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FRIDAY, JUNE 15, 2007
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Limestone defends fee usage

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

ATHENS — Limestone County Commission Chairman David Seibert has turned to numbers to prove the county is not misspending money from an electric use fee it charges on monthly utility bills.

The county imposed a 1-percent electric use fee to fund
construction of a new jail and
courthouse annex.

A federal judge mandated the county build the new jail after declaring the old one was unsafe and overcrowded. The new jail opened in 2005.

"He didn't care if we had the money to build a new jail or not, so that's how we got the electric use fee," Seibert said.

During an Electric Department budget hearing Monday before the Athens City Council, department Manager Gary Scroggins said the county has continued gaining money due to customer growth.

He said the fee has increased as much as $200,000 a year since the county started collecting it in 2002.

Mayor Dan Williams said he would be interested to know how the county spends that money.

"I don't have the opportunity to take that money and put it in a pot and hold it," Seibert said. "If it wasn't spent correctly, somebody here would go to jail. To think we're doing something with the money we're not supposed to be doing is a reflection on the county and the staff."

Seibert provided a spreadsheet that shows the tax brought in $421,472 in 2002. The county did not get any money off Delphi's utility bill because Delphi was in litigation. Delphi gets its power directly from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and not through Athens Utilities.

In 2006, the county received $673,868 from the Electric Department and $63,249 from Delphi. It still had to pay $116,049 to cover the bond payment.

"That fee is not taking care of our bond payment," Seibert said. "Thankfully, we have competent staff who manage our money so we can fund the difference."

Bond payments vary each year, but the payment has been over $850,000 since 2003.

The bond, for $13,560,000, is for 30 years. Including property costs at the annex, both the jail and annex projects totaled $14,446, 368.

Seibert, who was on the commission but was not chairman when the county first imposed the fee, said he wanted the fee to be 2 percent, not 1 percent. The state Legislature approved allowing the county to impose a fee up to 2 percent.

"I wanted 2 percent to make sure we had enough money to cover the payment," Seibert said. "With 1 percent, we obviously don't have enough."

The county cannot increase the fee to 2 percent now, Seibert said, because the state gave the county one-year to choose what percentage to impose.

"I'm not trying to micromanage the city, and I don't appreciate the city trying to micromanage me," Seibert said. "We're audited, and the county will follow the law."

Seibert said he is working with Sheriff Mike Blakely to keep the new 288-bed jail from becoming overcrowded. The county has community corrections and work release programs, and Seibert said the county may add another work release dorm at the jail.

"We don't want to get caught in the same situation as we were in with the old one," he said.

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