The first all-Republican board of commissioners elected in Macon County have held more budget work sessions and longer budget work sessions than any board in the last 10 years, however, Tuesday night the board was unable to pass a budget for the fiscal year which begins on July 1.
Macon County Commission Chairman Paul Higdon set the stage for a budget disagreement last week during a three-hour-long work session — held after the first initial 6-hour long budget presentation earlier this month. While giving his fellow commissioners a directive that they can either “vote or not” for the proposed budget, Chairman Higdon did not hide the fact that his opposition to the budget was primarily political.
“Politically for me, that number needs to be decreased,” said Higdon, referring to the proposed $64.5 million — which sits at $5.5 million over the current fiscal year budget.
On Tuesday night Chairman Higdon reiterated that stance by opening the meeting and admitting that the optics of the first all-Republican board approving a budget with a $5 million increase didn’t look good. Higdon further went on to say that he understands the $5 million budget increase is tied to an increase in revenue generated within the county through things such as sales tax and interest on investments earning and verified county growth, but regardless, the increase didn’t bode well politically for the Conservative board.
Last week Commissioner John Shearl told his fellow commissioners he wanted to see four things included in the county’s budget for the Highlands community which included funding to get the Highlands Expansion Project “shovel ready,” funding for Zachary Park renovations and landscaping the adjacent property for youth, and improvements to the Highlands School soccer field.
Because the soil samples for the Highlands project is not anticipated to be ready until April, with a report to the board not available before May — during the county’s next budget cycle, funding commissioners agreed to not carry the funding for the soccer field in the budget but gave consensus to fund the project when the time comes.
When Commissioner Josh Young made a motion to approve the proposed budget, his motion included updating the budget to include all of Shearl’s requests — however, Shearl still voted against approving the budget. Young asked Shearl what they [the board] could do Tuesday night to reach an agreement to get a budget passed to which Shearl responded, “nothing.”
“Had I been prepared for this, it may be different, but there are things that I am working on internally in this budget process…some growth factors there that I am a little concerned about,” said Shearl.
Commissioner Shearl said that he “didn’t come prepared to vote on the budget” Tuesday night. He said he was willing to discuss the budget, however, there were items in the budget he was still looking into, such as a truck for Animal Control and because of that, he was not prepared to take a vote.
Despite Shearl saying he was not prepared to vote on the budget, the board approved the budget calendar for the fiscal year on February 9, which included the June 13 board meeting being earmarked for public comment and budget approval. Since February 9, county department heads have spent the last four months working with finance director Lori Carpenter and county manager Derek Roland to establish the $64.5 million proposed budget. Commissioner Shearl was invited to sit in on those meetings over the last four months, however, he did not. He did meet with certain departments to gain insight into their operations. Roland presented his proposed budget for the first time in May and over the last month commissioners have combined through it, asking questions on their own as well as spending just under 20 hours discussing the budget in open session. Despite that process and with a tentative deadline of June 20, Commissioner Shearl said he was not ready to take up the budget.
All concerns and priorities Commissioner Shearl presented during open session relating to the budget were addressed in the motion Commissioner Young made for approval on Tuesday, however, apparently, Shearl has additional concerns that he has not yet expressed in open session or with county leadership. Without asking those questions or voicing those concerns or requests prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, Roland and Carpenter couldn’t add them to the budget ordinance for consideration, delaying a vote.
Shearl echoed Higdon’s comments regarding the proposed budget’s over $5 million increase — at one point saying that if the proposed budget reduced the county’s tax rate from .27 cents per $100 valuation to .24 cents, “we would have a deal.” Shearl’s suggestion to lower the tax rate to .24 cents per $100 valuation would generate $30,782,694.59 based on the county’s tax base of $12,825,780,728 — right around $5 million less than the proposed .27 percent. In theory, and in terms of political optics, a .24 cent tax rate paired with the county’s other revenue sources such as sales tax, would produce a “flat” budget compared to the current fiscal year and not have the appearance of a $5 million budget increase. However, as Roland explained to Shearl — it isn’t good government or sound financial policy to produce a budget that funds recurring expenditures using unpredictable, fluctuating revenue sources. If the county were to lower the property tax this year and offset that revenue decrease with sales tax, if the following budget cycle sees a decrease in sales tax collections, the budget would default or a substantial property tax increase would be needed.
Commissioner Shearl sided with Higdon in opposing the proposed $1.1 million in the budget to address compensation for county employees. The FY 24’ Recommended Budget proposes a 1‐step advancement in the pay scale for all employees and a 3% cost of living adjustment. The 1‐step advancement amounts to an approximate 1.5% increase per employee resulting in a $424,200 increase to the FY 24’ Budget. A 3% COLA will result in an FY 24’ Budget increase of $772,438. For a deputy making $17 an hour — the proposed increase would mean about an 85-cent-an-hour increase. For the employee working at the tax office making $14.80 an hour, Roland’s increase would mean an additional 40 cents per hour. The proposed COLA and merit increases in the budget mirrored what Jackson County’s budget includes and remains below the regional average and nearly half of what the state is proposing for employees. Regardless, Shearl agreed with Commissioner Higdon that the proposal was “too much.”
