ROGERSVILLE — It took a “do over” on the part of the Hawkins County Commission — and the first tie-breaking vote of County Mayor Crockett Lee’s administration — but a tentative 2009-10 budget with a 9 cent tax hike was approved Monday.
Because the proposal approved Monday was an amendment to the 11.5 cent tax hike presented to the commission Monday, the commission recessed and will reconvene next Monday evening to consider final approval to the 2009-10 budget line items adjusted to reflect the approved amendment.
Last week the Budget Committee failed to approve a recommended budget proposal, which meant the commission was presented Monday with the 11.5 cent proposal that had already been soundly defeated earlier this month.
Commissioner Virgil Mallett made a motion to amend that budget to include an 8.5 cent tax hike for the sheriff’s office to fund 20 new jailers for the new jail, as well as another half penny that replaces what was taken from the highway department last year.
Mallett’s amendment also set a partial spending freeze, with spending at last year’s levels except where otherwise mandated such as pay scale increases, contracted services and utilities.
There have been three subgroups on the Hawkins County Commission throughout this year’s budget process, including a group of about a half dozen commissioners who weren’t going to vote in favor of any level of tax increase no matter what.
There’s also a contingent of about a half dozen who wanted to fully fund the jail staffing to include two new janitors and a maintenance worker. The third group was waiting for some sort of compromise.
Initially, Mallett’s 9 cent proposal wasn’t enough compromise, as it failed by a vote of 9-11.
Then the original 11.5 cent tax hike proposal failed by a vote of 6-14. At that point the budget issue was dead, and the commission was preparing to move on to the next item on the agenda.
County Attorney Jim Phillips warned the commission that it is legally mandated not only to present a balanced budget to Nashville next month, but it is also under court order to open the new jail at recommended staff levels.
Commissioner Stacey Vaughan made a motion to reconsider the budget. Mallett then made a motion for his same 9 cent amendment.
Budget Committee Chairman Claude Parrott, who favored the 11.5 cent proposal, warned commissioners that the 9 cent proposal wouldn’t provide enough funding to operate the new Justice Center and jail. While it will allow Sheriff Roger Christian to pay for 20 new jailers for the remaining nine months of this fiscal year, it doesn’t allow for the janitor or maintenance positions.
Commissioner Fred Montgomery echoed Parrott’s concerns. He said it made no sense for the county to build a $15 million Justice Center and then not fund enough people to keep it clean.
Montgomery said the Justice Center will look like a “dump” in three months. Commissioner Danny Alvis said Justice Center employees should take out their garbage and sweep their floors.
Montgomery also cautioned against the dangerously low fund balance that the 9 cent proposal will leave, although that figure won’t be known until the line items are adjusted.
The second time around, Mallett’s proposal reached a 10-10 vote. Lee, who only votes to break a tie, said he doesn’t approve of the 9 cent option but voted yes for the purposes of breaking the stalemate.
Three commissioners changed their vote the second time the 9 cent proposal was considered. Commissioner Tim Simpson voted in favor of the amendment in the first vote but against it the second time. Commissioners Charlie Newton and Robert Palmer voted against it the first time and in favor the second time.
Commissioners who voted in favor of the 9 cent option both times were Alvis, Vaughan, Mallett, Hanes Cooper, Linda Kimbro, Bill Henderson, Gorman Lipe and Carmel Maddox.
Commissioners who earlier had voted in favor of the 11.5 cent option included Montgomery, Simpson, Parrott, Henderson, Maddox and Boyd Goodson.
“I don’t know why 9 cents sounded so much better to some commissioners than 11.5 cents,” Mallett told the Times-News after the meeting. “A car that sells for $999 seems like a better deal than a car that sells for $1,000, even though the amounts aren’t that much apart. The bottom line is we needed to get something approved, and this was what I thought could pass.”
Vaughan told the Times-News after the meeting his constituents had pressured him to hold the line on taxes.
“Of course the people I talked to would prefer no tax increase,” Vaughan said. “But if there’s no way around it, they asked me to take it as easy on them as possible. I think that’s as low as we could go and still open the new jail.”