Sullivan commissioners OK 20 cent tax increase; sheriff ponders suing county over budget cuts

J. H. Osborne • Jul 31, 2012 at 3:28 AM

BLOUNTVILLE -- By a vote of 16-7, the Sullivan County Commission approved a 20 cent increase in the county's property tax rate Monday.

It will mean an owner of a residence appraised at $120,000 by the county will see their annual tax bill go up by $60.

It is the first increase in the county's property tax rate in eight years.

Still, the overall budget subsequently approved by the commission includes cuts in some funding levels -- some of which left Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson talking about taking legal action to ensure sheriff's and jail accounts have adequate capital to cover what he said are necessary operating costs.

Anderson told the Times-News he and his staff already have spoken with a lawyer about taking the county to court. That's a move state law allows constitutional officeholders -- such as a sheriff -- to take to make sure they have enough money to provide the services they are charged by law to provide.

Some commissioners -- along with some of the nearly two dozen county residents who spoke on the issue during a legally required public hearing before the vote -- said that eight years without increases was partially to blame for making the 20 cents hard to swallow.

Perhaps a "little bit" of an increase each year -- rather than having balanced the county budget year after year with fund balances -- might have been better, they said.

Commissioners who voted against the increase said they wanted to continue looking for ways to cut spending, rather than close the funding gap by raising revenue through a tax increase.

Others, however, said the budget development process has gone on for months and it was time to move the county forward, considering the budget in question is for a 12-month financial cycle that began July 1.

Those against the tax increase lobbied for another delay in addressing the issue, several pressing to postpone action on the budget and tax rate until Aug. 20.

Commissioner Ed Marsh introduced resolutions that he said would fund the county budget without a property tax increase. He withdrew it after the 20 cent property tax increase, and corresponding budget -- both introduced on first reading two weeks ago -- gained approval by the 16-7 vote.

Those voting for the 20 cent increase in Sullivan County's property tax rate were Ty Boomershine, Mark Bowery, Linda Brittenham, Moe Brotherton, Darlene Calton, O.W. Ferguson, John Gardner, Terry Harkleroad, Dennis Houser, Baxter Hood, Matthew Johnson, Wayne McConnell, Randy Morrell, Michael Surgenor, Robert White and Eddie Williams.

Voting against the 20 cent increase in the county's property tax rate were Cathy Armstrong, Bryan Boyd, John Crawford, Dwight King, Bill Kilgore, Marsh and Bob Neal.

In a subsequent vote, the commission approved the $163.6 million budget document.

Williams had said earlier that it would take $4.5 million in additional cuts to balance the budget without a tax increase.

The 20 cent property tax increase will help grow the county's general fund surplus, an action that Williams said is of utmost importance because of cash flow.

The proposed budget includes a reduction of about $800,000 in general fund spending, compared to what was appropriated for the 12-month budget cycle that ended June 30.

Actual cuts in the proposed budget include most capital outlay for county departments and reduction or elimination of county funding for several nonprofit concerns.

Some of those include: $12,500 from Bristol Parks and Recreation; $15,000 from Bays Mountain Park; $5,000 from Bluff City Park; $3,500 from the State Street Farmers Market; $5,760 from the Dawn of Hope; $10,000 from Kingsport Tomorrow; $10,000 from the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority; $10,000 from the Bristol Housing and Redevelopment Authority; and $5,000 from the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association.

Also cut: $3,000 each from the American Red Cross of Bristol and the American Red Cross of Kingsport.

Sullivan County's property tax rate, paid by all property owners countywide -- including those within the cities -- has been $2.1307 (per $100 of assessed value) for several years.

The newly approved 2012-13 budget is based on the 20 cent tax increase that raises the county property tax rate to $2.3307, designated to be split:

•66.88 cents for the general fund.

•2.02 cents for solid waste.

•7.96 cents for the Sullivan County Highway Department, which does not work inside the cities.

•$1.3858 for schools (city and county).

•6.74 cents for school capital and renovation projects (city and county).

•10.89 cents for debt service.

According to the budget document, the $1.3858 for schools will generate $47,389,222 -- which will be split (based on average daily attendance in each school system): $24,424,405 for the Sullivan County school system; $14,178,855 for Kingsport City Schools; and $8,785,962 for Bristol Tennessee Schools.

The 6.74 cents for school capital and renovation projects is projected to generate $2,304,830 -- split (also based on ADA): $1,187,909 for Sullivan County Schools; $689,605 for Kingsport City Schools; and $427,315 for Bristol Tennessee Schools.

Property tax revenue projections used in the proposed budget are based on each penny of the county property tax rate generating $341,963 -- a figure, in turn, based on a projected tax payment rate of 95.6 percent on time.

The last time the tax rate increased was 2004, when the tax rate went from $2.35 to $2.67.

But 2005 was a reappraisal year (which happens every four years) and the growth in valuation of properties, countywide, led to a certified tax rate of $2.53.

The "certified tax rate" is calculated in reappraisal years to prevent a local government from reaping a windfall, when large growth occurs in the overall assessment, without declaring a tax increase.

In the next reappraisal year, 2009, growth again allowed for a lower certified tax rate, and the $2.1307 was put in place.

Since 2009, the countywide appraisal has shown relatively little growth, actually dropping slightly in 2010.

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