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“This budget, I guess you can say, was only a dream,” said Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass as he presented his final budget for Baxter County this past Tuesday evening.
The 2023 budget for the county came in at $36,174,824, with appropriations going toward $27,326,468 worth of expenditures. All employees with the county are now making $15 or more an hour.
The budget, which was passed unanimously, marks the final achievement of Pendergrass’s historic 16-year career with the Baxter County Quorum Court before he passes the gavel to Baxter County Judge-Elect Kevin Litty.
“It’s been quite the ride,” said Pendergrass during his farewell speech. “We’ve seen a lot of things change, as we’ve already talked about and mentioned in 16 years of service to Baxter County, with a two-year hiatus doing something else. But I’ve been surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. A lot of good people that helped me be successful.”
Judge Pendergrass was first elected to office as Baxter County’s Chief Executive in 2013 after serving on the Baxter County Quorum Court as a Justice of the Peace for six years. He has served in some form of government over the last 34 years.
He served as County Judge for three two-year terms before voters approved an amendment in 2017 to allow officials to hold office for four years. His final term concludes at the end of December.
During that period, Pendergrass and his fellow justices faced an uphill battle with the county’s financial situation. Over the years, and with a steady hand, Pendergrass has helped the county dig its way out of its financial struggles.
He is leaving behind a legacy of an $8,848,365 budget surplus and a county with no debt. Underneath his leadership, the county has experienced three years of explosive growth, with sales tax revenue rising to new heights year over year and month to month, all while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages, and rising inflation.
Baxter County Treasurer Jenay Mize noted during the budget presentation that the county had seen a 6.2% increase in sales tax revenue from this month last year, with a 10.54 % year-to-date increase. The county’s jail sales tax is up a staggering $243,000 over the same time last year.
Pendergrass will also leave behind a legacy of increased employee wages, with county employees finally earning at least $15 an hour. When he took office in 2013, the lowest paid wage in the county was $7.36.
“When we started in 2013, the lowest paid wage in Baxter County was $7.36,” Pendergrass said. “With this budget, it’s $15 an hour. Which I’d say is quite a bit overwhelming and beyond our imagination 10 years ago.”
In his private life, Pendergrass and his wife, Jewel Pendergrass, are the proud owners of Century 21 LeMac Realty which they purchased from its founders in 2001. As business owners, the Pendergrass’s have expanded their realty business to include a team of over 40 realtors and employees.
Judge Pendergrass’s realty experience has played a helpful role in his position as county judge. During his time in office, Pendergrass found ways to utilize the county’s various properties to maximum effect for the benefit of the public while also negotiating sales and deals for purchases of new property.
Throughout his career, he missed only two Quorum Court sessions. One, for the loss of a family member, and the other for an emergency quadruple bypass surgery in 2016.
“He is probably one of the bullheaded stubborn folks I have ever met. I’m thankful for the years that we’ve had together,” said Mize during her farewell speech to Pendergrass.
During his farewell with county employees, Pendergrass was praised for his leadership, being described as a firm but fair boss to work for. Several of the county’s younger employees, including Baxter County OEM Director David Stults thanked Pendergrass for believing in them and challenging them to step up, while elevating them to leadership roles despite their age and work inexperience.
Over the years, Pendergrass said he had to remind himself that he volunteered for the position, advice that was given to him by a good friend after he was elected to office.
The judge also challenged the Quorum Court to remember that they work for the public, a principal that he said he tried to live by during his tenure, and that their first responsibility was to take care of the fiscal health of the county.
“Your primary responsibility is the fiscal goodness of the county. To keep it that way,” Pendergrass said. “You can’t let, whether it’s me, Mr. Litty, the Sheriff, the Clerk or any elected official sway you to make you do things that you know will make the county irresponsible fiscally. That’s your number one priority.”
He was presented a plaque by Baxter County Sheriff John Montgomery as thanks for his work in helping the Sheriff’s Office expand and improve over the years.
After his final farewell, Judge Pendergrass gaveled out the Baxter County Quorum Court for his final time and set off for retirement, where he hopes to enjoy some solid years of fishing. He and his wife will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year.
Baxter County Judge-Elect Kevin Litty will now preside over future court sessions.