Property tax vote postponed again   

By Lesley Hughes
star staff
lhughes@starhq.com

County Commissioners were surprised on Monday morning to find out the Carter County Budget Committee made a motion to postpone voting on the proposed $2.66 property tax rate per $100 of assessed value until sometime after a called budget committee meeting scheduled for Monday, July 26. The budget committee met an hour before the 10 a.m. commission meeting and suggested postponing the vote in order to propose a more acceptable budget.
  Originally, the budget committee wanted to postpone the vote until the September County Commission meeting. Doing so would put the county in a financial squeeze, mainly in the Sheriff's Department. Fresh off the settlement of the jail lawsuit, commissioners are aware of the need to have modular jail units in place and in operation by the deadline signed in the settlement contract. Sheriff John Henson complained that if a tax rate is not set soon, he would not have the means to hire and train additional jailers for the jail pods.
  Commissioner John Lewis asked Henson if he had enough money in his budget to go ahead and hire the additional jailers as required in the settlement. He adamantly replied, "No I do not!"
  Commissioner Al Meehan reminded the full court about the guidelines in the settlement that require the commission to have the pods in operation by Sept. 25, and, to do so, he said the sheriff needs the funds to hire and train jailers. The commission could possibly be found in violation of the settlement if the requirements are not met on time.
  Henson said he needs time to hire - and at least two weeks to train - the staff before the pods can be monitored by the new jail staff.
  Other complaints about the delay were directed at the budget committee as a whole. Commissioner John D. Snyder said, "We never have been this long before. You guys didn't meet nine times last year." He also complained that committee members receive $50 compensation for each meeting that is called and Snyder complained each meeting was costing the taxpayers more money.
  In order to keep from calling another full court meeting, which pays $100 per commissioner, the commission voted to accept a motion to recess the current July meeting until after the budget committee meets on Monday, July 26 at 6 p.m. and reconvene under the recessed July meeting.
  The logic behind this saved taxpayers $2,400 from another commission meeting but will pay out $400 to the eight budget committee members that will gather on Monday evening. The next meeting will be the tenth meeting of the budget committee, bringing the grand total payment to $4,000.
  Meehan suggested passing a partial budget for the Sheriff's Department, but County Attorney George Dugger said the motion was not valid.
  Henson agreed to hire the additional jail staff based on good faith from the commission that, when the budget is passed, the full court would include the $.08 on the property tax rate to pay for the jailers.
  "If you all approve it, I will go ahead and spend the money until it is gone, and then I will send them (new employees) home," Henson said.
  Cody said, "It would be in your (county commission) best interest to set a tax rate as soon as possible." As soon as the budget committee comes back with another property tax rate, the full court will come in from recess after 48 hours to vote on the proposed tax rate. The motion passed 19-1, with Lewis voting no.
  In other business, commissioners nominated and appointed L.C. Tester as a replacement 4th district commissioner to fill Chuck Culler's spot after his resignation last month.
  Economic Development Director Haynes Elliot reported to the full court the county's 5.2 percent unemployment rate and the new businesses that are locating in Elizabethton. He said Magic Mart had purchased the old Wal-Mart building and would be moving into it in 2005 after the new Wal-Mart opens and everything is relocated. The new Wal-Mart is scheduled to open Oct. 27, according to Elliot.
  The new businesses are expected to bring in many new positions. Lowe's is planning to hire 176 employees. Wal-Mart plans on hiring 200 more people, and Elliot expects Magic-Mart to fill over 100 positions.