Despite all the meetings and discussions, there has not been a consensus on what the budget should be and there is a wide diversity of opposition to the sharply divided Budget Committee’s recommendation that the new budget include a 9-cent increase in the property tax rate — going to $2.56 per $100 of assessed value.
The opposition ranges from those who believe the tax increase is too much, to those who oppose the committee’s recommendation to save the county government money by eliminating funding to many outside agencies the county has supported for decades.
The $2.56 proposed property tax rate would be divided so the county general fund receives $1.125; the county schools would receive 69.7 cents; the Elizabethton City Schools receive 36.3 cents; the county debt service receives 24.5 cents and the Carter County Highway Department gets 13 cents.
With the county’s general election just 17 days away and with early voting already underway, most county commissioners are acutely sensitive to objections from voters about raising taxes. Even in a non-election year, many commissioners resist any increase in the tax rate, especially one that raises the property tax rate by 9 cents.
For example, last year the commission could not agree on a smaller proposed increase of 4 cents. After numerous failed alternatives, the commission voted by a bare majority of 13 votes to increase the tax rate by 2 cents. Instead of cutting the budget to make up for the reduced revenue that would be coming in, the commission allowed the difference to be made up by reducing the reserves in the fund balance.
That is a method the commission has used several times in recent years, which has resulted in the fund balance being reduced from over $6 million to under $4 million during that time.
Budget Committee discussions this year also focused on another long-term effect of taking money from the fund balance rater than increasing taxes. The committee talked about a “hole” that just keeps getting bigger every year.
The hole they are referring to is the difference between how much the county is spending compared to how much money is being taken in from taxes. If a deficit is covered with funds from fund balance, that is only good for one year. The next year the expenditures will once again be out of balance unless the budget is cut or the taxes are increased. As costs and services increase and tax rates lag behind, the “hole” gets larger. That was the reason the committee said it now takes a 9-cent increase in the property tax rate to balance the budget.
While there will citizens attending the commission meeting to express opposition to a property tax rate, there will also be citizens, many of them residents of Elizabethton, who will attend to oppose the removal from the budget of many outside agencies the county has traditionally supported.
Members of the Elizabethton City Council have been especially vocal about the cmmission’s plans, especially the elimination of funding for the Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Department and the Elizabethton Senior Citizens Center.
This recommended removal is especially sensitive for the city government. City officials have pointed out for years that although the county contributes only a tiny amount to such organizations as the Parks and Recreation and the Boys and Girls Club, the users of these assets are overwhelmingly county residents.
The complete removal of county support from the parks led City Councilman Jeff Treadway to ask for studies to be done on the possible implementation of a user fee for county residents who use the city parks and its recreational activities.
Even with the removal of funding for many outside agencies, the county would still give nearly $1 million to outside agencies, compared to the $80,000 the city gives outside agencies. The county gives the following amounts:
• Volunteer fire departments: $415,000.
• Carter County Rescue Squad: $272,700.
• East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine for autopsies: $124,681.04.
• Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library: $65,600.
• First Tennessee Human Resource Agency: $30,570.
• Vocational Rehabilitation: $27,809.
• Soil Conservation: $20,999.50.
• Department of Agriculture: $1,000.