Town hall meeting yields suggestions for county budget

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff

No one wants higher taxes, especially property owners, since the majority of Carter County's revenue is collected from them. Any slight increase in the property tax rate is going to deeply affect wallets and savings accounts.
   Carter County Commissioner Tom "Yogi" Bowers held a town meeting last night in the courthouse to hear from residents to get ideas for revenue sources, new taxes, and areas to cut to balance the $9 million county budget.
   An overwhelming majority of the approximately 50 citizens that attended suggested that the commissioners look into the "needs list" and start cutting, one man said. A few people referred to the county from a business standpoint and suggested cutting back in operating costs, salaries, and personnel to ease the property tax rate.
   Finance Director Jason Cody explained that the county's Budget Committee adjourned last Tuesday evening with a motion on the table of a $2.69 property tax rate per $100 of assessed value. He itemized the additional $.47 that could possibly be added on to the current $2.22. A chunk of $0.18 will go to pay for the modular units the County Commission approved to ease overcrowding at the Carter County Jail. Since the units were previously approved in a called Commission meeting on April 12, the units must be paid from this budget.
   Staffing of the modular units will also be covered by $0.08. The county also experienced some overages in operating costs last year that will be covered by $0.15. Cody said the overages are due to unexpected medical costs from treating Carter County Jail inmates.
   The $2.69 figure also includes three percent raises for county employees, and health insurance and retirement increases will account for a $0.08 hike. A litigation tax would free up $0.02 for the property tax rate.
   A $25 wheel tax was also included in that motion, with a 20 year cap.
   Several people suggested cutting back personnel and county teachers. According to Bowers, the county has approximately 70 more teachers than the state's Basic Education Plan requires. School Board Chairman Daniel Holder explained to the group that smaller schools have smaller classrooms where one teacher might have less than 15 students. According to the BEP, the state will fund a teacher for every 25 students. So two small classrooms with two teachers would add up to one extra teacher, according to BEP.
   Bowers said the full commission does not have the power to cut teachers. All that the county can do is fund the school system. The school board is the only body able to regulate teachers. One woman said, "If you don't give them any money then they will have to get rid of some teachers."
   Another topic was the possibility of property tax reassessment revenue, but Cody said property tax reassessments will begin in 2005 and the additional revenue will be felt in the following fiscal year's budget.
   Many people were angry over the many different state regulations that counties must adhere to. For example, the Tennessee Corrections Institute regulates the certification of jails across the state. Since the county is named in a lawsuit involving the jail, the commissioners are trying to come into compliance with the TCI and the overcrowded jail. To do this, the commission approved purchase of the modular units and is preparing to hear the final phase of the comprehensive jail study from Barge, Wagonner, Sumner and Cannon later this month. The problem, according to citizens at the meeting, is that property owners are being charged for the jail solution.
   One man commented on the lack of industry in the county saying the increase will affect industry because of the additional rates they will have to pay.
   Another man suggested instituting an impact fee for people relocating into the county, similar to many towns in Florida that charge as much as $12,000 to move into a town. His suggestion included earmarking the money to economic development.
   Mixed in with all the different suggestions was the needs list versus the wants list for the county. One man said, "You need to look at county government and see where you can make cuts. Take the physical responsibility to look at what you need. You need to analyze your needs list. I don't think you have sat down and done that."