County Commission Has Tie Vote On Reinstating $100,000-Per-Year Discretionary Funds; Geter To Be Swing Vote

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The County Commission on Wednesday had a tie vote on whether to reinstate $100,000 per year for each commissioner in discretionary funds.

Under commission rules, the issue can be brought up at the next meeting when all nine members may be present. Katherlyn Geter was absent on Wednesday due to illness.

Commissioner Tim Boyd made the surprise announcement that he wanted to reinstate the discretionary money effective next July 1 at the start of the next fiscal year.

Commissioner Warren Mackey made an immediate second, but said he would like the funds to become available now.

When a vote was taken with a start date of next July 1, Commissioners Boyd and Mackey were joined by Commissioners Chester Bankston and David Sharpe in favor - even though County Mayor Jim Coppinger urged the commission not to do it.

Voting against were Commissioners Greg Martin, Randy Fairbanks, Chip Baker and Sabrena Smedley.

County Mayor Coppinger in 2015 vetoed a budget that included the total $900,000 in discretionary funds. The commission then overrode the veto.

However, in a later year the discretionary funds were left out of the budget when the county mayor said no funds were available.

Commissioner Boyd said the county "spends a million dollars a month on 501(c)(3) agencies - mainly the Visitors Bureau - without getting a line item budget on how the money is spent. He said every dollar of discretionary money is made public because the commissioners vote on each item.

He said, "We know better than anybody else what the people need. It does great work. It's needed, people. I can defend every dollar we spent."

Commissioner Boyd said, "We are going to get a lot of heat and talk about 'the Sneaky 6" but I'm not worried about that."

Noting that the conversation started out about the commissioners' expense accoun, he said, "It is a disgrace that we spend more time talking about this than we did about passing a tax increase. That's just shameful."

Chairman Smedley said it was true that the previous discretionary funds paid for life-saving defibrillators that were absent from some schools and allowed the replacement of Porta Potties at East Hamilton School. However, she said it had been ruled that the funds could not be used for school items.

Commissioner Martin said needs like defibrillators and toilets should be discussed "together as a corporate body" at budget time. 

Commissioner Baker recommended handling the spending needs during the budget process as well.

Commissioner Mackey said, "I totally, totally agree with Commissioner Boyd about the need for that money. I think we need to do it right now."

He said, "If you saw the girls at a soccer game come off the field and hand their jerseys to the guys, you wouldn't wait."   

Commissioner Sharpe said he agreed that the funds could be used in solving multiple community needs. 

Commissioner Fairbanks advised putting the needs identified by commissioners in the annual budget. He said the last time the commission approved discretionary funds "the next day in the paper they had a drawing of a pig with six little pigs sucking on her. My name was on one of those little pigs."

Finance Director Al Kiser said, as far as using funds for schools from a bond issue, almost all of the money from a recent bond issue "has been allotted out." He said the county no longer has a line of credit to call on for specific projects.

Mr. Kiser said if the commission wanted to go ahead now with the $100,000 each, it would be necessary to cut back on another project to stay within the budget. He said, "We don't amend a large budget item."

He said, "It would be a big chunk of money to come out of the fund balance. It's not a good practice. But Commissioner Mackey said the money would not be missed from a $95 million fund balance.

The finance director and county mayor also said going back to discretionary funds could get the county into trouble with bond rating agencies. County Mayor Coppinger said, "Just having this conversation we may get a letter with questions to answer."

The county mayor disagreed that money going to the Visitors Bureau and similar agencies is not monitored. He said, "That money is accounted for."

He urged the commissioners to begin now compiling a list of citizen needs that can be discussed at budget time.

County Mayor Coppinger said, "If this was a good idea, they would be doing it down the street. Each of the council would have $100,000."

He said it could lead to the need "for more revenue."

The commission approved some changes to the policy for commissioner expenses. The maximum per commissioner in expenses remains at $12,500 per year. Funds can now be used to pay for offices out in the district up to the spending limit. Phone costs will be from the commission budget, not from each commissioner's allotment. Up to $100 per month can be spent by commissioners for phones and $125 by the chairman.

Commissioner Martin made a motion not to allow unused expense money to roll over to the following year, but it failed. Commissioners are allowed to use excess commissioner expense funds for community needs.

Commissioner Mackey said the office formerly covered his expenses for travel as the commission representative to state and national meetings. He said for about the past three years that cost has been assessed against his expense item. He said that cost his expense budget about $600. It was agreed that amount will be allotted back to his account.

Commissioner Mackey said at one of the state meetings he told commissioners from Memphis about the discretionary practice. He said commissioners there now get $150,000 each.

County Mayor Coppinger said when that happened he got a call from the Memphis mayor asking what that was all about.

Both Commissioners Boyd and Mackey represent the county at the state and national sessions with Commissioner Mackey now serving as an ex officio member..

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