Budget snafu acknowledged but good will might repair it

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One might call it the glitch that nobody saw coming, despite the looming deadline, the money at stake, and a rush to finish.

Marshall County's legal notice published here on Friday announces that its "proposed budget will be reviewed in public discussion ... on Sept. 10...," or 15 days before Sept. 25.

One day earlier, Thursday, Sept. 24, the county's budget committee voted to recommend the school system's $34.13 million budget for adoption on Oct. 6 by the 18-member county commission.

Everybody present at the Thursday morning budget meeting knew that the commissioners were going to meet four days later on Monday this week. They also knew that the annual budget couldn't be adopted then. It's because the state requires at least a 10-day notice to the public. That way, taxpayers and other residents could be informed, decide to attend and comment at the meeting when the budget is up for adoption.

Several of the people at that Thursday morning budget meeting knew that the deadline for placement of an advertisement in the Friday edition of the Marshall Tribune had passed. It was at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, or about 16 hours earlier.

If the legal notice was published in the Wednesday edition of the newspaper of public record in Marshall County, today's edition, then the 10-day notice requirement would mean the earliest the commission could vote on the budget would be Monday, Oct. 12, Columbus Day.

Mid-October is when Marshall County normally receives money from the Tennessee Department of Education through the Better Education Program. It's the source of state money used to pay a significant part of the salaries received by teachers.

Realizing the deadline to place a paid legal notice in the newspaper passed, several officials asked if an exception could be made. The reporter attending the meeting, the Tribune's senior staff writer, Clint Confehr, made a wireless phone call to Tribune general manager Jim Ward. The general manager was told of the request and he asked how much space was needed.

With the space issue resolved, content was addressed. The only change needed (when re-running an announcement for the rest of the budget and a public hearing on that spending plan) was the insertion of the new numbers from the school system, according to several officials present at the budget meeting.

As a result, the date for the commissioners' meeting and public hearing on the schools' budget was left unchanged. The next morning, Marshall County Accounts and Budgets Director Freda Terry was asked what effect the incorrect date would have on adoption of the budget on Oct. 6 and receipt of state money for teachers' salaries.

Terry called the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, CTAS, for an answer.

"Worst case scenario," Terry reported later, "is if a private citizen challenges it... It is the second time we advertised it."

She explained, "CTAS says, 'You did it in good faith. It was a human error.'"

A news story will cure the situation because "the public will have been given adequate notice," Terry said.

She told the reporter asking about the situation, "You all held the paper up for us."

A digital image of the previous ad about the Sept. 10 public hearing and the county's vote on the county budget's general fund (a revenue and spending plan for virtually all parts of the budget except schools and enterprise funds such as the solid waste fund and the federally-funded school lunch program) was used by the newspaper to create the image for the ad that ran on Friday.

It was created with information sent by e-mail from the county to the newspaper on Thursday. That spread sheet was adjusted by the county budget office for the revised announcement to be published Friday. The document had three tabs for three pages, the last of which was blank. The first was for the header with the date. The second was for the dollar amounts, including three columns of numbers: One is for actual numbers from fiscal year 2007-08; The second is for "estimated" closing figures for the fiscal year 2008-09 which ended June 30; and the third column is for the new budget and it's also headed "estimated."

The newspaper's general manager was advised by the county to focus on page two of the spread-sheet to find the new numbers for the schools' spending plan. They were found, inserted into the image of the original ad.

Terry said that she "just assumed" that since the spreadsheet had two pages, then the previous page would be opened.

"There was a little touch of mass confusion," Terry said of the chain of events.

While Terry was explaining her view of the events, Commissioner Billy Spivey, who'd just been elected by commissioners to be their new chairman, called Terry's cell phone.

"They think that we should be OK," Terry advised Spivey, "that both, us and the paper, did what we needed to do..."

Asked for an opportunity to speak with Spivey on her cell phone, Terry obliged, after completing her conversation with the commission chairman.

"To me," he said, it's insignificant because we're not short-circuiting or inhibiting the taxpayers ability to know and know when to comment."

Another announcement seemed unnecessary, he said.

Spivey, however, became a notable member of the commission by calling for strict adherence to procedures, so he was asked about the ironic set of circumstances, since, under a different set of circumstances several months ago, he had taken the time to drive to a bookstore in Cool Springs to buy a copy of the most recent edition of Roberts Rules of Order - a purchase made within 15 minutes of the store's closing time.

"I don't think this is anything that doesn't meet that standard," he said. "My concern is when we do something that's violating state law."

The error was trying to accomplish something "at the 11th hour," he said.

Furthermore, nobody wanted to jeopardize receipt of state money for schools, Spivey said.

The Marshall County Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the school system's revenue and spending plan at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 6, in the second floor conference room o the County Courthouse Annex in the southeast corner of Lewisburg's public square. The commission is scheduled to vote for adoption of the budget at 6 that night.