Shearl also shared heartburn over the proposed $2-$5 per ton increase on commercial waste at the Highlands Transfer station. The increase is just to cover the cost of disposing of commercial waste. Shearl said taxpayers can’t afford the increase — however, the increase is to commercial waste— meaning businesses. Previously, the tipping fee for brush and stumps covered the cost of having those ground down. However, those costs have gone from $9 a ton to over $20 per ton, resulting in a request to increase the tipping fee from $30 to $35 a ton in the budget. The other proposed fee increase is for commercial waste from the Highlands Transfer Station from $8.75 to $12.50 per ton — which is in line with the increase approved last year for the 20-ton load. The proposed increase is technically already in place and is just to correct an oversight from the prior year. The last increase was specifically for the Highlands’ station’s transfer fee to be applied to brush and stumps, which is a result of the transfer costs to the landfill. Shearl, who owns a landscaping company, said as a business owner the increase is hard on him and his employees and the increase would directly impact him personally which is why he didn’t support it.
During the Feb. 9 budget kickoff meeting commissioners were asked to lay out their budget priorities and expectations. Historically that had been a time for projects or programs to be requested by commissioners. However, Shearl made no mention of anything in February, which meant as Roland and Carpenter prepared the budget, they didn’t include any special appropriations. Then on Tuesday night, for the first time in the four-month-long budget process, Shearl said he wanted to see the county do more to help the private sector like build a convention center or something to help private businesses.
Even after Tuesday night, it remains unclear what all Commissioner Shearl would like to see changed in the budget, however, the directive to commissioners seemed to be for them to get with Roland and Carpenter over the next few days prior to next week’s continued budget meeting.
Commissioner Gary Shields seconded John Young’s motion to approve the budget — supporting the salary adjustments for employees, moving forward with the new Franklin High School Project, and everything else included in the $64.5 million proposal.
Chairman Higdon said he didn’t support the proposed combined 4.5% increase for county employees but would support a 2 percent increase. Roland explained that the increase the county approved last year, which Higdon voted against for the same reasons as stated on Tuesday night, didn’t even cover the cost of inflation, making it difficult for employees. Higdon said it wouldn’t be fair to increase the salaries for county employees in the public sector because private sector employees don’t receive the same consideration.
“Public government employees didn’t lose anything during COVID. I have friends in the private sector who lost things, one lost his house. County employees didn’t lose anything — except maybe a family member,” said Higdon.
Retiring Human Resource Director Mike Decker was quick to correct Higdon to say the difference is that county employees faired better during COVID because as essential employees they continued to work.
“They worked every day during COVID. They showed up every day and did their jobs and kept this county going,” said Decker. “Let’s not lose sight of that.”
Shearl agreed with Higdon and said that increasing county employee salaries is a means of “growing the government” and he would rather see tax dollars used to grow the private sector, which would help to grow the county.
“We are growing. We are busier than ever,” said Roland. “We are demanding more from our employees. We have been blessed with this revenue to address these challenges— the $1.1 million for the COLA and merit — I am biased but that is the best money we can spend in this budget. From an organization standpoint, this is the most important piece of this budget. Especially for some of these high-pressure positions — our EMS — our deputies. I know for a fact that no matter how much we talk about capital projects, equipment, none of that is possible without continuing retaining and recruiting highly qualified employees.”
Commissioner Danny Antoine offered the least amount of commentary on the budget but did ask Roland what was included in the proposed budget for kids and families, implying the county could do more for that demographic.
Roland explained several items in the budget specifically for kids and families such as $10 million for public education, $1.1 million specifically to move forward with the Franklin High School new facility project, which holds a price tag of $110 million. Finishing the $1.3 million purchase of the Higdon House property for CTE expansion for all students, funding for the skate park — $550,000 for Highlands recreation, $3 million for recreation for the rest of the county, $200,000 for pickleball courts and funding to complete a master study of the recreation facilities for a comprehensive plan for future improvements. The county’s budget also included $75,000 to the community funding pool, which primarily funds programs geared toward families such as the Dolly Parton Imagination Library through Read2Me and the Highlands Literacy Program. The county also provides funding to Macon Program for Progress for programs such as the Parents as Teachers Program and the budget includes nearly half a million for a brand new mobile child dental clinic that is open and available to all children in the county regardless of income levels.
Despite Roland answering Antoine’s question regarding funding for children and families in the budget, Antoine voted against approving the proposed budget and offered no further explanation or comment toward his vote.
Without a vote on the budget, the Macon County Board of Commissioners voted to recess the meeting until Monday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at which time additional discussion will occur.