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Official clarifies furniture budget

Responding to the criticism leveled her boss' way Wednesday, chief Deputy Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley sent an e-mail to the County Commission on Thursday clearing up a few things about the controversial furniture budget.

One: The $400,000 in question isn't just for Property Appraiser Ron Schultz.

It includes about $187,000 for property appraiser's furniture and about $144,500 for tax collector's furniture when both operations move next year into the Stovall Building, a new office building that will be built just north of the courthouse.

The two offices bundled their furniture purchases together to get the greatest bulk discount, she said. The balance of the fund, about $68,500, would go toward other moving expenses, such as new communications lines.

And two: Commissioners are welcome to see any information on the property appraiser's budget, including the 180-page furniture order that has caused such heartburn during this tight budget year, Hensley said.

"I just wanted to give them an explanation," Hensley told the Times. "I didn't want there to be the impression out there that the property appraiser just wanted to spend money."

Schultz's budget for next year swelled 31 percent over this past year's, largely because of the $400,000 furniture and moving costs for the Stovall Building.

Commission Chairman Jim Fowler called the increase "offensive" at a county budget workshop Wednesday, and several commissioners blamed Schultz for taking dollars needed for lake restoration, expanding a senior center and other projects.

"We have to consider whether we want to cut programs for the elderly for these office supplies for this constitutional officer," Fowler said.

The commissioners' frustration was compounded by the fact that they have no say over the property appraiser's budget. The state Department of Revenue reviews and approves Schultz's budget, and commissioners must fund it, even if they disagree with certain expenses.

To make matters worse, no one from the property appraiser's office came to the workshop Wednesday to explain the $400,000 furniture bill, prompting commissioners to ask how the property appraiser is accountable for the taxpayer dollars he spends.

Schultz, who happens to be on vacation, has chosen not to attend the commission's budget workshops in recent years, although other constitutional officers do.

"We do not go to their budget meetings because they are not our budget authority," Hensley told the Times, adding that she has discussed the budget with the county's staff. "But we'll be glad to tell the public how we're spending the money."

Schultz put the furniture money in his budget _ not a county fund controlled by commissioners _ to make sure the dollars would be there when the Stovall Building opened, Hensley said.

"Without having the certainty of being able to purchase the furniture that would allow us to move into the building, we were left with the thought that the board could withhold those funds in order to fund OTHER projects and we would be sitting on the floor," Hensley wrote to commissioners.

The property appraiser's current furniture includes decade-old chairs that are falling apart and particle board workstations that are too big for the Stovall Building space, Hensley said.

Commissioners said nothing about Hensley's memo during Thursday's budget hearing, although the previous day's debate was not far from their minds.

Fowler and Commissioner Josh Wooten thanked Clerk of Courts Betty Strifler for keeping her budget within the 4 percent increase suggested by the county's staff.

Although Sheriff Jeff Dawsy brought a budget with a 6.48 percent increase for next year, he told commissioners the extra dollars would go toward two new positions to combat child predators.

"It's not furniture," Wooten said, nodding in approval.

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhallsptimes.com.

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