Budget committee adds wheel tax to property tax hike

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   After three hours of debate, the Budget Committee of the Carter County Commission voted to recommend a property tax increase of 44 cents, bringing the total rate up to $2.66 per $100 of assessed property value. The committee also recommended to the full commission that a wheel tax of $25 per registered vehicle be passed.
   The motion to recommend the property tax rate of $2.66 was made by Joe Woods and seconded by Lawrence Hodge. It passed on a 5-3 vote with committee members Tom "Yogi" Bowers, John Lewis and JoAnn Blankenship voting against the motion.
   The 44 cent increase was broken down with 26 cents going to fund the purchase of portable inmate housing units at the Carter County Jail and 18 new jailers to staff the facility; 11 cents to cover approximately $500,000 of overages and operating costs associated with medical coverage, food and other necessities concurrent with the overcrowded jail; 3 cents toward anticipated increases in the cost of health insurance and retirement packages; 5 cents for a 3 percent pay increase for county employees in non-teaching positions; and 1 cent to fund requests from the 911 Communications Center for an additional dispatcher as well as matching grant money for the volunteer fire departments. In addition, the group had previously 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.
   The proposed property tax increase of 44 cents per $100 of assessed property value would generate approximately $2.11 million in new revenue for the county.
   Some members of the committee spoke in opposition of the property tax increase or an increase or creation of any new taxes. "I don't think the people in this county can afford it," said Lewis, who added that "this county is living too high off of the hog."
   Bowers agreed that an increased property tax could present a burden for the residents of Carter County. "People in Carter County don't make that kind of money to pay these taxes," he said. "The thing about the property tax is you're punishing the people who own property. The rest are getting a free ride with what little sales tax they pay."
   Committee member Bill Armstrong made the motion to send the proposal for a $25 wheel tax to the full commission and the motion was seconded by Hodge. That motion also passed on a 5-3 vote. As part of his motion, Armstrong stated that a cap of 20 years would be placed on the wheel tax.
   No discussion was made at the meeting as to how much revenue the wheel tax could possibly generate or where the revenue was designated to be spent once it was generated other than the money would be available for capital outlay projects. According to how the motion was worded, the wheel tax rate would be in addition to the increased property tax rate.
   In order for the full commission to pass the wheel tax, according to state law the tax must be passed on a two-thirds majority vote at two consecutive commission meetings. However, Carter County residents could possibly overturn their vote. If 10 percent of the registered voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election sign a petition challenging the wheel tax, then it must go to a referendum at election.
   One budget request that went unanswered by the committee came from the Carter County School System for a capital building project to repair or replace aging school buildings. "I understand the position the County Commission is in. I really do. But my job is to make the commission aware of our needs," said Dallas Williams, superintendent of Carter County Schools. "We have portable buildings that are falling down."
   At that time, Lewis questioned school officials as to why expenditures for roof replacement had been in the school's annual budget for the last few years. "What's the matter with the roofs? Can't nobody fix them right?" Lewis asked. "If we can't do no better than that, this county is in sorry shape."
   Williams explained that the school system was systematically replacing the roofs as funding was available due to the fact that the project would be too costly to the system to complete all at once.
   Lewis also questioned school officials about overcrowding at some of the schools. "What you need to do with the gym at Hampton Elementary is do away with ball and put class rooms in the gym," he said. "In my opinion education is more important than ball."
   School officials also fielded questions from Lewis about the number of teachers employed by the system. Currently, the state funds a portion of the salary of one teacher for every 20 students. Currently the state partially funds salaries for 390 of the approximately 450 teachers in Carter County. School officials told Lewis that due to state regulations on classroom size and the fact that some schools are smaller than others and therefore will have smaller class sizes, the Carter County School System currently employs more teachers than are funded with state dollars.
   When Lewis asked why the county could not go with just the 390 teachers the state helps fund, school officials again said that due to state mandates on class size and the size of the schools themselves, more than 390 teachers were needed to operate the system.
   "We need to do something to get out from under these state mandates," Lewis said.
   Members of the committee also passed a budget recommendation to present to the full commission.
   On a vote of 6-2, with Lewis and Bowers opposing, the committee passed a recommended school budget of $37 million, which allows $900,000 for Head Start programs and $2.9 million for cafeteria operations with the rest going into a general purpose school fund.
   Both Bowers and Lewis expressed their disapproval of the school system budget. "I have a hard time supporting this budget from the school department," Bowers stated, adding that he felt the school system had excessive spending. "They are condoning thievery in their own department. I'm not for funding them anything until they can quit stealing from the tax payers."
   According to County Finance Director Jason Cody, state law requires that the county publish the proposed budget in the local newspaper for at least 10 days prior to voting on it as well as hosting a public hearing on the budget at least five days prior to voting on it.
   Due to the fact that time constraints would not allow the commission to meet those requirements prior to their June 28 meeting, the soonest the commission could vote on a budget would be July 19. The committee scheduled a public hearing on the proposed budget for July 12 at 6 p.m.