Van Buren County in Financial Crisis
By: James Clark -- Editor for the Southern Standard
Van Buren County government is facing bankruptcy, according to the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, and drastic measures must be taken to fix the county’s budget shortfall.
“They are facing a very large hole and they can’t borrow their way out of it,” said John Dunn,
director of communications for the Comptroller’s Office. “Van Buren County has the most
crucial financial situation in the state.”
The Comptroller’s Office has recommended a tax increase between 55 cents and $1.45. The
$1.45 increase would give the county more of a cushion than the bare minimum.
Van Buren County Mayor Greg Wilson says county officials are aware of the problem and
they’ve been working closely with the Comptroller’s Office to find a solution.
“They want us to have a huge tax increase, and it might come to that, but that’s not something
we want to do,” said Wilson. “So we’re laying off people and we’re making cuts. We’ve just
submitted $500,000 in cuts, but I don’t know if that will be enough to satisfy them.”
Dunn says Van Buren County is facing a $70,000 shortfall at the end of this fiscal year which
ends June 30. But he said the shortfall is projected to reach $709,000 for the fiscal year which ends in June 2021.
Dunn says that’s a substantial shortfall for a county with an annual budget of $15 million.
Mayor Wilson says county government has laid off 10 employees and that number could
increase to 14. He said the county had workforce of about 80 before layoffs.
“The truly sad thing is this is going to affect employees and jobs,” said Wilson.
According to Wilson, the Van Buren County Commission passed a wheel tax not to exceed $30 in February 2019 that would have helped the county’s financial situation. However, residents signed a petition to force a countywide referendum and then overturned the wheel tax by a narrow margin.
“We felt like a wheel tax was the more fair way to do it,” said Wilson. “We have 6,000 people in the county and only 1,800 of them are property owners. A wheel tax would have been a better way to spread it around to everyone.”
Part of the problem can be traced back to the county’s new administrative offices and jail. The
Comptroller’s Office says the county only received $2 million in an insurance settlement when
the old administrative offices burned. The county has $8.9 million in outstanding debt for the
New employees were hired to staff the jail which created new recurring expenses, the
Comptroller’s Office says. Dunn says it will be up to Van Buren County officials to make some
hard choices and fast.
“The problem is easy to understand in some respects because they are spending more than they are taking in,” said Dunn. “The Comptroller’s Office has a lot of authority over communities and, if it’s needed, we can come in and take over a county’s finances. We’ve never done it before because it’s essentially handing over the county’s sovereignty to the state, but it’s an option.”