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Early 2024 Summer Outlook For Giles County Building Projects

June 12th, 2024

This column is from the office of Giles County Executive Graham Stowe.

Hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start!

In county government the beginning of summer means budget season, so the first topic is the fiscal year 2024/2025 budget.

Last month the Budget Committee met, along with a number of other committees, to vet department budgets, so the budget is roughly 98% complete.

The draft budget, which went through the Budget Committee, will remain on the website until final approval. You can review a copy using this link to the fiscal year 24/25 budget .

Also, statute requires that we hold a public hearing to address budget questions on Tuesday, June 25 at 9 a.m. in the Annex basement boardroom.

The commission is scheduled to meet June 27 at 5 p.m at the courthouse for final review and approval of next year's budget.

And while our budget is not yet official, it's not too early to thank the the Finance Department, our department heads and commissioners for scrutinizing our needs and crunching through the spreadsheets. 

One thing I need to highlight in the budget is a 5% raise for county employees.  I’ll dwell on that for a moment because pay raises for government employees are often controversial. First I’ll point out something that not many people know - elected officials get automatic pay raises every year, and those raises are established - mandated - by the state. 

This year’s pay raise for elected officials is 5%, the maximum allowable, which is based on the consumer price index and other state economic data.  

Well, an annual, mandated pay raise is well and good for elected officials, but it does nothing for the rest of the county workforce who have fallen further and further behind the inflation curve.

Inflation is a challenge we all face, however, as elected officials have been getting their state-mandated pay raises over the last several years, county employees have lagged several percentage points behind, a compounding problem. 

The obvious consequence -  we're seeing a widening salary gap between elected officials and county employees.

This year department heads and I made it a goal to equalize employees raises with elected officials, and we built our budgets around that as an entering argument.

The Finance Department and the department heads were diligent in working their respective budgets to make sure pay raises could be absorbed without compromising county services, and without any need to increase revenues (i.e. taxes).

Another budget issue we've tried to address is long-term financial planning. 

That started with our fund balance policy, establishment of a capital projects fund and similar initiatives; the goal has been to ensure our annual budgets deal exclusively with recurring operational expenses.

Non-recurring expenses are a separate issue altogether, and the department heads and I have worked for the last year to develop a process for prioritizing and addressing long-term needs.

So another new practice that we started this year is the prioritization of what I've called our AC&I projects- the Acquisitions, Construction and Improvement projects that exceed $50,000. 

I asked department heads to complete a Needs Assessment to document their long-term projects, whether a new position or a new acquisition, and those departmental requests were recently evaluated and prioritized by our Financial Management Committee, which will next be assessed by the Commission’s Budget Committee.

Again, the goal is to extract the nonrecurring AC&I projects, make sure they're appropriately prioritized, and based on that prioritization determine if we're going to fund that project this year, or next year, or kick it out to future years.

As I've mentioned, this isn't much different than how we manage our household budgets; there are always more pressing needs than dollars, so we all prioritize our spending.

In the past, these major acquisitions tended to blindside the Commission, especially as they parachuted into the middle of a fiscal year with no notice.

We were not appropriately prioritizing these expenditures, and we weren’t looking two or four or 10 years ahead.  We're making strides to correct that.

Next, I need to mention a couple of great community milestones.  

On May 29, there was a small gathering at Bridgeforth Middle School but instead of calling this a groundbreaking ceremony it was a “glass-breaking” ceremony.

In the next few weeks all the original windows are coming out and being replaced with modern, insulated windows.

I also took a quick tour of the work-in-progress at Bridgeforth, and although we were less than a week from when students had been released, the construction crews had obviously been busy.

The ancient boiler has been cut out and removed, and work is underway to replace all the old mechanical systems.

This project has been a long time coming, and it was great to see Bridgeforth and School Board leadership out to celebrate this milestone.

It's easy, often too easy, to keep one's nose to the grindstone without taking time to recognize successes.

So a hat-tip to our school leaders for celebrating a long awaited renovation that's finally gaining traction.

Also last week, I was privileged to attend a groundbreaking ceremony at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology - Pulaski.

TCAT Pulaski President Mike Whitehead and his team had a great celebration as they’re transitioning from design to construction of a huge expansion of their facility.

What was initially going to be a $3 million facelift morphed into an extensive $30 million expansion, where new programs will be established to train our future workforce and provide even greater opportunities for our young people.

I mention these celebrations because they're important milestones on Giles County’s pathway to progress.

I'm pleased some good things are happening in Giles County government, but in parallel, fantastic things are happening at UT Southern, TCAT Pulaski, along with our industrial mainstays who provide jobs and workforce opportunities, along with multiple initiatives that are always ongoing with our civic clubs.

It’s a good time to take stock of the positive trends - Giles County is prospering.

Next is a brief overview of an initiative going on several months with the county Regional Planning Commission, which is a revision of our Subdivision Standards.

This may require some background, as many may not understand the role of the Regional Planning Commission.

In some counties, the Regional Planning Commission is involved in zoning issues.

Giles County has no zoning, and Giles County has repeatedly made it clear that we have no interest in zoning, but the County does oversee subdivision development. 

Counties regulate subdivisions for a very simple reason: before we can adopt a subdivision’s internal roads into the county road system we have to ensure they are designed and constructed with fundamental engineering practices. This is basic good stewardship and in the best interest of the taxpayer.

Another responsibility of the Regional Planning Commission is to ensure that developers are complying with the array of state-required permitting processes.

So the Planning Commission reviews proposed plats, ensures plats are stamped by a state-licensed engineer, and ensures surveys are completed by a state-licensed surveyor.

This oversight guarantees property divisions can be appropriately recorded by the Register of Deeds.

We've had Subdivision Standards for years, which have decently served our purposes. However, over the last year and a half, Planning Commission Chair (Connie Howell) and I have received calls from real estate agents and developers with good questions about our subdivision standards; those questions revolved around the vagueness of our standards - the ambiguities, the lack of specificity.

Further, when I looked at subdivision standards of other counties they included checklists, making it very easy for property owners and developers to understand their responsibilities. In revising standards, I conferred with real estate agents and developers to ensure this was going to be a positive change; a number of their recommendations helped tremendously.

At this point the Subdivision Standards have gone through a Public Hearing and the Planning Commission passed them unanimously, so the final step is to have the Commission give its final approval. 

This will be on their June 27 agenda, so hopefully after that meeting we’ll have much-improved standards that protect everyone’s interests - developer, property owner, and county.

Just a couple of wrap-up points: last Friday we had a design kickoff meeting for the new ambulance building; I'm pleased to report that we've transitioned from site assessment into the design of our ambulance facility.

Next, we have a pre-construction meeting. What's a pre-construction meeting?

We're gathering commissioners with our architect and recently-selected construction project manager to discuss the action plan over the next three to four months, as we - hopefully rapidly - move towards the first phase of renovating our courthouse. 

A few people have asked about getting the newsletter.

If anyone has this report forwarded, please subscribe so it comes straight to your inbox; click here and scroll to the bottom of the home page.  

Thanks for reading. Blessings on your summer!

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