NEWPORT—Members of the Cocke County Finance Committee were back at work discussing the 2019-20 fiscal budget on Tuesday night.

It was another near two-hour session on consecutive nights for the committee, as it will attempt to get a budget passed by June 30. The state comptroller’s office requires the fiscal document to be passed by Aug. 31, despite the financial year beginning on July 1.

Commissioners present spent the last half of Tuesday’s meeting viewing each departmental budget one-by-one with little fanfare or questions.

The bulk of budgetary discussions surrounded pay for county commissioners, as well as employee status of being eligible for hourly or salary pay.

3rd District Commissioner Terry Dawson brought up the idea of pay for the commissioners for attending meetings. He said he was looking for an incentive for better attendance at some of the monthly meetings.

“I’m just wanting to encourage commissioners to come. I don’t want to be hateful and mean. I just want people to come,” he said.

2nd District Commissioner Gayla Blazer argued that if commissioners do not attend, then they should be voted out of office and that finances should not be an incentive.

“It’s poor you have to do something like that (to encourage attendance),” Blazer said.

“I agree 100 percent,” Dawson said.

Dawson argued to pay commissioners a flat fee, then add $50 per meeting they attended. However finance director Heather McGaha said it would be easier to set a base salary and then make deductions for missed meetings.

4th District Commissioner Shalee McClure-Benson argued that with a lot of meetings, especially during budget season, that $50 per meeting could be costly.

Dawson motioned to set a base pay of $450 per month for a commissioner and then have a $50 deduction per missed meeting. Barry Ford seconded the motion.

The motion was passed by a 6-1 vote to send to the full commission for its approval. Benson cast the lone dissenting vote.

“I do this because I care about my community,” Benson said. “My daddy did this for 36 years. I’ve lived and breathed it. I do it because I have that passion.”

Chairman Forest Clevenger noted though that some commissioners are sacrificing to attend meetings. He says when he attends meetings he has to pay an employee at his pawn shop for at least one hour until the end of the business day.

Commissioners also discussed the viability for electronic and biometric time clock systems to help cut down on payroll errors and fraud. McGaha presented a quote from an electronic time clock system, which would cost around $4,700; however some commissioners pushed for biometric systems to eliminate some fraud.

No action was taken.

Also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners debated the need for employees to be classified properly as hourly and salaried in regards to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Clevenger argued that following such standards would cut down on overtime wages and save the county government plenty of dollars.

McGaha said that the FLSA rules are stringent and written to be employee friendly and that county attorney Brittany Vick was looking into the issue. She said that if employees are improperly classified is could lead to Department of Labor issues and potential lawsuits.

“We need a policy,” Clevenger said. “It’s been going on for a long time. I’ve read (the FLSA) numerous times. I know who qualified and who doesn’t. Brittany researched it.

“It goes back to the stuff we’ve done and discussed and it falls by the wayside and nothing gets done. I’m sick and tired of no follow thru with this committee.”

Clevenger said he would call County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) on Wednesday.

HOTEL-MOTEL TAX INCREASING?: Committee members also voted unanimously to pass along a proposed increase in the county’s hotel-motel tax to the full CLB in its meeting on June 17.

After a lengthy discussion, the unanimous vote was to raise the hotel-motel tax to seven percent for the county’s portion fo the revenue.

Clevenger said the county received $300,000 with its portion of the tax at 3 percent.

“This is money that wouldn’t affect people in our county paying,” Blazer said.

Commissioners also discussed where these funds would go, as it currently goes into the general fund. However many lamented the lack of marketing for tourism and the county in general. Clevenger also noted the lack of marketing and infrastructure done to improve the rafting area in Hartford.

UPCOMING MEETINGS: The finance committee set its next meeting for Tuesday, June 18 at 6 p.m. in chancery court.

The full county commission meets the previous night.

Called meetings for the full commission have already been set for Monday, June 24 and Thursday, June 27 for the possibility of passing a budget. Both meetings would begin at 6 p.m.

Finance committee members must send at least one budget proposal as a recommendation for the full body to pass at those called meetings.

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