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Audits and taxes: town hall scrutinizes budget

By ZOË WATKINS - zwatkins@t-g.com
Posted 6/13/23

District 1 held a town hall at the old — but newly renovated — Wartrace Gym to discuss the basics of county government and the upcoming budget for the fiscal year 2023-24.

The latter …

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Audits and taxes: town hall scrutinizes budget


District 1 held a town hall at the old — but newly renovated — Wartrace Gym to discuss the basics of county government and the upcoming budget for the fiscal year 2023-24.

The latter half of the town hall discussed issues like beer sales in the county and providing tablets to inmates at the Bedford County Jail.

But at the center of the conversation were property taxes and auditing the county budget.

Commissioners Drew Hooker and Eric Maddox discussed with attendees the possibility of lowering the property tax rate by implementing a wheel tax.

Though Maddox said he was not for any new tax, Hooker explained that by lowering the property tax rate and adding a wheel tax, the burden would be spread more evenly across the county versus on property owners.

There are 55,000 vehicles in the county versus 22,000 property owners. At something like a $75 wheel tax, that would allow for a $4 million revenue stream. For reference, the property tax increase last year brought in around $4.8 million specifically for raises for county employees, according to the Bedford County General Fund.

“I’m searching for ways to lower property taxes. That is my goal. So, I’m trying to think outside the box…to see what our options are…,” said Hooker.

But, “I know Drew feels the same way…The word ‘tax’ doesn’t need to be coming out of anybody’s mouth until we do a full audit of the budget,” said Maddox.

To this, the crowd gave a few “amens” and applause.

Hooker explained, “And what we mean by audit—we do not think people are putting money in their pockets. But what we think is that, operationally, we are heavy in certain areas.” They then want to compare this data to other states and counties of similar size.

“We want to be able to go to y’all here and say, with 100 percent confidence, that we are spending every dollar. I can’t do that right now,” said Hooker.

But sending the budget through another audit would be redundant, according to county finance director Robert Daniel.

“The comptroller, they require an audit of every county in the state, and they actually do the audits,” minus the larger cities, like Nashville or Memphis. “All the schools have to be audited in addition to the county and those are normally contracted to an independent auditor.

“But the state has to approve anybody that does an audit. The comptroller will have to approve because they do a pretty complete audit.”

Daniel continued, “I think it would be spending money unwisely. And the reason I say that is because they do such a thorough audit that even when you do a contracted audit with an independent auditor, I don’t think they’re as thorough. And I used to be on that side of the coin,” said Daniel, who used to work with a CPA firm and did audits regularly.

Hooker said he was unsure of how much an audit would cost the county.

Bedford is also required to receive approval of the budget by the state. The county sends the budget within 15 days of adoption on June 29, so usually early July. If the state sees anything suspicious, they send it back for review or for change, according to Daniel.

County salary raises

In a similar vein of being operationally heavy, the town hall discussion turned to the recent salary raises of county employees.

“We do have many departments, specifically our emergency services that were underpaid, compared to area services around here…The problem was is that we did a universal increase of all county employees, that included department heads and county officials,” said Hooker.

Hooker said after doing some research, which included looking at the budget over the last four years, all department heads and elected officials got a 36% salary increase over the last two years.

“Some of that was state-mandated…Now, the raises part of it was not,” said Hooker. “Those county employees that needed that raise, their average was 8% over the last two years. So, you can see a significant difference between department heads and boots-on-the-ground.”

When asked if he saw this 36% increase for department heads, Daniel said, “No.”

“All of our employees this year in the budget, we have a 1% step increase that’s built into the pay charts. They got a 5% increase proposed for all employees, so I guess in total you’re looking at 6%. As far as elected officials, the state sets the minimum salary you have to pay elected officials and that’s based on the population,” Daniel explained.

Some of the clerks also do two jobs, which might contribute to any confusion over salaries. For example, the sheriff is over the Sheriff’s Office and the jail and workhouse. “So, he gets 10% if he’s over the workhouse in addition to his salary. Because otherwise, you would have to hire somebody to do it.”

Curt Cobb is the clerk and master; he is also over probate court and gets 10% extra. Michelle Murray is over the circuit and gets 10% extra for doing sessions. The highway superintendent gets extra for also being over solid waste.

Hooker and Maddox said they hope to have more town halls in the future. For now, the county will be voting on the proposed budget on June 29. See last Saturday’s paper for the proposed county budget or visit the Times-Gazette website, www.t-g.com.