Hardest hit: deputies, Hayden Annex, non-county agencies

Commission budget diversion impacts projected...

The Blount Countian interviewed county officials last week to get a preliminary view of budget cuts that may be required if the budget action taken by Blount County Commissioners last week is implemented.

That action – approved by unanimous vote over the objections of the commission chairman – was to direct that $455,000 be removed from the county general fund – used to support general government in the county – and be diverted to the road budget. The money would not go to the road budget immediately. It would be funneled to a reserve account created to hold the money temporarily until formal cuts to departmental expense budgets to accommodate the amount removed can be put in place.

Interviewed were Blount County Sheriff Loyd Arrington, Blount County Revenue Commissioner Gregg Armstrong, and Commission Chairman Chris Green. In the interests of fairness, commissioners Dean Calvert and Allen Armstrong, who worked together to engineer the transfer of funds, were invited to submit statements explaining the action.

Anticipated cuts will fall heavily on the Sheriff’s Department and Revenue Department, as the largest departments of county government, as well as on the remainder of the county general fund, for which the commission chairman provides oversight as chief executive officer of the county. Parts of Green’s open letter to citizens – reprinted in its entirety on p. 2 – are quoted under the appropriate heading below.

Sheriff’s Department

According to Sheriff Loyd Arrington, reductions in department headcount could total nine deputies – seven part-time (30 hours/week) and two full-time. The cuts would affect multiple areas of law enforcement: investigations, county patrol, evidence collection, security at county buildings, and jail security.

According to the budget “bogie” given the department, 51 percent of the $455,000 diverted, totalling $230,000, would be cut from the Sheriff’s Department.

“I understand the funding problems the county has and the need for more money for road maintenance. We have been asked to submit a proposal indicating where we would have to cut. After reviewing the budget in detail, our only option is to cut personnel and the services they provide. We can’t cut vehicles or fuel costs which are required for patrolling the county, and are beyond our control. We have to cut in the areas we can control, which means personnel and services. This, in effect, will undo much of the progress we’ve made improving county law enforcement overall during my seven years in office.”

Revenue department

According to Revenue Commissioner Gregg Armstrong, the only non-essential expense area of his budget is two full-time jobs associated with providing Revenue Department services at the Hayden Counthouse Annex. Those services include renewing driver’s licenses, purchasing annual vehicle tags, paying property taxes, and filing for homestead exemptions.

Armstrong gave this statement about any proposed closing of that office.

“I haven’t been contacted by any commissioner about what cuts, if any, might happen to my office. If I am called upon to make cuts, I would have no choice but to cut where we have extra services… Depending on what percentage I would be forced to cut (Ed. – assuming 5 percent of budget), I would have no choice but to close the Hayden Annex. But rest assured, I am 100 percent against cutting the Hayden Annex because not only would it affect West Blount people, it would affect the rest of the county by increasing lines and wait time to renew tags and pay property taxes. We need to continue moving forward with customer services and not have to be like Jefferson County and have long lines and disgruntled customers.

“I understand that the county commissioners have a difficult job to do. Our roads are certainly in need of repair. However, I do not believe cutting governmental services is the answer. If I am forced to cut my budget, my hands would be tied and it would force me to make major cutbacks and possible layoffs.”

(Ed. Armstrong said citizens need to know the Blount County Revenue Office is the lowest funded of any of the surrounding counties. Last year’s $667,999 budget was less than half of St. Clair County’s, about half of Cullman’s, and more than a third less than Walker County’s, the lowest among surrounding counties, although it is only a little larger than Blount.) Commission Chairman, addressing overall general fund impacts

“I am adamantly opposed to the Oct. 19 surprise decision of the county commission to set aside $455,000 from the county’s general fund to be used for future road projects. While road funding is a very serious issue facing the commission, redirecting revenues from the county general fund – unanimously approved by the commission less than a month ago when they adopted the 2016 budget – is simply irresponsible.” (See full statement, page A2.)

Green stated the commission action will eliminate many county services provided through the Sheriff’s Department and Revenue Department and greatly reduce or eliminate support for a number of county agencies. Agencies/programs he listed where funding may be jeopardized are: public libraries, chambers of commerce, Children’s Center, Agri-Business Center, fire and rescue departments, aging programs, veteran’s services, juvenile probation, soil conservation, Auburn Extension Service, and possibly others supported through the general fund.

“I do not support reducing the number of law enforcement officers needed to protect our county… I do not want waiting lines in the courthouse like those in Jefferson County… I do not want the citizens of West Blount County to ever have to drive to Oneonta to simply have their driver’s licenses renewed or to purchase their car tags,” Green said.

Green acknowledged that much more revenue is needed to adequately maintain deteriorating roads and bridges, adding that he has continually advocated a deliberate plan to do so since becoming commission chairman three years ago. He said $455,000 – $113,750 apiece when divided among four commission districts – is only a fraction of what’s needed to address road and bridge maintenance county-wide.

“Robbing the general fund and starting to dismantle county government is not the answer,” he concluded.

