published Monday, September 9th, 2013

Sequatchie County's finances stable for now

Sequatchie County proposed budget
Sequatchie County proposed budget

Despite the defeat in August of a wheel tax referendum and two consecutive losing efforts to increase the sales tax rate in 2012, Sequatchie County is in stable financial shape as the budget season closes in on fall, officials said.

"We've set the budget -- no tax increase -- and, of course, the wheel tax failed miserably, 75 percent to 25 percent," Sequatchie County Executive Keith Cartwright said of the two sides of the county's financial coin.

The county's total budget for 2013-14, including all grants and flow-through funds, stands at $39 million.

That was no surprise to county officials, he said. Wheel tax supporters felt the levy would lighten the burden of anticipated increased health care costs on property owners, but voters said, "No," he said.

Since some of the implementation dates involving the Affordable Health Care Act have changed, the urgency to increase revenues to cover county employees is diminished for the time being, he said.

Meanwhile, the money picture has improved.

Sales tax revenue and revenues from the long-troubled ambulance service have increased, he said. The sales tax revenue increase resulted from a reduction in the percentage -- from 72 percent to 50 percent -- the county school system had been getting to fund its bond service.

"We've increased our fund balance from about $250,000 to about $550,000 just in the spending budget and restructuring the way we do business," Cartwright said.

Because the fund balance had dipped so far, the county has borrowed operating money from the school system in recent years through a tax anticipation note that carries no interest, he said. The county pays the schools back in December.

Employee vacation time pay-back plan benefits were discontinued at the sheriff's office and ambulance department to "tighten our belt," he said.

Cartwright said coffers will benefit from a new Wendy's restaurant, and a new Dollar Tree and some smaller businesses have opened recently, adding to business activity in town.

District 8 County Commissioner David Martin said officials worked on the details to get finances stabilized.

"The stomach knots have gone away since we got the tax rate settled and we were able to hold it at $2.1386," Martin said. "That took the pressure off. We had a rough six or eight weeks of budget committee meetings, and we made some necessary cuts and readjustments that really worked out well, we think."

Martin said a new tire disposal program in the county's recycling program will generate some revenue through business disposal fees and give homeowners a free place to bring in up to eight tires a year.

While county officials hope the health care act "goes away," they have to plan for it, Martin said.

In spite of recent financial troubles, "it's looking up," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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