Potential property tax rate up to $2.65 and rising   

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

ÊÊ  At the close of another three hour Carter County Budget Committee meeting Tuesday, four motions were made and approved to bring the county's current $2.22 property tax rate to $2.65 per $100 of assessed value.
  The first motion was made by Commissioner Jeff Treadway and seconded by Joe Woods to add $0.26 to cover the modular units that will ease overcrowding at the Carter County Jail and to hire 18 additional jailers to staff the temporary pods, bringing the proposed tax rate to $2.48 per $100 of assessed value. Commissioners Woods, Treadway, Wayne Holtsclaw, Lawrence Hodge, Tom "Yogi" Bowers, and Bill Armstrong approved the motion, while Commissioner John Lewis voted no. Commissioner Charlie Bayless was absent.
  Tacking on another $0.11 was the motion to cover $500,000 of overages and operating costs associated with medical coverage, food, and other necessities concurrent with the overcrowded jail. The motion carried 5-2-1 with Woods, Treadway, Hodge, Bowers, and Armstrong voting yes, Lewis and Holtsclaw voting no, and Bayless absent.
  At last week's budget meeting, the group approved a litigation tax to tack on additional fees to the court costs. This would allow $0.02 to be freed up on the property tax rate and to also fully fund the General Sessions Court judge's salary through the tax, thus bringing the tax rate down to $2.57.
  The third motion was for $0.03 to fund health insurance and retirement increases that Finance Director Jason Cody feels will rise approximately 10 percent in December. The motion, made by Armstrong and seconded by Hodge, passed 5-2-1. Commissioners Woods, Treadway, Hodge, Bowers and Armstrong voted yes, while Lewis and Holtsclaw voted no.
  At this point in the meeting, the proposed property tax rate was at $2.60 and rising. Bowers has consistently asked for at least a three percent raise for county employees. He argued that there are two classes of county employees. He referred to school teachers as first class employees and the rest as receiving second class treatment.
  Currently, teachers receive a raise each year because of teacher pay equalization laws which are mandated by the state. They also receive up to 60 percent coverage for family health insurance coverage. Other county employees, like courthouse employees, paraprofessionals, and Sheriff's Department employees, only receive up to 30 percent of family health insurance coverage.
  Bowers argued for a three percent pay raise for county employees during last year's budget discussions only to receive a 1.5 percent raise and a promise to reevaluate the raise after December 2003 when health insurance increases would be revealed to see if another 1.5 percent could be added later.
  "We gave them (county employees) a dirty deal last year. We screwed them. We gave them a pie in the sky that we would give them another 1.5 percent raise if insurance was cheaper. Last year we gave them 1.5 percent. They went backwards. If we give them less than the cost of living increase (2 percent), they will still be going backwards."
  Bowers also said school teachers are "first class county employees" and said "to cut second class county employees would be a crime." Last year's 1.5 percent raise "was a cut not a raise if it was less than the cost of living," Bowers said.
  There was a moment of confusion as Hodge made the motion to fund the three percent raise, which Bowers quickly motioned to table. After realizing that the motion was essentially what he had been arguing for, Bowers said he withdrew his motion to table. However, the motion to table was already voted on and passed.
  Another motion was reworded by Woods to fund the three percent raise, which will add $0.05 to the tax rate. Bowers seconded the motion.
  A roll call vote was taken with Woods, Treadway, Hodge and Bowers voting yes, and Lewis, Holtsclaw, and Armstrong voting no. Since Bayless was absent, Roberts Rules of Order was consulted to determine if the majority vote would be taken by the number of members present, 7, or the number of members appointed to the board, 8.
  Robert's Rules of Order states that at a committee meeting the majority vote is determined by the number of members present. The motion passed 4-3-1. All the motions that brought the tax rate to $2.65 will have to be approved by the County Commission. The next County Commission meeting will be held at the Carter County Courthouse in the Main Courtroom on June 28 at 7 p.m.
  The final issue discussed at the meeting was the possibility of funding three capitol projects, a new jail, a school project, and purchasing land for economic development.
  Lewis expressed his dissatisfaction with the current overcrowded jail because the county will possible fully fund the project which could cost more than $16 million.
  "The state of Tennessee is saying, 'if you don't build a $32 million jail we're going to throw you in jail.' There is got to be another solution instead of building a big fancy jail," Lewis said. He also said he didn't give a "doody squat" about the Tennessee Corrections Institute's determination for jail certification.
  Bowers added the commission should be "judicious to anticipate to plan for the worst and hope for the best on this particular occasion."
  The county has been named in a lawsuit against the county and the jail citing overcrowded conditions as "inhumane."
  A motion was made and passed to adjourn the discussion until June 14 at 6 p.m. during another Budget Committee meeting, where members will decide if and how to fund capitol projects.