Commissioners’ responses

Allen Armstrong: My decision on the budget amendment was based on my experience and what the general public has asked for over my five years as commissioner. About 99.9 percent of my phone calls, emails and requests while I am out in public are about road conditions. Not one time in my tenure has anyone come to a commission meeting about much more than our road systems. The commission was called dysfunctional last year by The Blount Countian. This year when we made this decision, we were called irresponsible.

I will tell you what irresponsible is. When this tax was placed on the people without a vote by the people in 1992 (sic), also when this was passed and put towards the general budget, not to roads and bridges. The nearly $8,000,000 that could have been spent on our roads over the last 23 years, but wasn’t, is irresponsible.

Irresponsible is wasting public funds on an Agri-Business Center that cannot live within its means in a building that is completely paid for. They receive appropriations at the beginning of the fiscal year and come back asking for more before the end of the year.

Opening up a county park seven days a week in 20-degree weather is irresponsible. No one is waiting on the gates to open on a cold January morning. That is not running things efficiently.

If moving revenue to our already suffering roads is what some think irresponsible, then so be it. I call it common sense. But I have come to realize common sense does not go far in the old ways of Blount County government.

The bottom line is that cost of materials, fuel, equipment, maintenance, and insurance have skyrocketed over the years. The way we spend our revenue has to change. Since taking office, I have cut costs and downsized the two departments I oversee and other departments are going to have the start doing the same. The people that live in Blount County deserve for us to make sound business decisions to put as much money into roads and infrastructure as we can. In doing this, it does not cost them anything more, and we become yet more efficient. I stand behind my decision of moving this revenue to roads. I have received tremendous support throughout the county with this move. Dean Calvert: The budget is passed and behind the commission until next year, and with that done it is time to begin looking at ways to move this county forward. Commission Chairman Chris Green and us four elected road commissioners are here to serve this county in many different aspects – as road commissioners but also as overseers of financial areas as well.

With that said, one of the biggest complaints is the condition of the roads. We have discussed many different ways to solve this problem, one being the unit system… But, at this time the unit system would only be another failed solution until some new revenue is brought into this county.

In the last meeting, the commission voted to set aside the revenue that would be collected from the 2-cent gas tax from the current year to make sure the county runs efficiently. People have been led to believe that this commission is taking from the general fund to pave roads, and this is not the case.

Our reasoning behind this move is that this money was generated from a resolution sent down by the commission in 1991, led (Ed. – in the Legislature) by Bob Harvey and passed 2- 1 by the commissioners. It gave 1 cent in sales tax to education (to rebuild Pennington High School, which had burned) and 2 cents in gas tax to the general fund. There was a specific need then – for more money in the general fund to pay wages of county employees to avoid layoffs. There’s a different need today. Times have changed and the roads have become a bigger issue. There’s a need for more money to fix our deteriorated roads.

The total amount of monies set aside will not be used for roads this year, but from this point forward, any of the 2-cent gas tax money that is not needed in the general fund will be put to use on getting our farm-to-market roads back into good condition.

This is not a permanent fix, and it will not be a quick fix. Without an increase in revenue, it will be difficult to fix all the problems. While this is a temporary solution to our money and road issues, there are other options that, as a county, we could look at.

I feel this is a good place to begin to improve roads, and an opportunity to research other ways to bring revenue into our county for our roads.

Background of controversy

The county commission at its monthly business meeting on Oct. 21 passed a motion to divert county revenues from a 2- cent fuel tax passed in 1991 from the general fund, where it has historically been directed, to the road budget. The amount of revenue projected for the tax for 2016 is $455,000. According to the motion, the money is not to be transferred directly to the road budget, but into a reserve account “to be determined,” in the language of the motion.

It would then be used, not used, or partially used to repair/pave county roads in 2016 as needed, depending on the urgency of needs manifested subsequently in all other areas of county government supported by the general fund.

Commissioner Allen Armstrong has maintained for some time that 2-cent fuel tax money has been misused in being directed to the general fund rather than to the road budget. At Monday’s meeting, he stated that it had been misused for 23 years – ever since it was originally passed in 1991, stating further that the entire cumulative total of money over that time amounted to some $13 million. (The Blount Countian has not attempted to confirm that exact total, but it could reasonably be in that general range.) He said further that if that amount had been used over the years to pave roads, it would have kept the roads from being in the deteriorated condition they are today.

While Armstrong’s statements concerning the funds being misused seem to imply that that they were used improperly or incorrectly, an examination of the 1991 resolution by which the commission at that time initiated the gas tax, show that is not the case.

The language of the resolution indicates that the commission that passed the tax intended it to be paid into the county general fund. Section 12 of the resolution that created the 2-cent fuel tax states: “The proceeds of the tax levied by this resolution shall be paid into the county’s general fund.” 2-cent fuel tax proceeds have been directed to the general fund by every commission in the 24 years since passage of that resolution.

According to those who remember the times, the county in 1991 was in a serious financial bind, without sufficient funds to cover the wages of county employees. In an ironic parallel to the present, layoffs were instituted as a result. The 2-cent fuel tax was passed to remedy the shortfall of revenues to the general fund to prevent even further layoffs. Over the years the amount has decreased from an initial level above $500,000 annually to an amount somewhat above $450,000 annually in recent years.