Property tax rate could be at least $2.48

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

The Carter County Budget Committee did not vote on any requested funds at Thursday's meeting, but members listened to scenarios from Jason Cody, Finance Director, and decided to call another meeting after the Memorial Day weekend to try to vote on all the items.
   The committee continued the discussion of the requested funds and walked through the different range of scenarios for the property tax rate. In order to fund the temporary jail solution that the full county commission approved on April 12, the property tax rate should increase to $2.48 per every $100 of assessed value.
   Cody said, "$2.48 is what we would be looking at for the baseline." This figure does not include any raises, rise in health insurance costs, or retirement. He added, "This would be what we have to fund."
   The Budget Committee will meet again on June 2 at 6 p.m. in the Carter County Courthouse. Cody said about the upcoming meeting, "I think we may be close to setting the tax rate."
   At the Thursday evening meeting, Cody presented the year end balance and made suggestions to the committee to ease the process along. He told commissioners to consider setting the raises and benefits levels first, and suggested setting no more than a 4 percent raise for county employees. Payments could be made payable in December, but effective July 1. The benefit to this is that employees would receive a lump sum payment and could possibly benefit from the raise at a crucial part of the holiday season.
   In the past year, health insurance rose from 12 percent to 18 percent, and Cody fears the cost will continue to rise and commissioners should be prepared to fund no more than a 10 percent increase.
   Another area the commissioners should consider is where to make cuts first. Logically, the first agencies that will be cut or dropped in this tough financial year will be additional requests from outside agencies, such as E911, volunteer fire departments, and the public library.
   E911 has requested an additional $19,250, VFD submitted a request for $21,480, and the Public Library has asked for $26,265. Many of the outside agencies suffered a 5 percent cut in last years' budget and have requested the additional funds to replace that cut. Many more agencies have requested funding and the committee will begin voting on Tuesday on which requests to grant, what areas to cut, or if all requests will be denied.
   County Commissioners now have a tough decision ahead of them: How much, if any, will they fund for the school buildings project. Carter County School Board requested $30 million from the county commission to fund the improvements project.
   The project requests $11,150,000 for a new K-8 school in Valley Forge, $12,075,000 for a new middle school in the Stoney Creek area; a new 1,200 seat gymnasium for Unaka High School costing $3,270,000, and more classrooms and a new gymnasium at Cloudland Elementary for $3,560,000 to move the seventh and eighth grade students from Cloudland High School.
   Cody said to fully fund the $30 million project with a property tax increase could add 70 cents onto the county's $2.22 current property tax. Another option would be to implement a wheel tax. To fully fund the project with a wheel tax, Cody said, for the 12-year term, would cost $67 per car.
   Another option is a combination of a property tax increase and a wheel tax. Each penny added in property taxes would equal $1 that the wheel tax would drop, Cody said.
   County Attorney George Dugger informed commissioners of the three ways a wheel tax could be implemented in Carter County. The first would require that the full court pass a private act, ratifying it with a two thirds vote and then sending the private act to legislature for approval. However, this is not an option with the current representative who has informed the commission he will not take private acts to the legislature, according to County Mayor Dale Fair.
   The second alternative is to pass the motion in two separate regular commission meetings with 16 votes. Citizens can file a petition with the county's election office for a referendum with 10 percent of the votes from the previous governor's election. The third option is for the commission to have a referendum by private act.
   "Everyone is aware that we have a lot on our plate this year. The question is: How much are you willing to fund? Next year it might be more favorable to look at funding the school project," Cody said.
   He also encouraged committee members to think about setting up two capital project funds. These would be used to designate money into specific areas, like the jail and school project. "These funds would help us look strategically to the future in the county. It alleviates some of the issues needed, like the jail and allows us to try to anticipate things and gradually make adjustments. It costs more at a later date to fix problems," Cody said. He said the county is in a situation now with the jail lawsuit and having to buy temporary units to house overcrowded inmates that the county is "essentially having to take the hit" now instead of being prepared with a capital projects fund.