$2.57 tax rate fails

  By Lesley Hughes
   star staff
  lhughes@starhq.com

  The Carter County Commission is almost at the end of it's budget rope for the 2003-2004 fiscal year. Another attempt to set a property tax rate failed on Monday evening as commissioners took the one and only vote allowed in a specially called meeting.
  The recommendation from the Budget Committee called for a $2.52 property tax rate per $100 of assessed value. That amount was amended early in the meeting to include a three percent raise for county employees and pushing the rate to $2.57.
  Commissioners were anxious to vote on the tax rate after the Aug. 2 reconvened meeting was quickly interrupted by a hostage drill. The meeting was canceled after many commissioners left upon learning the life threatening hostage situation was actually a drill conducted by Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency Director Ernest Jackson.
  The motion to approve the amended tax rate of $2.57 failed by a 11-13 vote. Commissioners Lawrence Hodge, Amos Stevens, Al Meehan, Joe Woods, Jim Whaley, Phil Nave, Jo Ann Blankenship, Charlie Bayless, Dickie Renfro, Jeff Treadway, and Robert Davis voted for the 35 cent increase. The 13 commissioners that voted against the tax rate were Doug Buckles, Jack Buckles, Wayne Holtsclaw, Jerry Pearman, L.C. Tester, Tom Bowers, Terry Montgomery, John Lewis, John D. Snyder, Lynn Tipton, Richard Tester, Bill Armstrong, and Roy Merryman.
  County Mayor Dale Fair told the commission the tax rate "can't be voted on again until a special called session or the next regularly scheduled commission meeting. You also can't make a new motion in a specially called meeting." He spoke with County Technical Assistance Service and confirmed that no new motions can be brought up during a special meeting except for motions to refer something to a committee.
  Delaying the tax rate and budget approval is causing the county to get dangerously close to the final deadline for meeting demands in the settlement of the Carter County Jail lawsuit. The settlement requires modulars units to be in operation by Oct. 15. Sheriff John Henson said, "The longer they delay this thing the later we are going to be in getting them set up. I have got a deadline to meet and like I said, I think it is October for the deadline and we need to get something done by then."
  Henson added the deadline was set "by the agreement that we made on the settlement of the lawsuit that the modulars would be set up. If they are not set up then it's possible they can give us more time, but if not then I guess we will go to court."
  The Carter County Sheriff's Department is also under another time crunch to hire and train 16 additional jailers before the modulars are in place. If the county does not appropriate the funds for the sheriff to hire new employees, then Henson has the option to sue the county. "If it comes down to that, then I wouldn't have any other choice but to sue the county commission for money to operate on. But I hope that never comes down to it, because I don't want to sue the county for anything. Like I said, most definitely I don't want to cost the taxpayers any more money than what they are having to pay. But I wouldn't have a choice if the federal judge came in and said, 'hey you are going to do this and you are going to do it in a certain amount of time' and the county commission didn't do it. By law I would have to turn around and sue," Henson said.
  Fair said the settlement has a provision that says the county cannot be held liable to the deadline if the company building the modulars causes the delay. Currently, the units that were originally built for the county did not pass a state codes' test. "We have to have them up and running by the middle of October.
  "We feel like maybe the manufacturer, to the state fire marshal, being approved by the state of Tennessee, and restarting some of the modulars they might not be able to meet their deadline, but still they haven't said that. We just have some fears," Fair said.
  He added about the commission not accepting a tax rate, "I am somewhat disappointed because of the timetable with the agreement. I am willing to keep on working on it until we get something right. Anytime you are raising taxes, you won't get 100 percent, but I would like to get a pretty good vote of most of them to say this is what we can live with."
  The mayor said the tax rate will be considered at the regular commission session on Sept. 13 unless a special meeting is called prior to that date.