UPDATE: County Attorney Jim Phillips informed Commission chairman Mike Herrell Friday that wheel tax changes must be approved in back-to-back monthly meetings, so Herrell’s plan to do the fist vote at a special called meeting on Aug. 19 has been scrapped. The first wheel tax vote will be at the regular Aug. 26 meeting, and if it is approved, will come up for a final vote at the Sept. 23 meeting.
ROGERSVILLE – The Hawkins County Commission's Budget Committee entered Thursday's workshop with a proposed 2019-20 fiscal year budget that was about $8,000 in the red.
But, thanks to a 4-3 Budget Committee vote recommending a $5 reduction to the county's wheel tax, commissioners exited Thursday's budget workshop with a proposed 2019-20 budget deficit in excess of $260,000.
The next test will be an Aug. 19 vote by the full commission — the first of two required votes that must have two-thirds approval, or 14 of 21 votes.
Budget Committee Chairman John Metz only anticipated some minor tweaking and tying up some loose ends Thursday on the county's proposed budget, which after three months of preparation and several workshops was to go before the full commission on Aug. 26 for final approval.
Budget Committee member Rick Brewer's motion Thursday to reduce the wheel tax by $5, decreasing county revenue by more than $250,000, seemed to come as a surprise to Metz, county finance director Eric Buchanan and some of the other commissioners in attendance.
Two years ago, the commission approved a $40 wheel tax hike, increasing the overall cost of tags in Hawkins County to $96.
The purpose of that increase was to address a $2 million revenue deficit in the county budget. Metz noted that the county is now headed in the right direction, with the county general fund ending this past fiscal year with $5.9 million in savings.
“Late in the ball game”
Brewer reminded commissioners that on the first day of budget hearings in May he said he wanted to reduce the wheel tax this year if possible.
“The mayor and I discussed it, and he says if we can't come up with the money, that he will help us find the money to do a $5 reduction,” Brewer told the committee. “I know it's getting late in the ball game to try to do all this, but I think it's important that we do this.”
Also on the table in this budget is a new salary scale for approximately 100 employees who are paid from the general fund. That salary scale will increase pay for all employees and will cost about $168,000 each year for three years to fully implement.
Brewer said he is in favor of the salary scale. It addresses county employee pay, which is universally agreed to be substandard, but Brewer noted that many taxpayers are struggling financially as well, living on fixed incomes below the poverty level.
“It's a gesture of good faith”
Brewer said he wants to try to make everybody happy this budget year, including employees and taxpayers.
“Personally, I'd like to see a little more intellectual prowess put into factoring this, rather than just saying $5,” said Metz, who noted that $5 won’t mean much to the average family — but will have a major impact on the budget’s bottom line.
Brewer: “Five dollars ain't a lot, but it's a start. It's a gesture of good faith.”
Metz suggested an abatement program for citizens living in poverty, as opposed to an across-the-board $5 cut. He said such a program might cost $50,000 instead of $250,000.
Metz: “It just really concerns me that we, right off the bat, cut revenue by a quarter of a million dollars, and not have a good calculated plan in place. … Just doing $5 straight off the top, and a quarter million dollar hit to your bottom line, I don't know if that's very responsible.”
“That's not the way it's supposed to work”
Commissioner Danny Alvis, who was among several commissioners not on the Budget Committee who attended Thursday's meeting, said he wouldn't vote in favor of the new salary scale unless the $5 wheel tax reduction is approved as well.
Budget Committee member Valarie Goins said she feels bullied by some commissioners who are using the employees' pay raises as leverage to get a wheel tax reduction.
“You guys are saying we'll give them (county employees) their pay raise if you take $5 off the wheel tax,” she said. “That's not the way it's supposed to work. ... We've got to try to be the best stewards of the money we can. Yeah, we do keep spending money, but we have to spend money in order to provide services for our county. We can't just go out and cut $5 wheel tax on all these people and not know where we're going to make it up at.”
Budget Committee member Raymond Jessee said he ran for county commission with the purpose of reducing the wheel tax.
Budget Committee member Keith Gibson said the wheel tax was a major concern for him when he ran for office as well, but he said he’d like to wait one year to work on a wheel tax reduction.
Gibson: “After getting in here and seeing the budget, I’d hate to see us take this $5 off, and after one year have to come in and put it right back on.”
“I was budget chair for a foolish decision”
Brewer, Charlie Thacker, Mike Herrell, and Jessee voted in favor of the $5 wheel tax reduction, while Metz, Gibson and Goins voted no.
Metz: “I will go on record and say I’m not responsible for this because history will show I was budget chair for a foolish decision.”
Changing the wheel tax requires two votes of the full commission, with two-thirds approval — or a minimum 14 total votes — required both times.
Commission chairman Mike Herrell said he will schedule a called county commission meeting for Aug. 19 at 6 p.m., one week before the regular monthly commission meeting on Aug. 26, to consider the first required approval of the $5 reduction.