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Borrowing a concern for county’s chief

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By Damon Lawrence

This year voters decided a change was needed at the top of Roane County government.

The man they chose to bring that change has spent his first few months on the job trying to deliver.  

“I’m making an effort to change government,” new County Executive Ron Woody said. “I’m making an effort to change financial management in Roane County.”

Woody has already encountered resistance in his effort to bring that change.

Instead of borrowing money to purchase some school buses, Woody wanted the county to ask the school system to buy the buses with money in its operating budget or fund balance, the latter of which school officials say is $6.2 million.

The budget committee didn’t go along with Woody’s plan, and instead voted to recommend that the county borrow $160,000 to buy the school buses.

“All I asked was to ask the schools if they’d help,” Woody said. “They didn’t even want to ask the schools to help. They may be sending a stronger message they don’t want government to change.”

School officials didn’t like the idea of being asked to buy the buses. Several showed up at the meeting when the budget committee declined to approve Woody’s recommendation.

“I guess I was disappointed with the budget committee,” Woody said. “They said it’s OK if we borrow $160,000.”

Director of Schools Toni McGriff addressed the Roane County Commission about buses at last week’s meeting.

“The purchase of buses has been accomplished through the issuance of debt as far back as we can find any record,” she said.

The commission voted unanimously to borrow the $160,000.

“Traditionally, the county has supported the schools in buying their school buses,” Commissioner Randy Ellis said. “I think that’s just another way that we can support our schools here in the county is to help purchase on the school buses.”

With a $129 million budget, Woody said the county shouldn’t have to borrow $160,000.

“I think we need to get out of the practice of borrowing for the $20,000, the $100,000, $200,000,” he said. “We need to get on track of these replacement scheduled assets, buying them out of our budget, because all we’re doing is rolling our debt.”

That’s been going on for far too long, he said.

“Every year we pay debt off, every year we borrow money,” he said. “It is my position to help manage this county from a financial standpoint to get out of the practice of rolling debt.”

Changing that practice won’t be easy.

“We’re used to using our credit card so to speak,” he said. “It’s just like a household. You’re used to going and using that credit card to eat lunch or whatever, and it will continue to be harder because you have to make a concerted effort to change a bad habit. I consider some of the debt the county has as bad debt.”

Woody is a certified public accountant and former consultant with the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service.

Managing the county’s debt was something he spoke about during the campaign. That hasn’t stopped since he took office.

“I know that he’s very interested in staying out of debt as much as possible,” Commissioner Steve Kelley said.

The county put money into a capital projects fund in this year’s budget, which was adopted in October.  

Woody said having a capital projects fund is one of the first requirements to having a good debt management plan.

“The capital and the debt, they go hand in hand,” Woody said. “We need to tackle those. I think we have been somewhat lax over the years because we haven’t had a capital plan.”

Woody has made it clear there will be times when he recommends the county borrow money.

He said he just doesn’t want the county to borrow money for things such as computers, radios, patrol cars, ambulances and school buses.

Woody has taken the position that replacement of computers and radios should be out of general operations and no debt issued.

Patrol cars, ambulances and school buses should have replacement schedules and planned purchases out of operating or capital funds without debt issued.

“The little things are the $100,000 and $200,000 debts that we have been issuing,” Woody said. “We ought to do what we can to find these $100,000 and $200,000 items because in the long term, we’ve got too many of those little ones out there.”

Woody is scheduled to speak about his first 75 days in office during a Kingston Rotary Club function on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at 2 Chef’s restaurant in Kingston.