Loudon County officials are concerned the upcoming budget cycle will bring a new set of challenges.
A priority in 2021 will be getting the historic Loudon County Courthouse project moving forward following a April 2019 fire that gutted the structure.
“We’ve got to decide what the inside is going to look like if we go back and use it, which is probably what’s going to happen,” Henry Cullen, commission chairman, said. “We’ve got to configure that so that Steve Harrelson (circuit court clerk) and Lisa Niles (clerk and master) can work in it.”
Restoring the building to pre-fire condition is covered by insurance, but commissioners more recently questioned if some interior changes could be made. Commission was scheduled to meet with an insurance representative Dec. 29, but the meeting was canceled.
Cullen said Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, county mayor, could soon set up a meeting via Zoom with an insurance representative.
Gary Whitfield, county commissioner, said the courthouse is the county’s No. 1 project.
“I hope that we can make the courthouse beneficial for the employees of the courthouse and still maintain its historic proxy that it currently has,” Whitfield said. “A big concern of mine is that we make room and we have adequate facility for our historic records. To me it was an embarrassment to this county when I walked into that courthouse after the fire and a lot of our historic records were laying in the basement soaking in water. We have got to do a better job, so if we’re going to make some changes to the courthouse, in order for me to support those changes, historic record storage must be a part of that.
“I think we can do some do other things in the county for general storage,” he added. “There’s been some talks of maybe some storage units behind the county building for general storage that we’re required by the state to keep. I think those items could probably go into some storage units, but for historic records — for me — they’re going to have to be stored properly and by an historian that can give us the advice on how to properly store those records.”
Bradshaw doesn’t want to see the project negatively impacted if the county moves forward with changes inside.
“What we don’t want to do is interrupt our progress with the courthouse and end up having to spend more than we might have to,” he said. “Right now back to normal is 100% covered, and we do need to tweak it some, but what’s the most economical option when we do it. That will weigh heavy.”
There were talks of a new annex, but Cullen doesn’t think that will be a focus for a while.
“Personally, moving a couple walls and making a few changes I don’t think are going to be earth-shattering as far as cost is concerned,” Cullen said. “Moving it back might even save the insurance company a few bucks. ... As soon as it gets set up we’ll sit down and chat and do what we have to. But you can’t just say, ‘Put the building back the way it was,’ because we now have deficiencies, we’re going to have to have distancing and all the other things that COVID brought us that we didn’t need, but we’re going to have to do that and there’s just no funds or not heart to take on some debt to do a new annex. I think that’s going to be put off into the future.”
For months commissioners have discussed a proposed contract amendment between Loudon County Solid Waste Commission and Matlock Bend Landfill operator Santek Waste Services.
Whitfield would like to see the issue settled this year.
“Solid waste has been working on a contract extension for the last five years and I think the issues dealing with Santek and solid waste commission just based on the financial impact to the county on post-closure and the other things with the solid waste commission,” Whitfield said. “At this point I just don’t think they’ve reached a good enough agreement for the residents of Loudon County. I think they’ve still got some work to do. I have full faith in the solid waste commission that they will sit down — Commissioner (Kelly Littleton) Brewster works on that committee along with Larry Jameson (solid waste board member) — I have full faith that they will sit down and get a resolution, but I think it’s time to get a resolution for this so we can put this to bed. We want to make sure it’s a resolution that benefits the citizens of Loudon County and that’s the most important thing.”
Cullen sees the landfill amendment as a secondary issue. He’s more concerned with COVID-19 and its effect on the county in 2021.
Commissioners went into the current fiscal year with a conservative mindset not knowing how COVID-19 would impact the budget.
When the county begins preparation in the spring, Whitfield believes that will remain.
“I think we have a great budget committee that will work through that process,” he said. “This year I think the budget committee did go in very conservative — and that’s their job. Then I think they realized that sales tax numbers, other revenue coming into the county was a lot better than they anticipated, so we were able to give our employees a 2% raise and, of course, our teachers a 2% raise. I think once we can sit down with Tracy Blair (county budget director) and get some good numbers in the trends that those numbers are continuing to be at, then I feel confident our budget committee will make some good decisions for our county.”
Cullen said how this year will pan out is like looking into a crystal ball.
“We’re not going to go crazy this budget cycle, we’re going to take a good hard look, because I don’t think there will be a shutdown but you’ve got (President-elect Joe) Biden coming in, you’ve got (Vice President-elect Kamala) Harris coming. He’s talking about a temporary shutdown. Those are the things that’d kill us. I’m on the opinion that’s not going to happen. You just can’t shut the economy down. We learned our lesson last year.”
For now, Cullen believes the county is in good shape.
“The governor sent us some COVID relief funds, which helped us out,” he said. “... We went into the budget cycle in June of last year with a hit, and thank God it’s recovered. Most everything came back. That was good. I think we’re going to be all right this year, but I’m looking into a crystal ball, it’s kind of hard to predict.”
Tracy Blair, county budget director, said Loudon County has received $795,809 from the Tennessee Community CARES Program for COVID-related expenses.
Matthew Tinker, county commissioner, believes the budget will be a big focus.
“We don’t know full yet how all of the impact of COVID will — how far it will reach into the next budget cycle,” Tinker said. “Some of the numbers look good but not all of the numbers are in. Some of the numbers, like our sales tax, is up and so that’s positive, that’s good. We also have a lot of new housing developments going up in Loudon County and so you’ll want to see how those impact the schools and the traffic and any other shopping centers that might be going in. I look at those kind of things as well. The courthouse is as well a huge part of what we have going on in 2021. We’d like to see that move along as quickly as possible. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s on the front burner because it’s taken such a long time to get where we are.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, as of Monday there are 613 active COVID-19 cases, 46 deaths and 4,054 recovered cases.