Special to The Chronicle
After much debate and a myriad of votes, Wilson County Commission set the county property tax rate at $2.5704 and approved a budget for 2012-2013 after an overwhelming majority of citizens said they opposed a tax increase during a public hearing.
The new tax rate of $2.5704 increased the tax rate by seven cents, up from $2.5004. Squires entered the meeting with a proposed increase of 22 cents that was approved by the Commission Budget Committee.
The seven-cent increase was proposed by District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich and was intended to send three-cents to the General Debt Service fund to pay debt incurred from school building projects and four-cents to the General Fund to improve the county’s fund balance.
“To cure many years of overspending in one year may not be the thing to do,” said District 8 Commissioner Frank Bush. “Mr. Reich’s proposal I think is a fair compromise.”
Finance Director Aaron Maynard said the seven-cent increase generates $2,009,000 annually for the county. Four cents of that amount goes to the General Fund and would raise $1,148,000 annually. He has said in the past getting the General Fund to a balance of $6 million would be a “best practice.”
The remaining three-cent increase would go toward the Debt Service Fund, which County Attorney Mike Jennings said is used to pay debt from high school building projects. He said that money is only spent on high school building projects, such as the construction of a new Watertown High School.
The tax increase of only 7 cents eliminated proposed employee raises that would have been in the 22-cent tax increase intitially proposed.
When the seven-cent increase came to a vote, squires were split 12 to 12, and County Mayor Randall Hutto was left to break the tie. However, Hutto said it shouldn’t be left to “one man.”
“One man should not decide this county’s tax rate,” he said.
Joines called for a re-vote on the matter and in the second vote, squires were in favor of the increase by a margin of 14-10.
Prior to that, the commission quickly moved away from the 22-cent proposal with District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines proposing an amendment to set the tax rate at $2.64, or an increase of 14 cents.
However, many commissioners were opposed to that increase because Joines did not specify where the taxes would be spent.
“We need to meet the needs we have with a lot less money,” Joines said.
District 11 Commissioner Jim Bradshaw asked for the tax rate to be set at $2.5004, or the current rate at that time. Squires voted down Bradshaw’s recommendation 9 to 15 and then voted down Joines’ proposal of a 14-cent increase 11-13.
“The 14-cents needs to be clarified so we know what we’re voting on,” Bradshaw said.
When squires called for budget cuts instead of tax increases, members of the Budget Committee received criticism from their peers for bringing the 22-cent tax rate before the full commission.
Bush called the 22-cent proposal a “non-starter” and said the Budget Committee knew the commission would not approve it. He said that committee should have cut needs and expenditures in their meetings.
District 15 Commissioner Mike Justice pointed out the committee cut many needs and other members of the committee pointed out very few commissioners not on the committee attended any Budget meetings.
“In a couple of meetings we cut those needs by half,” Justice said. “We’ve made cuts already.”
District 16 Commissioner Jason Brockman added that he could “count on one hand” the number of people who told him they were for a property tax increase, adding “We need to find a better solution.”
Reich proposed cutting the County Tourism Department, which he said has a $204,000 budget in the proposed 2012-2013 budget. He said with the exception of a $20,000 grant, that department could be eliminated.
The vote was 16-7 in favor of eliminating the department.
After a 10-minute recess, Hutto said Tourism Director Ricky Rodriguez asked him if he was essentially out of a job. Hutto asked the commission to be cautious about making any quick decisions without hashing out the details.
“Let me caution you about making quick decisions that involve the lives of people from the front of the room to the back of the room,” Hutto said.
However, that decision didn’t mean the immediate end of the Tourism Department, as Jennings pointed out, the budget adopted during Monday night’s meeting must be approved by the state before going into effect.
Jennings clarified that since the county is currently operating under a continuation budget, the Tourism Department is still funded in that budget.
He said the Tennessee Department of Education and Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury must approve the county’s budget before it takes effect.
While speaking of budget cuts, District 19 Commissioner William Glover said the county should look at cutting the almost $300,000 it gives annually to non-profit organizations. However, the full commission did not vote on that matter.
Also during the meeting squires approved a resolution that requires two-thirds of the commission to approve spending money from the General Fund that would put the balance below $2 million.
Maynard pointed out the expected ending balance for 2011-2012 in the General Fund was about $95,000.
Squires also approved the 2012-2013 budget, which is a “status quo” budget that is to include the seven-cent tax increase. Squires passed the budget on a vote of 14-9.
Citizens speak out
Prior to the meeting the public had the chance to voice their opinions during a public hearing and the majority were opposed to a tax increase.
Some citizens supported a tax increase to fund education but many said a tax increase would hurt senior citizens and that an increase was a bad idea during tough economic times.
Many called for an external audit of the county’s budget and said the county should cut expenditures instead of raise taxes. Some of the citizens’ comments are listed below:
“Have every department balance its budget and stick to that budget,” said Jan McCain. “Freeze salaries until the three to six million amount is achieved. What has really been done to show fiscal responsibility?”
“All I’m asking is for you to approve the three cents and defer the rest,” said Allen Robertson.
“We don’t need to raise property taxes right now, Wilson County taxpayers cannot afford this,” said Heather Scott.
“I propose you put in a wheel tax to fund education, it’s more of a fair tax,” said Gary Bennett.
“I live in a city that is owed a new high school, if you want to run this county like a business, you will invest in the weaker part of the county,” said Watertown resident Jeff Tunks.
“Reductions in force are a difficult topic,” said Elaine Carter. “Long term planning is needed, not short term fixes.”
“The taxpayer is tired of being taxed to death,” said Ronnie Sellars.
“I haven’t seen a raise in five years. If we keep raising things, some of us are going to be in the welfare line, not paying taxes,” said Tom Allen.
As there were many votes cast during the meeting, you can check back tomorrow for a breakdown of how the commissioner’s voted on the above-mentioned votes.
How they voted on tax rate of $2.57
(First vote, 12-12 tie)
YES–Kenny Reich, Terry Scruggs, Frank Bush, Sara Patton, Jeff Joines, Mike Justice, Adam Bannach, Annette Stafford, Eugene Murray, Wendell Marlowe, Paul Abercrombie, Randy Hall.
NO–Becky Siever, Fred Weston, Chad Barnard, Jerry McFarland, Nathan Clariday, Jim Bradshaw, Billy Rowland, Clint Thomas, Jason Brockman, Gary Keith, William Glover, Bernie Ash.
(Second vote, 14-10)
YES–Siever, Reich, Scruggs, Bush, Patton, Joines, Justice, Bannach, Stafford, Murray, Marlowe, Ash, Abercrombie, Hall.
NO–Weston, Barnard, McFarland, Clariday, Bradshaw, Rowland, Thomas, Brockman, Keith, Glover.
*Dist. 2 has no representative as Stephanie McDonald vacated her seat last month.
This story originally appeared on www.wilsonpost.com. Wilson Post Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.