The County Commission's Budget Committee voted 5-2 Wednesday to recommend a 25 cent property tax hike to the full commission when it meets in regular session Aug. 27. That would increase the tax rate to $2.61 for the 2007-08 fiscal year, with 20 cents of the increase going toward the school building project and a nickel going toward the county general fund.
For a residence valued at $100,000, the proposed tax hike would increase their property tax bill by $62.50 annually.
Without the $38 million school building project, the county general fund budget was about $210,000 in the red and would have required only an additional 3 cents to balance.
The committee was ready to vote on recommending a 23 cent increase when members realized that would leave the county only about $58,000 in reserve funds.
Bumping up the tax increase by 2 cents to a quarter will leave the county a reserve fund in excess of $200,000 for this fiscal year.
This 25 cent property tax increase proposal would by far be the biggest in recent Hawkins County history.
Last year, the commission fought tooth and nail over a 5 cent proposal before finally agreeing on 3 cents - only after an Oct. 1 deadline had passed and the state withdrew funding.
The year before it was 15 cents, and the year before that it was 12 cents.
Twenty cents of the proposed tax increase would cover debt service for the phase three school building project. That project entails a new Clinch School, a new fifth and sixth grade school in Church Hill, a classroom addition and renovation project at Bulls Gap School, and 12 new classrooms at both main high schools.
In previous Budget Committee meetings, Commissioner Kenneth Long had expressed opposition to funding the full phase three school building project for fear of overburdening taxpayers. On Tuesday, however, Long said he doesn't see any alternative to completing all of phase three right now.
As school officials have continually warned, population growth in Hawkins County as high as 250 new students per year has already filled most existing classrooms. School officials say state classroom-size requirements will soon be a major problem in some parts of the county.
"The way I see it, we can either pay for all of this project now, or put parts of it off until later," Long said. "We know we're going to have to do it sooner or later, and I'm afraid we're going to find ourselves in a situation where we're being told to do it, or else. The longer we put this off, the more it's going to cost us, so we might as well go ahead and bite the bullet and do it now."
Commissioner Virgil Mallett, who serves on both the Budget and Education Committees, previously advocated placing the new Clinch School and new Church Hill aspects of the phase three project on the back burner. Eliminating those two aspects would cut the cost down to around $15 million.
The concern has been that the full commission won't approve a tax hike of this magnitude but might be more receptive to funding phase three in sections.
Mallett voted against the proposal Wednesday without much comment, although moments before the vote he did start singing an excerpt from the Kenny Rogers song, "The Gambler."
"You've got to know when to hold 'em, and know when fold 'em," Mallett sang.
Budget Committee Chairman Claude Parrott reminded Mallett that he'd forgotten the part about knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run.
When it came time for someone to make the final motion recommending the 25 cent property tax increase, however, it appeared that all seven Budget Committee members wanted to get up and run. Finally Parrott made the motion, which was approved by a vote of 5-2.
Aside from Mallett, Thacker also voted against the proposal.
"I've got to vote no for right now," Thacker said, although it was Thacker's suggestion to add the extra 2 cents to increase reserve funds.
Initially Commissioner Boyd Goodson had made the motion to increase the tax rate by 23 cents.
"I'm just saying, if they'll approve 23 cents they'll approve 25 cents," Thacker had said during the discussion. "If we're going to do it, we might as well try to build up some reserves too."
There was one bit of relief for Budget Committee members on Wednesday, however. Last week the Hawkins County school system presented a proposed budget seeking an additional $710,000 in county funding. That request would have required an additional 11 cents in property tax to pay for.
On Wednesday Director of Schools Charlotte Britton returned to the Budget Committee with a balanced budget. She explained that the $710,000 deficit was eliminated by cutting a $1,000-per-teacher pay increase that had been proposed above the state-mandated 3 percent teacher pay increase.