published Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Hamilton County Commissioners questions control of budgets


by Dan Whisenhunt
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

County Commissioner Fred Skillern on Monday wanted to know what’s the point of approving a budget if county officials ignore it.

Commissioners learned the soil conservation office and the sheriff’s office gave employees raises that were not budgeted. They also learned the clerk and master’s office hired an additional deputy.

Skillern asked the county attorney to give him an opinion about whether these offices could do this without county approval.

“If it’s not in the budget, do they need to get us to approve it?” Skillern said. “If not, there’s no need for us to approve a budget.”

Sheriff Jim Hammond said he gave five of his top employees merit increases which he said he is allowed to do under the law.

“Each constitutional officer has the right to give up to 3 percent twice to any employee,” Hammond said. “My reason for giving these is to make them competitive to the city command staff.”

Clerk and Master Lee Akers said he filed a lawsuit against former County Mayor Claude Ramsey so he could hire another deputy clerk to deal with an increase in the number of wills being processed in his office. The new clerk makes $36,522 a year, according to the clerk and master’s Office. The soil conservation office reported hiring an administrative assistant with experience, which required offering more money. The employee’s salary is $31,500, $3,500 more than what was budgeted.

Fee control

Part of the problem with controlling other county offices’ budgets has to do with offices that pay for some of their operations out of fees, while turning any excess fees over to the county. It’s a system of budgeting that’s the exception rather than the rule in Tennessee, according to the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service.

For example, while the county clerk pays his salaries out of fees, benefits are paid by the county general fund.

Raises given by Hamilton County Sheriff
  • “Gino” Bennett, director of support services

Previous salary: $69,355

New salary: $71,455

  • Allen Branum, Chief Deputy

Previous salary: $87,000

New salary: $89,100

  • Anne Brown, executive secretary

Pervious salary: $44,500

New salary: $47,000

  • Don Gorman, Director of Administration

Previous salary: $69,355

New salary: $71,455

  • Ron Parson, Deputy Chief

Previous salary: $69,357

New salary: $71,455

Source: Sheriff Jim Hammond

Commissioner Warren Mackey warned of a budget “creep” where salaries are increased and positions are added over time.

Warren also wanted to know what amount of control the county has over “fee offices.” Constitutional offices like the county trustee give the county the fees they collect that are in excess of what they need to operate. Trustee Bill Hullander announced Monday that he was turning in $5.7 million in excess fees to the commission that day.

“It seems like many of these departments, they’re able to collect fees and then pay what they want to pay,” Mackey told Administrator of Finance Louis Wright. Wright told him that as long as their spending fits within what the county approves for their budget, “I’m happy.”

That was confusing to some of the newer commissioners.

“They can keep their money and spend it how they please? Is that what I’m hearing?” Commissioner Joe Graham asked. “Just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, that doesn’t make it right.”

Commissioner Tim Boyd added that the way the county handles fees gives constitutional officers no incentive to operate efficiently. Commissioner Greg Beck also said the offices have no incentive to hire a more diverse staff, and minority hiring was something he and Mackey asked several questions about Monday.

According to CTAS, most counties have all of their constitutional officers put all of their fee money into one account and the county pays all salaries and expenses.

This protects the offices from fluctuations in the economy; the county clerk, for example, had to lay off five workers last year because of declining fee collections.

County Auditor Bill McGriff said there would have to be a change in state law before the county could adopt a different system.

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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