ELIZABETHTON — Near the end of one of the longest meetings the Carter County Commission has held in recent years, a property tax rate of $2.33 per $100 of assessed value was finally approved Monday.
The commissioners had to vote on 14 different tax rate proposals before a majority could be reached on $2.33. The meeting began at 9 a.m. and did not end until nearly 3 p.m.
The new rate represents an 18-cent increase over last year’s tax rate of $2.15. The increase is still below the $2.40 rate the Budget Committee recommended.
Along with the revenue increase, the new budget also includes a 5 percent cut in spending for most offices covered by the Carter County General Fund. County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach had told the commissioners that the budget would be balanced.
The 18-cent tax increase included raises in two of the county government’s four funding areas: The General Fund was increased by 15 cents and the Debt Service Fund was increased by 3 cents. The funding for the School Fund and the Debt Service Fund remained at last year’s funding level.
Carter County’s new $2.33 property tax rate is now divided so that the School Fund receives $1.04; the General Fund is at $1.015; the Debt Service is at 14.5 cents and the Highway Department remains at 13 cents.
Just as the Budget Committee had gone several additional meetings over the past few months to finally reach a bare majority for a recommendation, the County Commission also struggled and went several extra hours Monday before reaching a bare majority of 13 votes.
It took 14 tries, and the first try was the Budget Committee’s recommendation of $2.40. The recommendation was quickly shot down by a 9-15 vote. Following that, Commissioner Charlie Bayless presented his expected alternative. For the past two years, Bayless had put together a majority for keeping the tax rate the same by using cash reserves in Debt Service and the General Fund.
Bayless once again tried to keep the tax rate low, proposing a 3.5-cent increase. This year, his recommendation was defeated by a 6-17 vote, with Bobbie Gouge-Dietz passing. The Commission went on to vote on three other proposals, ranging from $2.25 to $2.35, before Chairman Thomas “Yogi” Bowers decided to take up the other matters on the agenda during the rest of the morning.
The debate on setting a property tax rate continued after lunch, with votes on tax rates ranging from $2.19 to $2.50 being defeated. As time went on, the chance of gaining a majority declined, because several commissioners left early. It takes 13 votes for a measure to pass, regardless of the number of absences.
To break the deadlock, Bowers began asking those members who had consistently voted no to make a recommendation.
“Some of you are just voting ‘no’ to be voting ‘no.’ You are not doing Carter County any favors,” Bowers said. A few moments later, he said “we need money to run this county.”
One county commissioner who consistently voted against a tax increase was Nancy Brown. Following the meeting, she said she was voting against an increase because “there are still places we can cut. Two out of three office holders told me there were still some areas they could cut.”
Charlie Von Cannon was another commissioner who had consistently voted “no.” After a couple of other votes had fallen tantalizingly close at 12 votes in favor, Von Cannon asked Deloach to offer a recommendation and he would vote for it.
Deloach said it could not pass, but she had been recommending a 15-cent increase for the General Fund and 20 cents for Debt Service, for a total of $2.50. True to his word, Von Cannon was one of only two commissioners to vote for the recommendation. He was then the swing vote that helped the $2.33 vote to pass.
After the meeting, Deloach said the new rate is enough to balance the General Fund, but not enough to keep the reserves in Debt Service from drying up. She said that fund stands at $3 million at the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year and will decline to $1.9 million during the year. Despite the Cloudland Elementary School and Animal Shelter bonds maturing, the fund will continue to decline until it reaches $733,000 in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Without a cash infusion, the fund will be in the hole in the 2016-17 year.
In other matters, the Commission referred an allegation made by Carter County Historian Scott Bowers to the Ethics Committee. Bowers had said Mayor Leon Humphrey attempted to place a condition on his support of Bowers for the historian position. Bowers said in an open letter to the county commissioners that the mayor attempted to use Bowers to vote for an archive resolution he was proposing.
The Commission also approved a recommendation from the mayor to accept the extensive files of the Pelham Humphries litigants who tried for decades to claim rights to a portion of the Spindletop oil fortune. The files, which comprise about 20 boxes, will be stored temporarily at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library.
The Commission also approved a private act from the Tennessee General Assembly that transfers Carter County Landfill Manager Benny Lyons from under the authority of Mayor Humphrey and places him under the direction of the Landfill Committee.