Sullivan County commissioners to consider property tax freeze

J. H. Osborne • Jan 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A proposed property tax “freeze” for some senior homeowners, potential changes to the state’s open meetings law, and a push to give the county power to appoint members of city planning commissions are among agenda items today for the Sullivan County Commission.

The 24-member commission also will get its first look at a request to up Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns’ budget by $78,500 to fund several new employees.

When commissioners were hashing out the county’s $162 million budget for this fiscal year, Kerns sought $202,200 for five new employees and new off-site storage this year.

His request to fund new employees, however, met the budget ax — as did such requests from some other department heads.

Kerns promised then he’d come back and ask again once the fiscal year unfolded.

Several months ago, Kerns told commissioners he was concerned a backlog of work in his office could cause legal problems for the county. Earlier this month, he said some of that work has been caught up, but he still needs some help to make sure it goes away and stays away.

He’s asking commissioners to OK using $78,500 of the county’s multimillion-dollar general fund surplus to pay for two full-time positions and several part-time workers.

The property tax “freeze,” which would apply to homeowners over age 65 with annual incomes of $28,750 or less, hasn’t found much support from commissioners.

County Commissioner John McKamey introduced the proposal, which calls on the county to adopt an optional state law.

In November 2006, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment to pave the way for a state law making such tax breaks an option at the local level.

McKamey has said he plans to leave the issue on “first reading” this month, meaning it won’t likely come for a vote by the full commission until Feb. 19. It would need 13 “yes” votes at that point to gain commission approval.

Some commissioners have said there are other ways the county could provide tax relief for the elderly, including matching the state’s property tax rebate program with local dollars.

Four commissioners are asking for a waiver of the rules today, seeking a vote on first reading on the proposal about membership on regional planning commissions.

If approved by the full commission, it would authorize Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey to send a written request to the state asking that the County Commission be “afforded the courtesy” of being the decision-making body for appointment of non-city members of regional planning commissions.

County Commissioners Terry Harkleroad, Michael Surgenor, Howard Patrick and Moe Brotherton are listed as sponsors of the proposal.

Also today, Commissioner James King, of Kingsport, is expected to ask the commission to reconsider a vote last month lending county support to a change in the state’s open meetings law (“The Sunshine Law”).

Under the current law, no two members of any decision-making government group can meet in private or without public notice.

King originally proposed lending county support to change that so that two members, as long as they didn’t constitute a majority of the group in question, could discuss government business.

When his proposal reached the commission floor for discussion, however, several commissioners pushed to amend it to lend support to changing the law to say any number of members of a body could meet in private, without public notice, as long as the number in question did not constitute a majority.

King agreed to the amendment, and his proposal was adopted by the full commission. But he changed his mind and announced the next day he would seek to rescind the vote — and return to his original proposal, that two members could talk things over in private if they did not constitute a majority membership of the group in question.

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

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