Which Southeast Tennessee counties fritter away residents' money most recklessly? Which area counties spend tax dollars most responsibly?
In order to answer those questions, the Free Press determined the per capita county government spending for 14 counties in Southeast Tennessee using numbers obtained from current county budgets and U.S. Census Bureau county population estimates.
After the data was compiled, one reality was clear: No Tennessee county in our area spends more money per person than Sequatchie County. The rural county of about 14,000 residents is on target to spend more than $36.2 million this fiscal year -- more than $2,500 per person. Roane County, the county with the next highest per capita county government expenditures, spent almost $500 less per resident annually than Sequatchie.
The revelation of Sequatchie County's exorbitant spending comes at the same time that leaders there are presenting residents with an ultimatum: Either vote to implement an annual wheel tax of $20 per vehicle or face a property tax increase. Astonishingly, Sequatchie County Executive Keith Cartwright and many county commissioners apparently don't believe the county spends enough money currently and needs more in the future -- an absurd claim given that Sequatchie's government spends 48 percent more per person than the average Southeast Tennessee county government.
Counties fill their coffers in a number of ways, including various county taxes and fees, state grants, school funding and road money, and even various federal handouts. They also have plenty of ways to spend the local, state and federal tax dollars they bring in, ranging from necessities like schools and public safety to discretionary expenses including grants to charitable organizations and corporate welfare giveaways.
Ultimately, however, there is relatively little difference in the quality of service provided from one county to the next. That makes the wild variations in county expenditures worth noting.
No county we examined provided services at a lower cost per capita than Coffee County, spending an average of just $1,201 per resident. It's tough to claim that Coffee County residents receive worse service from their county government than Sequatchie residents get from theirs -- even though Sequatchie County's government spends more than twice as much per person as Coffee County.
McMinn and Loudon counties joined Coffee in keeping per-resident expenditures below $1,300 a year. Bradley and Rhea counties also managed to hold their annual per capita spending to reasonable levels.
While Sequatchie County wasted more tax dollars per resident than any other county by far, a number of other counties should begin looking for ways to cut spending and trim their budgets. Roane and Grundy counties both topped the $2,000 threshold in annual spending per resident. Meigs, Hamilton and Warren Counties also ran up hefty tabs.
Bledsoe, Cannon, Monroe and Polk counties' per-capita county government spending were not included in the examination. Attempts to obtain financial information for the four counties were unsuccessful and, troublingly, the counties do not post their annual budgets online.
We commend Coffee, McMinn, Loudon and the other counties whose government officials manage to keep per-resident expenses low while providing quality service. Their responsible budgeting and conservative financial management benefits county taxpayers and will help their local economies grow.
Sequatchie County, on the other hand, has a lot of work to do. Rather than demanding additional tax dollars from residents, county leaders need to recognize that they spend far more per person delivering government services than any other county in Southeast Tennessee. Until Sequatchie County gets its spending under control, county residents should refuse to give their irresponsible officials an additional cent of their hard-earned money