ELIZABETHTON — It was a long and difficult process that at times seemed unresolvable, but the Elizabethton City Council finally set a new property tax rate for this fiscal year.
It had been 19 years since the council last increased the property tax rate. It took several votes and, finally, an impassioned speech by Mayor Curt Alexander to get a majority to vote for an increase of 21 cents over the current tax rate.
The result was that after nearly two hours of struggle, the council voted 6-1, with only Nancy Alsup voting against it, to set the property tax rate of $1.78 per $100 of assessed value. That represented a 4-cent decrease over the rate of $1.82 that passed on the first reading last month.
There were two cuts made in the budget to get to the lower number, and both cuts were suggested by Councilman Richard Tester. Those cuts were to eliminate all funding this year for the federally mandated multi-year project to make all street signs reflective, which saved $110,000 this year; and a cut of $30,000 in the proposed purchase of salt, reducing it from $100,000 to $70,000.
The biggest hit would impact Johann Coetzee, the city’s director of engineering, but he praised the council’s action because of recent changes taking place at both the state and national level that have the potential of lessening the burden on local government to make all street signs reflective.
“That was really a very smart thing City Council did,” Coetzee said. “There are signs that the state and federal governments are pulling back because of the heavy burden retroreflectivity puts on local governments.”
Coetzee said he will have the draft on the city’s retroreflectivity plan to the council before January. He said he will “backload” the yearly costs for the project based on the council’s vote Thursday. He said the next deadline is 2015. The backload may not be as burdensome if some bills make it through Congress, but even if those bills are not passed, the city still has time to meet the goals.
The amount of salt in the budget was based on last year’s severe winter. The city had budgeted $60,000 for salt last year, but as the snows continued to fall the stockpile dwindled. In the end, Finance Director Jerome Kitchens said a plea was sent to all departments to release any money that could be spared in order to purchase more salt. In the end, the city bought $100,000.
The salt budget was set at $100,000 this year, based on the hard lesson learned last year. But even at the lower level passed Thursday night, the salt budget is still $10,000 above last year’s budget.
There was not a direct path to the final budget. The talks meandered back and forth after the tax rate of $1.82 that had been approved on first reading was defeated early in the session by a 3-4 vote.
The swing vote was Nancy Alsup, who had voted for the $1.82 tax rate last month, but joined Alexander and councilmen Bill Carter and Tester in voting against it this month.
After being defeated during the agenda’s old business section, the question on setting the property tax rate was deferred to the sesion’s end. In the meantime, the council voted to pay several insurance premiums and equipment and materials purchases that were priced higher than last year.
Councilman Charles LaPorte used these approvals to demonstrate why there had been a proposal to raise the property tax rate. He said with that defeated by the council, the only alternative is to make cuts.
“Basically, we have to take a pencil and start scratching numbers out,” LaPorte said.
Tester then made his proposed cuts. The original version of his cuts was to cut the $110,000 for retroreflectivity, discontinue the employment of a contracted mechanic for $30,000 and cut 10 percent from the funding of all outside agencies. The outside agencies were removed from the suggestion and the mechanic cut was replaced with the proposal to cut salt purchases.
A first attempt to pass a budget with these lesser amounts failed by a 2-5 vote, with only LaPorte and Sammons voting for it. Tester then changed his vote to make it 3-4.
As the hour grew late, Alexander made an impassioned plea for compromise, comparing the hardening positions of the council on the tax rate with the debt ceiling impasse in Washington. He urged compromise and said even though he had opposed a tax increase coupled with a garbage collection fee, he would support a $1.78 tax rate that incuded an additional cent for the fund balance.