Commission decides to spend $74M

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

In three 14-4 votes, the Marshall County Commission appears to have adopted a spending plan allowing the school system to spend money from reserves, a step some leaders have warned will lead to a property tax rate hike next year.

How much money was authorized for spending from the school system's reserve account was the question pursued Tuesday in the County Courthouse Annex where County Clerk Daphne Fagan was transcribing a recording of what was said before the votes during the commission's monthly meeting Monday night.

Fagan also has a handwritten note from Commissioner Rocky Bowden which conflicts with the words he spoke to explain his motion to change Commissioner Mickey King's amendment to the proposed budget.

King sought to prevent the school system from spending $706,625 from school reserves as requested by the school board which is scheduled to spend more than $35 million of the county's total budget of about $74 million.

Tennessee's Basic Education Program (BEP) requires counties to maintain a funding effort -- technically called Maintenance of Effort, or MOE -- from year to year. If more is spent one year, that amount can't be reduced the next year. The concern arises because of the clerk's record keeping duty and other officials' responsibilities for administration of the budget.

The discrepancy is that what the commission might have voted on Monday night would allow spending of some $631,753 of school reserves.

That's the difference between spending $706,625 from reserves sought by the school system and another dollar amount, $74,872 as mentioned by Bowden.

Bowden's intent was expressed as an effort to avoid an increase in school spending to eliminate any chance of increasing the Maintenance of Effort, MOE, but that's in conflict with a transcript of the tape recording being typed Tuesday morning by Fagan.

There's a concern that different commissioners hearing the discussion may have reached different conclusions on how much would be spent from reserves. One way, the dollar amount is $74,872. The other way, it's $631,753 because that's the remainder after $74,872 is subtracted from $706,625.

School officials distributed a document to county commissioners for their Monday meeting. It repeats the contention that the plan to spend $706,625 from reserves is on "non-recurring" expenditures such as equipment purchases, as opposed to salaries or utilities.

The similarity between "non-recurring" expenditures and the Maintenance of Effort, as well as the complexity of the Basic Education program, was not fully explored during the second meeting of a commission that has 10 members brought onto the board with the Aug. 5 election.

Adding to the complexity were two amendments in a row before a final vote on the budget.

Commissioner Barry Spivey, chairman of the Budget Committee, reported the panel unanimously voted against recommending the school budget, but it was delivered to the commission anyway because state funds might be lost in October if no county budget is approved.

To get the spending plan on the table for discussion, Spivey moved for its adoption, and Commissioner Richard Hill seconded the motion. The total budget of some $74 million included the school board's requested budget of $35,507,208.

King moved to lower school spending by $706,625, an amount intended to bring the county's Maintenance of Effort in line with last year's budget.

Bowden then moved to amend King's amendment by an amount of $74,872.

He presented that as being a way to eliminate any chance of having to deal with the Maintenance of Effort when the next budget is prepared. He handed Fagan a written statement and appeared to indicate that the only amount to be spent from fund balance was $74,872.

King countered: If we continue to spend from the fund balance, we'll have to raise taxes down the line.

While later discussion indicated that the school system's request for $706,625 from reserves was blunted, but not totally denied, questions were still being debated Tuesday.

Consistently voting against the amendment by Bowden, the amendment by King as changed by Bowden's amendment, and against the budget itself were commissioners King, Don Ledford, Reynelle Peacock Smith and Seth Warf, all veterans from the commission that ended with the August election.

Voting yes were Commissioners Bowden, Dean Delk, E.W. Hill, Phil Willis, Spivey, Mike Waggoner, Anna Childress, Kevin Vanhooser, Jeff Taylor, John Christmas, Sheldon Davis, John Richard Hill, Nathan Johnson and Tom Sumners.