Commission to consider $2.52 property tax rate tonight

By Lesley Hughes
star staff

  Carter County Commissioners will reconvene tonight following the recessed July 19 commission meeting. At 7 p.m., commissioners will consider the amended proposed property tax rate of $2.52 per $100 of assessed property value.
  The July 19 County Commission meeting was recessed until the Budget Committee had another chance to lower the previously proposed rate of $2.66. Committee members wanted to look at additional ways to cut the large increase from the current tax rate of $2.22.
  The Budget Committee met on July 26 and made 14 cents worth of cuts to the proposed rate while still providing for the major increases and requirements of a lawsuit settlement the county recently entered into. The lawsuit involved "inhumane conditions" at the Carter County Jail. Part of the agreement included a monetary settlement and the requirement of placing modular jail units at the jail to house over 90 inmates. The overcrowded jail is only certified for 91 beds but averages over 200 inmates.
  County Finance Director Jason Cody said he was pleased with the amendments that were made to the tax rate proposal because it still provides a "balanced budget" while providing for the costs with the jail.
  The committee members also made a motion to present the full court with a $25 wheel tax for approval. The motion requires the tax have a five year cap and for revenue to be earmarked as follows: $10 to the capital project of the future Carter County Jail; $10 to the capital projects for the Carter County School System; $3 to economic development, and $2 to the Carter County Highway Department.
  Cody said the wheel tax is being proposed by commissioners for a way to address future capital projects without putting more of a burden on property owners. Instead of approximately 20,000 property owners funding the majority of the county's revenue, more revenue could be generated by spreading the cost across the approximate 50,000 registered vehicles in Carter County.
  The amendments included a $.02 cut to the previous recommendation of $.18 to fund the purchase of the modulars and the renovation of cell blocks E and F of the jail. This cut would not include completing the renovations at this time because of structural issues brought up by architects. Another penny was cut from the $.08 that was originally going to be used to fund the salaries of the 16 additional jailers that will be hired for the modular units. The $.08 was rounded off and Cody said the salaries could be funded by $.07.
  A $.05 cut came to the $.11 that was needed to fund the overages from medical expenses at the jail. The expenses have already been paid, but Cody advised the committee that it was crucial to rebuild the fund balance or interest rates on bonds could be increased. He also stressed that, if another financial emergency arises, the county might not be able to support it with a low fund balance. Instead of $.11 being added onto the tax rate for the 2004-2005 year, the increase is suggested to be $.06 for the next two years.
  Changes and debate of the tax rate are almost certain to be heard at tonight's meeting. Cody said the one amendment that he thinks commissioners will discuss will be the deletion of $.05 to fund a three percent raise for county employees. A few commissioners expressed their opinion at the budget meeting saying the employees at least deserved the raise to remain at an even level with the cost of living increase.
  Cody said inflation for the cost of living remains about two percent and commissioners were likely to discuss the need to keep employees above that mark.
  The Carter County Commission will meet in the main courtroom of the Carter County Courthouse at 7 p.m.