Hawkins budget with $752K deficit ready for review by full county commission

Jeff Bobo • Jul 8, 2020 at 5:27 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County commissioners on Tuesday finalized the second draft of the proposed 2020-21 fiscal year budget, which shows a $752,374 deficit, although Finance Director Eric Buchanan told them the reality isn’t nearly as bad as that sounds.

Traditionally county budgets underestimate revenue and overestimate expenses.

Last year the county commission approved a 2019-20 budget that was projected to be $5,000 in the black, but it actually came in more than $1 million under budget.

Hawkins County was projected to end the 2019-20 fiscal year on June 30 with $5.8 million in the general fund undesignated fund balance (savings).

Buchanan told the Budget Committee Tuesday that when the final numbers come in for last fiscal, year the county will instead have more than $6.8 million in savings.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t look great”

Despite the projected $752,374 deficit in the current proposed 2020-21 budget, the general fund would end the fiscal year with $6.2 million in savings as the proposed budget currently stands. Buchanan said rumors circulating that the county can’t manage its budget are completely untrue.

He told commissioners Tuesday that Hawkins County’s revenue increased 0.6% in 2019-20, but expenditures decreased by 5%, which is where the additional $1 million in savings came from. 

“I keep hearing the notion that Hawkins County can’t live within a budget,” Buchanan said. “They absolutely can. All the officeholders and department heads have done an outstanding job turning in 5%. That’s the additional million dollars (in fund balance) that you’re seeing.”

Buchanan added, “I wish this next year looked a little bit better on paper. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look great. But we do predict revenue conservatively, and we do project expenditures a little high to make sure we do have good things like this happen. We have people in positions who are good stewards of the county’s money, and things like this (projected $752K deficit) typically come out decent in the wash at the end of the year.”

The second draft of the proposed 2020-21 county budget will be presented to the full commission at a special called Budget Committee meeting scheduled for July 27 at 5 p.m. at the courthouse, an hour before the beginning of the regular monthly commission meeting.

Sheriff again seeks more pay for employees

On May 29, the Budget Committee denied Sheriff Ronnie Lawson’s request for an additional $673,000 in funding, of which $280,000 would replace eight high-mileage patrol cars; $343,000 to give his employees a 7.5% raise; and $50,000 to purchase used jail inmate work crew vehicles.

What the committee instead approved was $140,000 to purchase four new patrol cars and $73,275 to give his employees a 1.6% COLA (cost of living allowance) increase.

Committee Chairman John Metz noted that last year the full commission passed a resolution stating that it would make every attempt to provide the sheriff’s office with an annual COLA increase no less than the national Social Security COLA — which was the source of that 1.6% figure approved May 29.

Lawson was joined by Chief Deputy Tony Allen Tuesday in asking the Budget Committee to reconsider its May 29 decision and fund his original requests for vehicles and employee pay raises.

Lawson noted that retaining the cost of training and equipping replacements for officers who are lost to higher paying departments would offset the cost of the pay raises he is seeking for his staff.

“In the last 15 years, the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office has sent 55 people to the police academy,” Lawson said. “That costs money when you figure all the overtime we’re having to pay out of the sheriff’s budget over all these years, plus $90,000 last year (in accrued employee vacation and sick time) that we paid employees who went to work somewhere else. I want to save money, and I think if we invest in these young men and women on the front end, we won’t be spending it and wasting it on the back end.”

Lawson noted that the dangers faced not only by law enforcement, but also the general public, are greater now than ever before, and he wants to retain experienced officers to protect the public.  Lawson said he can’t blame an employee for leaving to work at a higher paying department, but he needs the resources to pay his officers at a level so they’ll stay, and he won’t constantly have to pay to train and equip new officers.

Lawson also asked that the inmate work crew transport vehicles he requested be included the budget.

Over the past year, Hawkins County Jail inmates completed 182 projects, saving countless thousands of dollars for the county and nonprofit organizations they’ve worked for, Lawson noted.

Approximately 30 officers joined Lawson and Allen for the meeting, but they had to wait in the hallway due to social distancing requirements. The committee took no action on Lawson’s request.

State emergency funds into savings

Hawkins County is projected to receive $1.17 million from Gov. Bill Lee’s promised one-time COVID-19 emergency Local Support Grant (LSG) funding. Last month the commission voted to obligate $500,000 of those funds toward the proposed First Utility District waterline extension project to residences with contaminated wells near the Carters Valley landfill.

On Tuesday the commission approved the request of Buchanan to place the remaining $600,000 funds in reserve.

“I would like to see it set aside,” Buchanan said. “The pandemic is not yet over. Although we’ve been spared (negative economic impact) to this point, we don’t know what’s coming down the road, and I am not in a hurry to spend it.”

Unexpected retiree in mayor’s office

The committee also approved an additional $16,000 for the county mayor’s office to pay newly retired purchasing clerk Martha Wallace as a part-time employee to help train her replacement.

Buchanan noted that Wallace had opted recently to retire unexpectedly after 30 years in the office, but has agreed to stay on part time to train her replacement.

Buchanan said he doesn’t anticipate the full $16,000 will be needed, and any part that isn’t spent will revert to the general fund.

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