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Kingsport leaders split on options to balance budget

Matthew Lane • May 10, 2018 at 12:21 PM

KINGSPORT — Unless a member of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has a change of heart, there won’t be a property tax hike for city residents next year.

For the second day in a row, the BMA met to discuss the 2019 fiscal year budget, which begins on July 1.

The issue facing city leaders is how Kingsport will come up with an additional $644,000 in operating funds for the school system. This gap in education funding came about when Sullivan County shifted the tax rates of several county funds last year to balance its budget.

The end result was $644,000 less to Kingsport City Schools, which means Kingsport has to make up the difference.

To balance the budget, City Manager Jeff Fleming presented three options:

Option A: Reduce special programs by 20 percent, don’t fund some capital projects for one year and cut One Kingsport funding by roughly one-third.

Option B: Raise property taxes by two cents, cut special programs by 10 percent and don’t fund some capital projects for one year. One Kingsport funding would be secure under this option.

Option C: Raise property taxes by four cents and don’t cut anything.

On Tuesday, Fleming recommended Option A, and following a 90-minute meeting on Wednesday, a majority of the BMA spoke in favor of that choice: Vice Mayor Mike McIntire, Colette George, Joe Begley and Tommy Olterman.

Jennifer Adler supported either Option B or C, while Betsy Cooper said she’s leaning toward a property tax increase.

Mayor John Clark, who blamed Kingsport’s current financial situation solely on the Sullivan County Commission, said he supports the four cent property tax hike to balance the budget.

“I’m not an angry person, but I’m not happy with the county. We had a clean budget up until this situation. ... The fact that we have to deal with this issue now bothers me,” Clark said, naming the 14 commissioners who voted in favor of last year’s county budget.

Here’s how the other members of the BMA felt about the options.

McIntire: “I’m basically comfortable with Option A. I think we’ll have some surplus and revisit some of the things we’re looking at today. This gets us through this situation and puts us in a good position moving forward.”

George: “I’m going to be Option A. I am concerned about our debt and I want to be able to not burden people to the level I feel we may. The cuts we’re making are not going to hurt the citizens of Kingsport. Most people won’t even notice.”

Olterman: “I’m not a numbers man, but I did open myself up to hear from the people of Kingsport. A majority were elderly that called me and they reminded me of what the garbage tax did to them. I like Option A because it cuts some programs but gives us the flexibility that at the end we could reinstate some things.”

Adler: “I’m somewhere between Option B and C. I continue to be concerned about attracting people to live here. I think there needs to be some incremental increase of property taxes, and there’s some things out of the (capital improvement plan) that could be held off. We’re talking about a very small amount for the average taxpayer.”

Begley: “I do feel like Option A gives us a year to not raise taxes and everybody can live with that option. It’s still funding a lot of stuff and some things we’ll be able to make up hopefully at the end of the year.”

Cooper: “I’ve really pondered this and tried to come into (Tuesday’s) meeting open-minded, objective and willing to listen to everybody’s argument. I’m going back and forth and there’s no good answer. I’m not 100 percent in either direction, but I slide closer to implementing a tax increase just to make us level.”

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