Sullivan County property tax freeze proposal put on ice

J. H. Osborne • Aug 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — You might say it’s been put on ice.

A proposal to “freeze” county property taxes, under certain guidelines, for property owners over age 65, didn’t make it to a vote Monday by the Sullivan County Commission.

In the eight months since the issue was first raised, the proposal had drawn little support among the county’s 24 commissioners.

It’s sponsor, Commissioner John McKamey, pulled the plug rather than put it to a vote — but promised to bring it up again next year.

A group formed in January to study the issue has since met twice, most recently in late July. Most members of the group said they’d prefer delaying action on the issue for another year.

In November 2006, voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment to pave the way for a state law making tax breaks for senior citizens an option at the local level. To become effective in Sullivan County, the tax freeze program must be authorized by the County Commission.

The property tax “freeze,” for homeowners over age 65 with annual incomes below an amount set for each county by the State Comptroller’s Office, has been adopted by 18 other Tennessee counties, as well as by 10 cities in the state.

For tax year 2008, the annual income level at which Sullivan County property owners (over age 65) would have been eligible for the property tax freeze (if it had been enacted by the County Commission) was $29,700. The 2008 figure for Washington County was $29,070. Most surrounding counties, which had a cutoff of $24,000 for tax year 2007, had gone up to $24,790.

McKamey wasn’t the only commissioner to pull a resolution that seemed headed for potential defeat Monday.

Commissioner Wayne McConnell withdrew his proposal to rescind commission action last year that authorized the issuance of $50 million in bonds for school building projects.

No bonds have been issued and were not expected to have been issued at this point. The resolution authorizing a bond issue — approved by the full commission in January 2007 — carried with it several stipulations, including completion of a study by an outside consultant of long-term school system needs.

Several commissioners said there’s really no need for such a resolution because in reality the bond issue authorization OK’d by the commission in January only approved the concept — and an actual bond issue would require another resolution and another commission vote.

Others said the resolution to rescind was somewhat premature, or presumptuous, because the study of long-term school needs isn’t yet complete.

The second phase of that study should be completed soon, County Mayor Steve Godsey said.

In other business Monday, the commission:

•Voted to increase the tipping fee for taking garbage to county-operated solid waste transfer stations in Kingsport and Bristol from $35 a ton to $37.28 a ton.

Supporters said the county’s solid waste operation has taken a double hit in recent months — higher fuel prices and a substantial increase in use by commercial garbage haulers, who are saving fuel money by using the transfer stations instead of hauling waste to the landfill in Hawkins County or elsewhere.

•Approved a change in benefits for employees hired by the county after Sept. 30. The move could save the county upwards of $300,000 a year.

Earlier this month, Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey said Moody’s financial rating service has recommended a health insurance change to keep the county’s bond rating up. He said the idea was driven by projections of increasing health care costs, a rising number of employees on insurance, and longer life expectancies.

The change will not affect the 117 existing county retirees older than Social Security retirement age, nor the 30 or 40 retirees younger than Social Security retirement age.

It will, however:

•Require all new employees to have a waiting period of three months to become eligible for enrollment in the county-sponsored health insurance plans.

•Limit all new employees to the “high deductible” health insurance plan until the first open enrollment after their second anniversary as a full-time employee.

•Require all new enrollees — employees and dependents — to enroll in any county-supported disease management program applicable to them upon enrolling in insurance.

•And not promise employees hired after Sept. 30 the benefit of retiree health insurance “until a funding plan is in place to assure liquidity of the program for current and future employees,” the resolution said.

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