In February, Sequatchie County voters convincingly shot down a half-cent sales tax increase by a 3 to 2 margin. That obvious display of the will of the people didn't prevent Sequatchie County leaders from sneaking another half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The proposed tax increase amounts pilfering $500,000 a year out of the pockets of folks who buy groceries, clothes and anything else in Sequatchie County.
Despite the county commissioners' insistence that the tax increase is necessary, a closer look at the budget shows that there is no legitimate justification for a tax hike at all. In fact, it's one of the most disingenuous tax increase scams perpetrated on a county's taxpayers in recent memory.
Sequatchie County leaders want to raise taxes, not because they don't have enough revenues, but because they're too lazy to clean up the hundreds of thousands of dollars in waste that fill the budget.
The county's general fund expenditures increased by $201,330 — or 9.5 percent — in the past year, while inflation over the same time was less than 2.9 percent.
What are county leaders spending all that extra money on? Well, for starters, county commissioners are pouring $110,000 into economic development contracts and frittering $12,150 ginning up tourism — neither of the expenditures appear to offer a very good return on investment.
The county highway department's administration budget — the amount spent on things like stationery, travel, office equipment and computers — increased from $131,292 last year to $168,309 this year.
The members of the Sequatchie County Board of Education apparently love taking trips on the taxpayers' dime. This year, the board has $11,800 budgeted for travel. The budget also more than doubles the amount spent on dues and memberships to organizations to which the board members belong, from $2,471 to $5,000.
The director of schools also has some big travel plans this year. Last year, the school director's travel budget was only $160. This year's budget calls for a $9,500 travel allowance — an increase of more than 59 times over last year's budget!
The cost of the county's adult education program increased by nearly 10 percent from last year to this year as a result of a $3,169 addition to the program's travel budget and nearly tripling the amount spent on staff development.
The county school district's fiscal services division — where you'd think they'd know better — upped its office supply budget from $627 to $2,100. Even the school system's cafeteria program is slated to spend $5,000 on "communication."
The sheriff's department budget is particularly bloated. First, officers are budgeted to receive $35,000 in overtime pay. Simple adjustments in scheduling and working with the courts to make sure that deputies' time is respected when they testify in a case should take care of most of that expense. The county budget also provides $25,000 for in-service training — an increase of more than $8,500 over last year's already hefty tab. Finally, the sheriff's department travel budget has been increased from $4,936 last year to $7,500 this year.
Other examples of questionable and unnecessary expenses in the Sequatchie County budget include:
• $57,200 in handouts to the parks and fair boards, up from $45,769 last year;
• $15,000 to buy office supplies for the circuit court;
• $10,000 to cover "dues and memberships" for county commissioners;
• $4,000 to pay for in-service training provided to the Juvenile Court — an increase from $180 in 2010;
• $2,000 for the county mayor's travel;
• $2,000 budgeted for overtime pay for employees of the trustee's office; and
• $1,100 for the register of deeds travel budget — up from just $426 in 2011.
County leaders claim the tax increase, if passed, would go toward refilling the county's rainy day fund, which is $250,000 less than where they want it to be. The cost of the bloated and wasteful expenses mentioned above tops $280,000 — and that amount can be trimmed from the Sequatchie County budget without impacting the quality of service the county provides to taxpayers. Kind of makes the tax increase look unnecessary, doesn't it?
Members of the Sequatchie County Commission should be embarrassed to ask taxpayers to pay more in taxes because they're unwilling to cut the fat out of the budget.
The Free Press editorial page urges Sequatchie County voters to vote against the proposed half-cent sales tax increase and encourages county leaders to quit spending like a bunch of drunken sailors.