Budget discussions milder, but dissension unresolved

Two main stumbling blocks remain as hurdles to be cleared in the Blount County Commission’s efforts to craft a consensus 2014-2015 fiscal year budget. They are essentially the only two matters over which disagreement has occurred, but both subjects have drawn pointed, and in one case, heated discussion.

The division of the district road budget was the discussion that snagged lightning. Whether to reduce other components of the budget, namely funding for county departments and particularly funding for Palisades Park, was another point of contention, with the line drawn between Districts 1 and 2 on one side and 3 and 4 on the other. The funding formula

The heated disagreement has been over how to split the $2.56 million gas tax revenue fund among the four county road districts. The formula used for the last eight years would result in District 1 receiving about $77,000 more than the other three districts (out of a total road budget approximating $1 million apiece for the districts, when about $300,000 per district from another fund is added to total district road budgets). The additional amount for District 1 has been justified by its greater distance and expense incurred in hauling chert for road work, and marginally higher traffic volumes and associated wear and tear on roads.

An alternate formula favored by two commissioners – and the one that occasioned strong words among the group on Aug. 7 – was to split the amount equally among the four districts. That was the preferred formula for District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert and District 4 Commissioner Gary Stricklin.

To open the discussion last week, District 1 Commissioner Allen Armstrong suggested that if the equal split formula were to be seriously considered, that the commission consider redistributing road miles among the districts to produce equal road mileages for each district. That suggestion did not draw opposition as such, but was not pursued further at the time.

A third percentage formula was then advanced last week by District 4 Commissioner Gary Stricklin. He suggested a split as follows: 25.5 percent each for Districts 1 and 2, and 24.5 percent each for Districts 3 and 4 ($656,000 in round numbers for Districts 1 and 2 and $631,000 for Districts 3 and 4; $956,000 vs. $931,000 overall when the remaining road budget component is added). The proposal was not immediately accepted or rejected. Armstrong asked for the exact numbers to be calculated from the percentages before considering the proposal further.

By The Blount Countian’s arithmetic, the Stricklin proposal would result in marginal funding increases for Districts 2, 3, and 4 ( about $32,000 for District 2 and about $6,500 apiece for Districts 3 and 4) with a corresponding decrease (of about $45,000) for District 1.

Resolution of the difference of opinion awaits the next budget meeting tomorrow ( Thursday, Sept. 4) at 9 a.m. Palisades Park

The discussion of Palisades Park was the loudest expression of an underlying theme throughout the prelude to 2015 budget discussions and to a lesser extent in the budget sessions themselves: the effort on the part of Armstrong and District 2 Commissioner Carthal Self to reduce county spending overall, especially in light of what they view as continuing pressure to stretch district road budgets ever thinner to keep up with the deterioration of county roads.

Armstrong opened the discussion on Palisades Park by noting the successful reduction in some areas of county spending, notably on the county transfer station (landfill) where costs have been roughly halved – from $287,000 budgeted in 2012 to $143,000 budgeted in 2014.

“We’ve got the transfer station moving in the right direction,” he said.“But we’re still throwing money in the hole at the park.”

“Well, I disagree with you on that, Commissioner,” Commission Chairman Chris Green replied.“I don’t think that money’s wasted at all. It’s an expense directly related to the quality of life for hardworking Blount County citizens and their families – both those who are here now and those that might come here as a result of efforts of our economic development team we’ve recently put in place.”

Green continued that quality of life considerations have value in attracting new businesses, new revenues, and new people to the county, citing the coming wave of economic activity that will accompany continuing construction of the northern beltline. Armstrong said he didn’t want to close the park, just reduce the cost of operating it. He made two suggestions along those lines:

•increase rental rates on park facilities such as permits, pavilions and lodges to offset costs of operation,

•close or substantially reduce hours of operation at the park during seasonal periods such as winter when park patronage is at a low ebb.

Both Armstrong and Self have emphasized the need to cut expenses everywhere possible in the budget and to concentrate on buttressing district road budgets in order to keep county roads in the best condition possible.

Green, who has advocated and worked hard to build an infrastructure to enhance the county’s tourism attractions and economic appeal for the future, said after the meeting that he thinks and hopes “the silent majority” of Blount County citizens agree with him in defending the park, adding that if they do, he hopes they will make themselves heard on the subject.

Budget discussions resume tomorrow ( Thursday, Sept. 4) immediately following the commission’s regularly scheduled 9 a.m. work session at the courthouse in Oneonta.