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By Lucy Williams, Editor & Publisher
A 77-cent property tax increase was rejected by the Lincoln County Commission Tuesday evening, as nearly 200 taxpayers watched from the galley and a second courtroom filled to maximum capacity.
Each of the votes taken – first, a tax levy resolution setting the new rate at $2.5618 per $100 of assessed valuation, second, an appropriations or budget resolution, and third, a resolution on appropriations to nonprofits – failed in 22-1 votes, each with one abstention.
Commissioner Bill Newman had made the motions, seconded by Commissioner Bill Askins, to not concur with budget committee recommendations to approve the resolutions.
The lone commissioner voting against Newman’s motions was Ricky Bryant, and abstaining on each vote was Commissioner Darrin Simms.
In addition to Newman and Askins, voting in favor were Steve Graham, Joe Tommy Stevenson, Ben Brown, John Thorpe, Grady Reavis, David Smith, Sharon Eubanks, Ray Moffett, Jason McCormick, Randy Bradford, Mark Monks, Shirley Dangerfield, Anthony Taylor, Wayne King, Doug Cunningham, Tull Malone, Steve Guntherberg, Donny Ogle, Ronald Jean, and Chris Thornton.
With the exception of Moffett, seven other commissioners, all members of the county’s budget committee, had reversed their positions from two weeks earlier when they had agreed in 7-1 votes to send the increase and accompanying resolutions forward.
Commissioners also listened as Miller Meadows, a jail inspector with the Tennessee Corrections Institute, spoke to the body about inmate overcrowding at the Lincoln County Jail. While the jail is currently certified, it could lose that certification if overcrowding continues to be an issue. Included in the 77-cent proposed property tax increase had been 7.5 cents for the $5.5 million cost of a jail workhouse that would relieve overcrowding and bring the county into compliance with the state mandate.
Discussion then turned to other budget committee business and the matter of the proposed increase.
“The budget committee is charged with putting together a balanced budget that meets the needs and responsibilities of county government,” said Graham, who chairs the budget committee, during Tuesday’s meeting. “In doing this, the committee has spent countless hours, interviewing county officials, department heads, committees, listening to their recommendations, and this year after all the information was collected, we were faced with a property tax increase of $1.09, and working with the various departments, we were able to lower that to 77 cents.”
Noting that a 38.5-cent increase, which would have to be doubled for education, would generate $1.9 million, Graham went on to offer three other options designed to bridge the gap in anticipated revenues and expenses. The first of those was a $75 wheel tax increase, the second, a 15-cent property tax increase, doubled to 30 cents with half going to education, coupled with a $45 wheel tax increase, and the third, a 17.5-cent property tax increase, doubled to 35 cents, with a $41 wheel tax increase.
“These are just some options we can look at tonight and hopefully we can come to a consensus tonight and get a budget passed,” he said.
Ogle made a motion that the commission go with the option of a 30-cent property tax increase with a $45 wheel tax increase, but Smith called for a point of order, saying that under parliamentary rules, the commission should have time to study the proposals. He added, too, that such a proposal should go to the budget committee and be advertised.
Reavis subsequently made a motion that no action be taken until the matter could be studied further, saying the commission has hastily made some bad decisions in the past.
“The matter before the commission tonight is the budget, and the 1991 Act allows this commission to amend that budget if they so desire,” said County Attorney Ed Simms, suggesting that they vote up or down on what budgeters had recommended, and if a consensus is not reached, then consider alternatives or tabling a proposal until the next meeting.
Both Ogle and Reavis withdrew their motions, and each of the budget committee recommendations ultimately proceeded to a vote.
Under the continuing budget resolution the county commission adopted last month, the county can continue operating within budget constraints of the 2011-12 fiscal year until October. Consequently, the situation is expected to be re-addressed by the budget committee in August.
Simms explained following the meeting that his abstention resulted from a state attorney general’s opinion.
“According to that opinion, which I was handed as I arrived for the commission meeting tonight, since I was elected first and then became an employee of the county board of education, I must abstain from anything that would directly impact my pay,” he said.
Included in the budgets being considered was the budget of the Lincoln County Department of Education. Since becoming a commissioner, Simms has been hired by the department as a teacher.
“I will say I stand with the people,” Simms said. “I think the increase would place too much of a burden on the property taxpayer.”
Asked about his lone vote against rejecting the budget committee’s recommendations, Bryant had this to say:
“The budget committee’s recommendation for the 77-cent increase was based on hundreds of hours of committee meetings and budget hearings,” he said. “Our legislative body works within the committee system – commissioners are elected to committees that make recommendations to the budget committee for their approval to be passed to the full legislative body.
“This year, as every year in the past, the budget committee took recommendations from each committee, weighed them and in some cases cut those recommendations and formulated a fiscally responsible budget.
“The committees’ minutes leading up to the budget committee recommendations to the full legislative body initially contained $1.09 property tax increase,” Bryant continued. “In many cases, those committees’ minutes specifically indicate that the property tax should be raised to meet identified needs.
“The budget committee, in called hearings, analyzed those needs and in many of these cases, cut some recommendations,” he said, citing at least two situations where budgeters recommended the increases. “The budget sent to the legislative body for its consideration was a balanced budget that fits our county’s need for future growth and prosperity.
“Whether you agree with my vote or not, I respect your opinion, but I believe the people in District 7 — Flintville, Elora, Kelso and parts of Mulberry – whether they agreed with the tax increase or not, will respect my position.
“We must have good roads, we must have adequate facilities to incarcerate criminals, we must have turnout gear for our volunteer firemen,” he said. “These particular items are not wants – they are items absolutely necessary to our well being and future.
“I did was I thought was right and standing up for what I believe to be right for the future of Fayetteville-Lincoln County,” he added. “During these trying times, the legislative body of Lincoln County has not raised property taxes in over eight years in hopes that our economy would rebound and that an increase of this magnitude would not be necessary. This is a time for serious people to make hard decisions to make our county strong and financially responsible as we ourselves must be.”