ELIZABETHTON — After two months of meeting, deliberations and calculations, the Budget Committee reached a recommendation Monday afternoon that the property tax rate for the new fiscal year should be $2.19 per $100 of assessed value. The measure was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Chairman Tom Bowers and Charlie Bayless voting against it.
Now all the committee has to do is recommend the 18-cent increase over the certified rate to the public and the full commission July 29. A public hearing is scheduled on the recommendation at 4 p.m. in the Main Courtroom of the Carter County Courthouse. The hearing will be followed by a reconvening of Monday’s County Commission meeting to vote on the Budget Committee’s recommendation or select an alternative rate. State law specifies the work must be completed in July.
The committee’s proposed rate includes the recommended increase of 37 additional jailers for the new jail and also increases of $1,076,000 for the county and city school systems and $344,720 for the Highway Department and $378,783 more in the General Fund to cover increases in the costs of utilities, insurance and maintenance agreements.
All of those increases amounted to more than an 18-cent increase in the property tax rate. The committee kept the tax rate lower by a one-time hit on debt service. The expenses for servicing the county’s debt next year will be $2,889,000, but the committee is only placing 12.6 cents of the property tax rate into debt service. That will raise $991,000.
What makes this funding possible is a healthy fund balance of $8 million that will cover the difference. The committee felt justified in using some of the reserves because of the difficult economic condition of many citizens of the county this year and the better prospects for the coming year, when at least three new companies are projected to be locating in the county.
The complete breakdown of the committee’s proposed property tax rate is 98.64 cents for the School System, 95.04 cents for the General Fund, 12.6 cents for debt service and 13.38 cents for the Highway Department. That is a total of $2.1966.
The committee’s decision came after three hours of discussions that centered on the funding of 37 new corrections officers for the new jail. That was the number recommended by Jim Hart, the jail staffing consultant for the University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service. Hart has been working on the staffing needs of the new jail since 2009.
While the committee agreed to recommend funding for the 37 additional positions, which totaled $1.3 million, it did not include additional funding to cover increased operational costs for the new jail, which is five times larger than the current jail.
Sheriff Chris Mathes said after the meeting that he did not think there would be a problem with the failure to include increased operating costs. He does not anticipate hiring the 37 additional positions until November. He said the money saved in salaries between now and then should cover the increased operational expenses.
Prior to reaching an agreement on the property tax rate, Mayor Leon Humphrey criticized the committee for not making any cuts at a time when both state and federal governments have been making cuts.
The committee responded by discussing a 5 percent across-the-board cut in the General Fund budget. The measure was defeated by a 6-1 vote. Only Scott Sams voted in favor.
For the second time, Steve Chambers attempted to get funding for the Carter County Rescue Squad cut. This time, he suggested the squad transfer $110,000 of its funding to the school department to pay for two new health science teachers.
Humphrey criticized the targeting of one agency instead of an across-the-board reduction and asked why the Rescue Squad was targeted.
Bowers answered that the Rescue Squad was a private organization and shouldn’t receive government subsidies. He also said the Squad sued county residents who did not pay their ambulance bills.
Rescue Squad Director Terry Arnold said the funding was for rescue operations in disasters or lost and injured hikers and hunters. He said if the county did not wish to fund the operations, he would be glad to transfer the responsibilities to the sheriff’s department.
Mathes said his staff was not trained or equipped to take on the Rescue Squad’s specialized missions.