By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
After declining to take action during their regular Tuesday council meeting two weeks ago, Grayson city council met the following Saturday for a work session to discuss budget items. Though they failed to reach a consensus during that meeting – ending the meeting still nearly $400,000 in the red before the $5 per hour pay increase Mayor George Steele wants to grant all police officers – council did leave with a greater understanding of the funding crisis facing them. That included where cuts might need to be made and what role an increased occupational tax could play in helping narrow the funding gap.
Projects funded with ARPA money were removed from the proposed general budget, laid out in their own balanced budget document detailing how the $881,876.46 in funding would be used; including for the Windstream broadband funding ($175,000), building and security upgrades ($125,000), police capital projects ($110,000), street resurfacing ($250,000) and equipment ($50,000), and fire capital projects ($110,000).
Departments also discussed their cuts as well, with the mayor proposing cuts to line items related to landscaping and general maintenance, supplies, community events, legal fees, refunds, new office equipment, office equipment maintenance, and other miscellaneous expenses.
The police department proposed cuts to line items related to alcohol overtime, with plans to move those alcohol funds to other use. That includes cuts to FICA and retirement related to that overtime, but these funds would be made up in officer salaries through other expenditures, including the mayor’s proposed pay increase.
The street department noted they’d already completely cut their planned resurfacing costs by moving those to the ARPA funding.
The fire department noted that, among their other cuts, they’d cut $12,400 to line items related to salaries for the chief and day crew, and rescinded a planned $1 per hour pay raise for the part-time paid fire crew.
Emergency management had no significant budget to cut, and neither did parks and recreation – which has its own funding source.
Alcoholic beverage control, however, moved to retain their advertising budget at the behest of the mayor, moving instead to completely cut their $40,000 in budgeted funding for a new vehicle and $7,000 from their budgeted $10,000 for equipment, repairs, and maintenance. (The Carter County Times is a recipient of at least part of the department’s advertising funds.)
Even with all the proposed cuts, however, the city would still be operating at a deficit if they moved forward with the mayor’s proposed pay raises for police officers – a move the mayor insists is necessary to stop the department from training officers who then leave for better paying jobs.
By councilman Troy Combs reckoning, despite making deep cuts in every department, the city would still be facing a nearly $753,000 shortfall.
While Combs said he wasn’t opposed to offering the police a raise, he said he realistically didn’t know how the city could afford it.
“I don’t know where the money can come from,” he said.
Without the proposed raise for police officers, the city would still be around $389,000 in the red after cutting a total of $409,000 from various departments, according to city clerk Duane Suttles.
Adding the police raises back in on top of that would amount for more than $221,000 in additional costs, without the chief’s raise. With another $17,000 in salary for chief Steele, Suttles said, the costs would raise to more than $239,000.
Suttles said, by his reckoning, the city would be facing a budget shortfall of $629,064.34 with the proposed cuts and the proposed increases to all police officers’ pay, including the chief’s salary.
Suttles said if council chose to raise the occupational tax by just 0.5 percent, they would raise around a half million dollars in additional funds for the city, but they wouldn’t collect any of that money until January, and the tax increase couldn’t become effective until “around Thanksgiving” after completing all the required public hearings.
Councilman Willis Johnson said that “before we go jumping off the bridge,” he would still like to explore other avenues, like enforcing the existing taxes and penalties on folks who aren’t currently paying, to see how much more the city could raise.
But Suttles said even if the city’s ordinances had the necessary “teeth” to draw back unpaid taxes, it wouldn’t raise enough funds to meet all the city’s needs.
When one onlooker suggested passing a full one percent tax increase and giving every department a raise, however, Steele said he wouldn’t support a pay increase for everyone.
“I’m not supporting an across the board raise,” the mayor said. “There is a difference between a clerk sitting here and being a police officer.”
Suttles said a full one percent occupational tax increase would double the current rate, raising an additional $1.16 million for the city.
Council took no action during the work session; however, they are expected to take up the issue again during their next regular meeting.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org