Property tax rate amended from $2.66 to $2.52

By Lesley Hughes
star staff

  The Carter County Budget Committee met Monday for an unprecedented tenth time this year and amended the proposed $2.66 property tax rate to a hopefully more acceptable $2.52 per $100 of assessed value.
  Commissioner Bill Armstrong motioned in July's budget meeting to "give us another chance to come to a consensus that we (budget committee) could back when it is presented (to the full commission). The county is in a tight situation. We each need to give a little for the good of the county."
  Armstrong and County Finance Director Jason Cody devised a few amendments to the $2.66 tax rate. The previously proposed tax rate recommended $.18 to fund the purchase of jail modulars and $.08 to cover salaries for the additional 16 jailers that will be hired for the modular units. The amendment reduced the rate to $.16 for the modulars.
  The $.02 cut is possible if the renovation of Cell Block E and F of the Carter County Jail renovation is not included in the plans and if more beds are added into the Chapel instead of performing the renovations. The $.08 estimate for staffing costs can be reduced by a penny according to Cody. He said the original estimate was rounded off to $.08 and said the salary price could be funded by a $.07 increase.
  Commissioners had questioned the $.11 increase that was reportedly needed for overages and to refund the general fund balance which was dipped into to pay for larger than normal medical bills and overages within the Carter County Jail. Cody said $.06 spread over two years could rebuild the lowered balance and reduce the risk associated with a low balance. Cody warned that a low fund balance could raise interest rates on bonds and leave the county in additional financial stress if another emergency arises and the fund balance cannot support it.
  Three cents to fund projected retirement and insurance increases would stay the same, but the amended rate would not include three percent raises for county employees. Outside agencies would also not see any increases and would stay at the same funding level as last year. Two cents would come off the tax rate because of the litigation tax.
  Armstrong made the motion to amend the proposed tax rate to $2.52 and Lawrence Hodge seconded the motion. Wayne Holsclaw. Armstrong, Hodge, and Woods voted in favor of the motion. Tom "Yogi" Bowers, John Lewis, and Charlie Bayless voted against the motion. The motion passed 4-3 with one member absent.
  A few commissioners weren't in favor of the absence of three percent raises for county employees. Bowers said, "Apparently it has been a practice that they don't care that much about employees in Elizabethton." He spoke of Bemberg and North American Rayon, both former industries of Elizabethton. Bowers accused both companies of "keeping wages low" but "expecting good service and not paying them. Keeping them down is why Elizabethton and Carter County is in the shape we are in now. These employees have a right to make a living same as everyone else does."
  Lewis replied, "If you don't like what you make quit and go find yourself another job. Sometimes you just ain't got the money to give. I wonder how much McDonald's and Hardee's pays to flip burgers. You don't hear anyone saying, 'We want a raise or we ain't going to flip that hamburger over'."
  Committee members also recommended a $25 wheel tax to the county commission. Commissioners already voted down a wheel tax in June, but budget committee members felt the commissioners might be willing to accept a wheel tax if the property tax rate increase was not as high as originally proposed.
  The wheel tax motion was made by Armstrong, amended by Woods to designate $2 to the highway department, and seconded by Hodge. If approved, the $25, with a five year cap, will be earmarked towards capital outlay projects for the Carter County Jail and Carter County School system. Each system will receive $10, the highway department will receive $2 and the remaining $3 will go towards economic development.
  Wheel tax proceeds would bring in more than $500,000 in additional revenue from the 51,000 registered vehicles in Carter County.
  The motion passed with committee members Holsclaw, Armstrong, Hodge, Bayless, and Woods voting in favor of the motion. Bowers entered his vote into the record by saying, "Not no, but heck no." Lewis also voted no.
  The County Commission will return after the July 19 recessed meeting on August 2 at 7 p.m. to discuss the amended proposed property tax rate. A public hearing is not required since the budget committee is amending the former proposed tax rate. The wheel tax motion can be brought up at any commission meeting without a public hearing.
  Implementing a wheel tax can be done in three ways. The first would require that the County Commission pass a private act, ratifying it with a two-thirds vote and then sending it to the legislature for approval.
  The second alternative is to pass the motion in two separate regular commission meetings with a two-thirds majority, or 16, votes. Citizens can file a petition with the county's election office for a referendum using 10 percent of the votes from the previous governor's election to force a referendum onto the November 2004 ballot.
  The third option is for the commission to have a referendum by private act and let the citizens vote to implement the tax.