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Hawkins County commissioners compromise with 9.5 cent tax hike

Jeff Bobo • Oct 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Approval of Hawkins County’s overall $91 million 2009-10 budget, including the school budget, literally boiled down to whether or not two new janitors and a maintenance person would be hired for the new Justice Center.

It took three failed votes, a bit of compromise among commissioners, and a fourth vote including a tiebreaker by County Mayor Crockett Lee, but the Hawkins County Commission eventually gave its final approval Monday to a 9.5 cent property tax increase.

That sets the tax rate for 2009-10 at $2.705. For a Hawkins County residence valued at $100,000, this tax rate will increase their annual bill by $23.75.

Every penny of the property tax rate raises approximately $76,000 in revenue for Hawkins County. The sheriff’s office will receive 8.5 cents of the tax increase to pay 20 new jailers for the remaining nine months of 2009-10 at the newly completed 232-bed jail. That will bring the total of jailers up to 35, which Sheriff Roger Christian said should allow him to operate the jail with seven jailers per shift.

It also leaves the sheriff wondering how he’ll pay those jailers for 12 months next year.

Another half penny was plugged into the highway department to replace a half penny that was taken from that department last year.

And the final half penny — which came about as part of a compromise Monday, will be used at the county mayor’s discretion to supplement the existing janitor and maintenance staff for maintaining the new Justice Center courtrooms and offices.

Throughout this year’s budget process there have been three factions among the commissioners, including a group that wasn’t going to vote in favor of a tax increase no matter what.

The second group’s latest proposal was for 11.5 cents, which would have funded the two new janitors and a maintenance worker for the Justice Center as well as the new jailers.

The third group was looking for some sort of compromise, and for the most part objected to the hiring of the three new positions. That third group had, with a couple of exceptions, supported the 9 cent option which excluded the new cleaning hires.

Last week after the 11.5 cent option was soundly defeated, the commission approved a 9 cent tax increase by a vote of 10-10 with Lee’s tie-breaking vote. But because that meant amending the budget, which was written with the 11.5 cent option, the commission had to reconvene Monday to give its final approval with amended line items.

Over the past week that 9 cent option lost two votes and was initially defeated Monday 8-12.

Among the commissioners to change sides was Charlie Newton, who told the Times-News prior to the meeting that he’d been approached by approximately 100 of his constituents who expressed their disapproval of his support of any tax increase.

Following the first vote Monday, County Attorney Jim Phillips reminded commissioners that by failing to approve a budget Monday the county would miss the October deadline for submitting a balanced budget to the state. That meant Tennessee would begin withholding state funds, which would affect nearly every county department — but most profoundly the school system which couldn’t meet payroll.

Phillips also reminded commissioners that the county is under court order to open its new jail due to a federal lawsuit having been filed complaining of overcrowding, among other deficiencies, at the existing jail.

There was a second failed vote Monday on the 9 cent proposal, although it did gain one more vote the second time. The 11.5 cent option was also defeated.

At one point Commissioner Boyd Goodson, a supporter of the 11.5 cent option, moved to approved the budget at last year’s funding levels with no tax increase “and let the judge decide” how the new jail staff would be funded. He later withdrew that motion.

Most of the 11.5 cent group were opposed to the 9 cent option. Budget Committee Chairman Claude Parrott, Commissioner Fred Montgomery and Goodson were most vocal in their support of the 11.5 cents, not only because it allowed for more cleaners in the new facility, but also because it would provide a bit more cushion on the reserve fund balance.

According to the figures provided to commissioners Monday, the reserve fund under the 9 cent option would be down to $272,000, which Montgomery described as dangerously low and inadequate if the county suffers a major disaster.

What needed to happen for the budget to be approved Monday was a compromise between the 11.5 cent group and the 9 cent group because the “no tax increase” group was unwavering.

Following the third failed vote, the commission agreed to take a five-minute recess, during which there were a couple of private conferences among some commissioners.

Commissioner Danny Alvis had been staunchly opposed to the 11.5 cent option mainly due to the hiring of the three new staff members, which he described as excessive. Upon returning from recess, Alvis made a motion to increase taxes by 9.5 cents, with that extra half penny and the approximately $38,000 it will raise to be used by Lee for cleaning help at the Justice Center.

That option was approved by a vote of 10-10 with Lee’s tie-breaking vote. Commissioners in favor of the 9.5 cent option were Alvis, Goodson, Stacy Vaughan, Bill Henderson Hanes Cooper, Linda Kimbro, Virgil Mallett, Gorman Lipe, Carmel Maddox and Robert Palmer.

Those opposed were Newton, Parrott, Montgomery, Dwight Carter, Larry Frost, Chris Jones, Tim Simpson, Charlie Thacker, Shane Bailey and Gary Hicks.

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