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Revenue larger focus for upcoming budget

In addition to managing an ever growing list of needs, Washington County is facing a new challenge as it heads into the annual budget season.
A budget workshop held April 28 offered a first look at the numbers for fiscal 2015-16.
“During the last four to five weeks, we have been looking carefully at the revenue sources, and we’re not comfortable budgeting the same amount,” Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “That’s concerning.”
For example, the county’s fee-based offices, which are structured to cover their operating costs with the fees they collect, are not expecting to meet their 2014-15 budgets.
The budget presented during the workshop reflects the initial requests submitted by the office holders and department heads, and shows a more than $4 million deficit in the General Fund.
Eldridge asked Budget Committee members to consider moving all of the one-time capital expenditures out of the operating budget and into a capital projects fund line that would be used to address the projects in priority order.
In addition, he has asked committee members to offer input regarding employee raises and budgeting of the fund balance, and special initiatives they may have to close the revenue gaps.
Options to address the potential deficit include decreasing expenses anywhere possible; prioritizing capital expenditures; and increasing fee revenue, which would require raising the fees in some or all of the offices.
“The general consensus among the Budget Committee is to continue controlling expenses, same as always,” Eldridge said.
“The challenge this year is the potential for declining revenue, which is a new problem.”
With the possibility of lower revenue as a consideration, a second budget will be offered during the Budget Committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday, May 13.
“Rather than being based on the requests for funds, this budget will be based on what Washington County can afford to spend with the revenue sources available today,” Eldridge said. “That way, the Budget Committee is seeing both sides.”
Commissioners will then be able to take advantage of side-by-side comparisons when considering departmental budgets. Eldridge said a hearing must be granted to any office holder or department head if commissioners decide to budget less than the original request.
Discussions with mayors during a meeting in Nashville last week indicate communities across the state are dealing with the same problem facing Washington County. “It has been coming as a lack of growth in the tax base,” Eldridge said. “We’ve been very careful in the last four years to avoid a tax increase, and we’ve given employee raises for the last four years.”
The reappraisal process conducted during 2014 led many to believe the commission raised taxes last year, but Eldridge said the county, by law, did not receive one additional dollar of revenue.
“Despite the rhetoric, Washington County has not raised taxes since 2008 when it was done to build the schools.”
As far as the request to allow Washington County to follow the same budgeting procedures as used by the state’s other 94 counties, Eldridge supported the commission’s decision during its April 27 meeting to not formally address the recent move by Rep. Micah Van Huss.
“I agree there was nothing to be gained,” he said, referring to a recommendation to send a letter to House Speaker Beth Harwell about Van Huss’ pulling the county’s request because its submission format did not meet his personal requirements.