BEDFORD - In preparing Bedford County's 2013 budget - widely expected to pass in a vote today - the county commissioners, seeking to cut costs to the bone, took advice from a group famous for their abhorrence to government overspending.
As it turns out, even the tea party can't find anything left to cut.
"We went in with 20 questions," Bedford County Tea Party Patriots President Greg Lau said of a private mid-December meeting with the commissioners. "They answered each one."
The final budget is largely identical to the proposal first introduced to the public Dec. 7. At over $15 million, it includes a technical property-tax rate decrease - but most landowners will find themselves paying more, with higher assessed values in place this year.
The commissioners have slashed costs where they can, Commissioners Chairman Kirt Morris said, but there's not much more they can do.
"They're really lean and mean," he said, referring to county-controlled budget items like the sheriff's office and jail.
What's left is integral staff, state-mandated expenses and office vehicles.
In both private and public meetings with the commissioners, county tea party officers ran through a list of money-saving proposals, only to see most shot down as unworkable, Lau said.
Ensure the sprawling Omni Bedford Springs resort pays its fair share in property taxes? They already pay a substantial sum, Lau learned.
Raise revenue from a difference source, like a work tax? The county isn't allowed.
Cut county workers' hours or salaries?
"They're already basically working 35 hours a week and trying to hold the number of hours down," Lau said. "... And some of these people could be eligible for food stamps."
A few tea party proposals made their way into the 2013 budget: some cars in the county fleet are on the verge of the junkyard, Lau said - but their replacements could be leased for a year rather than replaced with brand-new purchases.
The commissioners adopted the idea, Morris said.
"It lowers the expense for the year. Of course, it adds some for the next year," he said.
The commissioners agreed in spirit with some of their more extreme proposals, like selling the expensive county jail to a private prison contractor, Lau said.
They explained that prison corporations tend to buy larger facilities, not small county jails, Lau recalled.
Unless the commissioners reject the budget today and start a new 20-day public review period - a highly unlikely outcome - the changes, including the property tax increase, are already set.
But the commissioners have discussed meeting regularly with tea party officers next year, in hopes of finding new ways to save money in the long term.
"We knew going in that it would be very, very difficult to change the budget now," Lau said. "[But] they said it would be a nice idea to meet a couple times a year."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.