Error in budget draft leads to confusion, disappointment for tax commissioner

Error in budget draft leads to confusion, disappointment for tax commissioner

September 13th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News
Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/25/17. Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield speaks during his first State of the County address at the Walker County Civic Center on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Staff Photo by John Rawlston / Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker is photographed at a swearing-in ceremony for newly-elected public officials at the Walker County Courthouse in LaFayette, Ga.

Staff Photo by John Rawlston / Walker County Tax...

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County Tax Commissioner Carolyn Walker's budget is about $110,000 short of her request.

In the latest draft, released Thursday, Walker gets about $1.1 million for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. This is a $50,000 boost over the current year. But it's also about $110,000 less than she asked for.

Adding to the disappointment? A preliminary budget from the county released Aug. 30 showed Walker receiving the original amount she requested. At the time, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield — who has final say over the budget — told the Times Free Press he expected that draft to be close to the final version.

He worked closely with the constitutional officers for weeks to nail down realistic funding levels for them.

"Unless we find a calculation error or something that we have to tweak a little bit," Whitfield said at the time, "(there is a) strong, strong possibility that we will accept exactly what they're asking for."

What changed? Whitfield realized the preliminary budget was wrong. He said the constitutional officers had access to the master budget, and Walker had not plugged in the proper figures. She had entered the amount she was requesting. But after meetings with Whitfield's office, she did not update her part of the budget.

"They just had not gotten to it yet," Whitfield said Thursday night. " I didn't realize it."

For her part, Walker thought after the Aug. 30 meeting that she may have actually gotten the amount she originally requested. She said a member of Whitfield's office called her Wednesday to inform her that, in fact, the budget figure had not changed.

"I'd love to stay where it was," she said Thursday.

The biggest changes are in the areas of employee spending and contracted services. None of the changes themselves are particularly large. Walker simply had to make relatively small cuts, here and there.

Compared to last year, employee spending will increase about $12,000. But that's about $60,000 short of what she requested. A $25,000 boost for salaries and wages became a $15,000 boost. An $18,000 increase in contributions for 401(a) retirement benefits became a $10,000 increase instead. An extra $18,000 for health insurance became a $6,000 decrease.

Contracted services saw a similar change. Walker originally budgeted for a $58,000 boost. She got a $16,000 increase instead. Her $17,000 increase for spending on phones became a $7,000 increase, for example.

She had also budgeted $35,000 for computer hardware. That figure is now down to $30,000.

She said that particular change is significant because she was going to use the extra money to buy scanners. She needs the scanners for a new software system that tax commissioners across the state are going to have to use after next Memorial Day.

The Georgia Department of Revenue has mandated the new system because it is supposed to be better for tag and title renewals. It is still in development, Walker said. But it should allow local offices to upload more information into the system. It also will allow counties to digitally send the renewals to the state, rather than mail them.

Hence the scanners. At one point, the Department of Revenue was going to require the counties to begin scanning the renewals after Memorial Day. But they are not giving the counties more to buy the necessary equipment. Walker doesn't know when the state will require that the county purchase the scanners, though. It could come before October 2019, the next time the county creates its budget.

"I'm doing nothing extravagant," Walker said. "With all these changes from the state that we're not doing it's required. But they don't give us any funding for it. Sometimes, it's kind of frightening."

With her original budget request, Walker had also planned to provide 2 percent raises to employees.

"They're specialists," she said. "They're not just clerks. We have to study the law. I can't afford to lose employees and start over at ground zero. They've got worlds of knowledge that I don't want to lose."

The budget Whitfield presented Thursday is not complete. He needs to include more departments, which he plans to do over the next two weeks. His administration will update the budget on the county's website as he adds new departments.

Of the departments he has included in this draft of the general fund budget, the county will spend about $10.6 million — about $200,000 more than last year. The big winners thus far? The sheriff's office, with about $270,000 more. And the clerk of superior court, with about $63,000 more.

Whitfield plans to adopt a final budget at his Sept. 27 meeting. State law requires counties to publish a final budget seven days before officially adopting it. That means the county's budget needs to be done by Thursday.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.