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NEWPORT—Work on the 2019-2020 Cocke County Budget is expected to kick into full force in the next few weeks, with goals for approval of the fiscal document by June 30.

Members of the Cocke County Finance Committee received the first draft of the budget at its monthly meeting on Monday and several commissioners had eyes on getting started as soon as they could, in order to avoid the usual meandering of the budget process into the dog days of summer, near the state’s Aug. 31 deadline.

Finance Director Heather McGaha told the committee if they started early on the process, they may not have to meet two to three nights a week, as it has done in years past when the state deadline looms.

McGaha told the commissioners present that with the first draft, which does not include figures from the Cocke County School System, that the budget has an “OK” fund balance of around $657,000. McGaha said that the fund balance has been lower in years past, but the figure is still concerting to County Technical Advisory Service.

McGaha also told the commission that most departmental requests are similar to last year and the budget draft does not contain any salary raises.

Veteran 2nd District Commissioner Clay Blazer, who has been no stranger to the budget process over they years, said if commissioners study the budget, it is usually pretty evident on what needs to be done early in the process.

“One thing I’ll say and it’s just my opinion, but after a week or two weeks of looking (at the budget), I know what needs to be done and so does everyone else,” Blazer said. “It’s just a matter if we it then or wait until August 31.

“We are usually ‘hem-hawing’ around for a nickel here or there, and we know if there’s a major shortfall, we know what a penny is worth. There’s just major things you’re looking for.”

Blazer said that in the 2017 budget process, the commissioners were looking at a $1.5 million deficit just to make ends meet, but sometimes during those discussions, some were trying to nickel and dime their way out of the deficit.

“You can find ways to cut $55,000 to $100,000,” Blazer said. “But you can’t nickel and dime $1.5 million.”

7th District Commissioner Gary Carver suggested making a priority list after viewing the first draft, discussing on which department heads to request to appear before the committee.

Commissioners have scheduled budget meetings on April 22 and April 30 and will continue to look at the fiscal year ahead during those sessions. Meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

PAY RAISE FOR COMMISSIONERS?: Finance chairman Forrest Clevenger, who serves in the 6th district, proposed an increase in stipend for all commissioners.

Citing that the members of the county commission make $200 month, same as those on the school board and highway commission, but attend more meetings, Clevenger proposed increasing stipends based on incentive on showing up to meetings.

Commissioners batted around an incentive-based payment based on showing up to required meetings of the full commission and committee meetings. The figure commonly brought up was $50 per meeting, on top of the current $200 stipend.

“I would agree,” Blazer said. “I think the current salary for all boards — not just this one — date’s back to the 1990s. There was a brief period six years ago when Commissioner (Michael) McCarter passed a resolution tying county commissioners pay to the population.”

Blazer said that was in effect for around 16 months, but was cut out the next budget cycle.

Carver suggested researching other communities policy, while County Mayor Crystal Ottinger cautioned commissioners that with redistricting looming in the next year, the amount of meetings could grow.

5th District Commissioner Dan ‘Pete’ Bright motioned to move forward with research on the idea.

PUNCHING THE TIME CLOCK: Clevenger also presented information, he said Commissioner Gayla Blazer brought forth, and that he has discussed with Mayor Ottinger as well, about a new time clock accountability system.

“We have a lot of employees fill out a time sheet and turn it in,” Clevenger said. “That’s not a good way to do business. There’s no accountability on the time clock.”

Clevenger said that wages are the majority of county expenses and that placing accountability systems would help shave some costs.

“The Mayor has been looking into it on her own,” Clevenger said. “We lose a lot of money this way. We lose a lot of productivity. It’s something we need to address.”

EMA GRANT: Cocke County Emergency Management Assistant Director Julie Brooks presented information on a HAZMAT grant through Tennessee Department of Transportation.

“We were awarded approval of a grant, which involves CRT Safety out of Chattanooga,” Brooks said. “They’re going to work with, plan, look over our capabilities and needs and design a tabletop, mock exercise with real events we might have in the county.”

Brooks said that there will be no cash in kind match required and the Cocke County Fire Department is on board with participating in the exercise.

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