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Hawkins commission agenda includes wheel tax hike, hiring freeze

Jeff Bobo • Feb 16, 2017 at 6:21 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County commissioners will be asked later this month to consider two resolutions aimed at addressing the impending $2 million 2017-18 budget shortfall, including an employee hiring freeze and a $40 wheel tax increase.

This will be the fifth consecutive month that the commission has had a wheel tax increase on its agenda.

On each of the previous occasions it has either been withdrawn, defeated, or in the case of January’s meeting, withdrawn and then defeated.

When the Hawkins County Commission meets on Feb. 27 it will be presented with another $40 wheel tax increase resolution — this time sponsored by Commissioner John Metz.

Commissioners have been told to expect a $2 million revenue shortfall for the upcoming 2017-18 budget, and the $40 wheel tax increase is projected to generate a little bit more than $2 million.

The Metz tax increase proposal is different from previous wheel tax increase proposals, however, in that it doesn’t have an expiration date, and it allocates 25 percent of all new revenue toward supporting public safety agencies.

Currently all county funding for fire departments, rescue squads, the humane society and the American Red Cross are budgeted as contributions.

Last year the commission approved a 2 percent across the board cut to all non-contracted contributions, which included public safety agencies.

The Hawkins County Fireman’s Association was cut from $21,000 to $20,580; non-municipal fire departments including Bulls Gap, Carters Valley, Clinch Valley, Goshen Valley, Lakeview, Persia, Stanley Valley and Striggersville were cut from $19,500 to $19,110; and municipal fire departments including Church Hill, Mount Carmel, Rogersville and Surgoinsville were cut from $17,500 to $17,150.

The Metz proposal would replace those cut funds and provide a little extra, setting aside $275,000 for the fire departments to share, as well as $50,000 each for the two rescue squads, $25,000 for the humane society, and $6,000 for the Red Cross.

The general fund budget will still benefit from most of that 25 percent because that pubic safety funding could then be cut from the “contributions” budget.

Metz told the Times-News Thursday he initially opposed the wheel tax proposal. Now he sees it as the most fair way to generate needed revenue.

There has been an outcry for spending cuts. The vast majority of county spending is in personnel, and the county is limited by law and contracts on what positions it can cut from the general fund.

“Even if we cut all the positions that we’re at liberty to cut, we’re not going to come close to correcting the revenue shortfall,” Metz said.

“I don’t know if you can classify (public safety) as a contribution if it’s done every year religiously. To me that should be a line item issue. I feel like this gives taxpayers something tangible to see where the money is actually going.”

Most Hawkins County fire departments are in dire need of additional funding. Many need of new turnout gear at $10,000 per set, as well as other capital investments to keep them current with state regulations.

Metz added, “The whole reason for having a county commission is to deal with local quality of life issues, and public safety is about as basic a quality of life issue as you can get.”

Hawkins County must submit an approved, balanced budget to the state by Sept. 1 or face the possibility of a state funding freeze until the budget is approved.

Metz said the commission is only delaying the inevitable by not approving a tax increase now.

“The only other alternative is to just throw your hands up and let the state take over,” Metz said.

Hawkins County currently has a $27 wheel tax, and with the state tag fee of $24, the cost to renew tags in Hawkins County is $51. A $40 hike would set that overall cost at $91.

Also on the Feb. 27 commission agenda is a hiring freeze resolution for all positions funded through the general fund, which was proposed by Commissioner Michael Herrell.

Herrell’s proposal calls for any newly vacated county position to remain vacant for at least three months.

During that three months, the officer holder or department head would seek approval to fill the new vacancy from the commission’s Personnel Committee and then from the full commission.

“I think if we can freeze the hiring a little bit, it will help us in the long run trying to get this budget fixed,” Herrell told the Times-News Thursday. “ ... Hopefully the Personnel Committee will question, do you really need this person? After that, on the third month, it comes back to the full commission and we can all decide together if we really want to fill that vacancy.”                                               

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