Before James Hutcheson was chairman of the Marshall County Commission, he was a businessman.
He worked at Monsanto as a supervisor until the plant closed in 1980 and then founded Valley Industrial Services, which operated the Monsanto plant site until the company was sold in 1995. He co-founded Sand Mountain Fibers in Guntersville, and his partnership group built a textile plant in Cairo, Egypt, before selling the company. In 1995, Hutcheson co-founded Seven Score, and his partnership group bought the former Monsanto plant site. They leased the plant’s water facilities to Northeast Rural Water System.
Crunching numbers and being “tight with money” is how he built his businesses, and its what helped Marshall County build its general fund to nearly $11 million over a 9-year span – all while revenue has decreased. Hutcheson said Marshall County only put back $3 million in the 180 years before his term. He said the general fund balance needed to continue growing to avoid a situation similar to 2011 when tornadoes tore through the county.
“We had $3 million in our general fund,” Hutcheson said. “To rebuild our county after the storms cost us $6 million. Being inexperienced with how the government works, I thought I could just go take out a loan to pay for it, but I couldn’t… I didn’t know what we were going to do… I don’t want us to ever be in that kind of shape again.”
In recent weeks, the commission introduced an idea that would fund the Marshall County School System 14 school resource officers (SROs): a tag fee. Like most suggested increases, the proposed fee has not been well received, but Hutcheson said there aren’t many other options.
“If there was another way – a better way to do it, I’d do it,” he said. “Since 2012, we’ve had eight part-time SRO positions budgeted for our eight campuses, but we can’t fill them. We can’t compete with these bigger cities. We raised the pay up to $16 per hour a few years ago, but no they’re saying, ‘We can’t hire anyone part-time now.’ They want full-time.”
The commission could implement a fee up to $25, but its current proposal calls for a fee up to $20 per vehicle tag. At its latest meeting, the commission approved exemptions to exclude anyone age 65 or older and anyone under 100% Social Security disability.
The fee applies to all passenger vehicle tags, GBA tags and specialty tags. That leaves 52,000 tags to be charged an additional fee. At $20 apiece, the revenue is projected to be $1,040,000, and no one else has to contribute to the funding. At $15 apiece, the revenue is projected to be $780,000, but the commission would have to depend on the Marshall County Legislative Office to give $30,000 each year to meet the required amount of funds. At $12 apiece, the revenue is projected to be $624,000, but the Legislative Office would have to contributed $30,000, the commission would have to pay $75,000 and the school system would have to pay $75,000 to meet the required amount. According to Hutcheson, the school system doesn’t want to pay anything.
Hutcheson said the commission, with Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims’ recommendation, decided $1 million was needed to “properly” fund 14 SROs in the first year. This includes up to $22,000 per vehicle, but Hutcheson said it could be done at a much cheaper price. After initial training and equipment fees are paid, the second year would only require about $662,000, which leaves a sizable surplus depending on the fee amount. Hutcheson said the surplus would only go toward school safety needs, but it’s the commission’s intention to keep the surplus as low as possible. This means if the fee were to start at $20 per tag, the fee could be brought down the next year to avoid having approximately $377,986 in surplus (if a $20 fee is instituted).
The commission has contemplated a tag fee before. Hutcheson said around 2013, the school board wanted the commission to pass a $25 tag fee, but it was never put to a vote because the commission felt it was too high.
While issuing another expense increase doesn’t tickle the ears of taxpayers, Hutcheson said people have to understand there’s a bigger picture. The commission has worked to create an animal shelter, and it is still working to have the county jail renovated and expanded. There are also other needs to be met across the county, but Hutcheson said people are quick to forget someone has to pay for those improvements.
Hutcheson said the commission has cut costs in several areas to help. When he first took office in 2010, the chairman said he immediately began searching out ways to save the county money.
“We used to be self-insured for health insurance,” Hutcheson said. “It was eating us alive. But after we put a committee together, we changed it over to the state pool and now save about $1 million each year.”
There were also staff changes. Hutcheson said no one was laid off, but if someone retired or moved out of certain positions the commission felt were unnecessary, those positions were not filled.
Along with cutting the budget, Hutcheson said he has worked more than eight years to figure out how to adequately fund SROs. While he isn’t entirely happy about it, Hutcheson feels the tag fee is the only way it can be done.
“I know people say: ‘We pay you politicians enough,’” Hutcheson said. “Nobody wants to pay more taxes and things like that. Shoot, if I was on the other side of it, I’d probably be angry too. But again, if there were a better way to do it, I’d do it.”