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Jennings: County not violating law
Jul 25, 2006 12:00 am
Allegations of fiscal imprudence and state law violations lobbed at Wilson County government were adamantly denied and rebutted Thursday night at the county's finance committee meeting.
"We need to clear something up," Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings told the board as the meeting commenced. "There is information going around that the budget process we are in is illegal. There is nothing illegal about what we are doing."
The "information" circulating the allegations stemmed from a letter written by Mt. Juliet Mayor and county mayoral candidate Linda Elam to her opponent and incumbent Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman. Though the letter is addressed to Dedman, it was circulated to local media.
In the letter dated July 20, Elam accused Dedman of breaking the law by failing to have passed the county budget before the County Commission's July meeting recessed. Failure to pass a budget before July 1, the beginning of the county's fiscal year, was "fiscally imprudent."
"Each day that you as County Mayor delay submission and approval of a county budget, county government remains in violation of the law and the problem is compounded," Elam wrote in the letter.
The county recessed their July meeting, but never adjourned, officials said.
Jennings explained when the Commission meets in August the body will reopen the July meeting and technically pass the budget, even though it will take place in August. The budget has been passed as late as September without objection from the state Comptroller's Office, the state department that must approve the budget before it is official, the county attorney said.
Jennings said the state comptroller's office nor its auditors have ever questioned the way Wilson County adopts its budget.
Elam, however, said the process is detrimental to Wilson Countians. She wrote the budget delay causes students, parents and teachers to start the school year uncertain of the resources that will be allocated to education.
Jennings disagreed. He said merely voting to adopt the budget does not enact the budget.
Jennings, who acts as the Wilson County Board of Education's attorney, explained after the full Commission passes the budget, the comptroller's office must approve the financial document as well. The additional step inherently would push enactment of the budget well beyond the day teachers begin reporting to schools on July 26.
The reason to enact the budget after the fiscal year ends is to allow departments to close their books and deal with real revenue and expenditure figures rather than projections.
"You don't have to guess at the numbers," Jennings said.
He explained if the county didn't create their budget in this manner, it would likely have to revisit many budgets as new information became available.
Jennings chalked the allegations up to election year politics.
Financial Management Committee Chair Rusty Thompson said election year politics would not interfere with how the committee operated.
"This is the most unpolitical committee I can think of," Thompson said. "This election is not a factor in this meeting."
Sheriff Terry Ashe addressed the issue before presenting his department's needs assessment. He said he can recall a budget being approved as late as Oct. 1 without complaints from the state.
"I've got a budget here that I need to get approved," Ashe said. "I don't need politics getting in the middle of it."
Also in the letter, Elam accused Dedman of approving a pay increase for the teachers without funding it.
"Please come clean with teachers and admit that you only requested a $585,000 allocation for teacher pay raises," the Mt. Juliet Mayor wrote. "To adopt a 6-percent teacher pay raise will require around $2,800,000 – so you're $2,300,000 short."
Deputy Director of Wilson County Schools Mickey Hall, who handles the systems finances, said the difference was accounted for. Almost $987,000 would be taken from the county schools fund balance and the rest will be cut from other areas, he said. Those areas include transportation, instruction and utilities, Hall said.
Staff Writer Nick Fowler can be reached at 444-3952 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.