could’ve raised the tax rates over the years and they haven’t done that.”
Bedford City Commissioner Todd Pollock said that from his experience with city government having to make drastic cuts he understands the dilemma the county is facing with regard to meeting expenses. “I didn’t come up here with the intention of defending you all,” he said. “I see what you’re doing and I understand why you’re doing it. With this, it makes everybody responsible as opposed to just landowners. Everybody is included in this.”
“I would like to say thank you to the fiscal court members for what you’re doing,” Bedford resident Russell Young said. “However, I would like to challenge you to get your Webster’s dictionary out and look up the definition of ‘wants’ and look up the definition of ‘necessities.’ And every time you go to make a decision refer back to that. Is this something we want or is this a necessity? I can feel where you’re at. I don’t want to pay more taxes. I don’t think anybody in this room does but if it’s a necessity for you to operate I pat you on the back and kudos to you.”
Former judge-executive Randy Stevens said that at one time during his decade of service as the county’s chief executive officer the landfill receipts were over a million dollars annually. “Those were good times, he said. “The park had been expanded for us. We were able to develop it and do some capital things. We cautioned each other as we talked and shared thoughts about the budget not to take on any recurring expenses.”
The landfill receipts dropped three or four years ago, Stevens said, to where now they are down to between $500,000-$600,000.
“We talked about it every month,” Stevens said of the magistrates who served with him. “We talked to the county clerk and the sheriff and others on ways to make cuts. There’s not much meat left there—you’re not cutting fat anymore, in my opinion, you’re into the meat.”
Stevens said expenses from the retirement system have nearly tripled in a decade to about $375,000.
“Health insurance is the other thing, we’ve all heard about the new health care law and you’ve got to provide it,” he said. “If you opt out you’ve got to pay a penalty.”
County government also has to meet the public’s expectation of services, Stevens said. “Believe me, there is not frivolous spending here. The folks are not overpaid. This court and other courts previous have shown financial constraint and fiscal conservatism.”
Powell cited some of the shortfalls he and the magistrates have run into. He met with the Administrative Office of the Courts a week ago, he said. The county had budgeted $120,000 from AOC based on the prior year when they paid $136,000. The AOC rent for the use of the courthouse, he explained.
“The rent’s not very much,” he said. “They pay for operating expenses, which would be utilities and maintenance and stuff like that. A conservative number to put in the budget this year was $120,000. AOC informed us last Monday that all they’re going to pay us this year is $58,288 and there’s not a thing we can do. So there’s $60,000 we counted on coming in that’s not coming in. Our PVA office has no control over the assessment on LG&E or the landfill. That’s assessed through the state. We have to accept it and like it.”
The magistrates will soon have to bite the bullet and purchase two ambulances for the county’s emergency medical services. The county is “spending tons of money” on the three that are currently in service “trying to keep them going. If we did make more cuts how are you going to pay for the ambulances because that’s coming up? How are you going to pay for the heating and cooling of the courthouse? We’re spending about $10,000 on that right now. It’s not the budgeted things that’s killing us, it’s the other things.”
Edwards summed up the feelings of many in attendance when he said, “We’re caught in the crosshairs right now. We’re getting it from everywhere: nationally, state, county. We’re getting hit everywhere with higher taxes. We keep passing the buck saying we can’t change it, there’s nothing that can be done. But we’re not even willing to make the changes here in our own county. You all are trying to do this at a very bad time when people are hurting anyway.”