It took four hours, 17 minutes, including 30 minutes of recesses, but Grainger County finally passed a tax rate for fiscal year 2020 on Monday night.
The Grainger County Commission studied several scenarios, but finally settled on a .38-cent property tax increase resulting in a $2.80 tax rate per $100 of assessed property value.
The county general fund will receive $1.47, followed by 16 cents for the highway department, 70 cents for the general purpose school fund, 28 cents for debt service, three cents for parks and recreation and 16 cents for solid waste and sanitation.
In spite of threatening to implement a wheel tax during the budget process, no wheel tax was proposed at Monday’s meeting.
Near the end of the meeting, Commissioner Darrell Stratton proposed a 38-cent property tax increase.
“I don’t like the way this was done to start with,” Stratton said. “I feel like when it was first started, it should have been stated that we needed 27-cents or whatever we stated with to put into the general fund to balance it. If we didn’t pass a ($20) wheel tax, then 14 cents would have had to been added to it. The budget committee has done a whale of a job.
“Thirty-eight cents is a lot to swallow. I will never vote for a wheel tax as long as I’m on the county commission for one reason: it will never come up. I own 110 acres of property and I’ve got 10 vehicles. I can pay my tags. I know we’re in a mess. I’ve been on county commission for 30 years. I’ve seen the good, I’ve seen the bad and I’ve seen the ugly. This is the ugly. Do I want to? No. I’m not saying that we don’t need the money. Before we run in here with all of these capital outlay notes, if we raise these taxes 38 cents, which we’re going to have to, I think next year there is going to be more money that we thought there was. (If that is the case) I’ll be the first one to say we’re going to cut the tax. I think 38 cents is too much, but our fund balance has gotten to as low as it can go and we’re going to have to do it. There’s not going to be any increases for anything next year. It’s tough to put it on the citizens, but I love Grainger County,” Stratton said.
The budget passed on a 13-2 vote with commissioners Rodney Overbay and James Acuff voting against. Voting for the budget were commissioners Justin Epperson, Gary Wayne Dalton, Johnny Baker, Darrell Williams, Mike Holt, Larry Johnson, Luke Stratton, Andy Cameron, Leon Spoone, Becky Johnson, Wendy Noe, Darrell Stratton and Scott Wynn.
Commissioner Wendy Noe said the days of five people on the budget committee deciding the tax rate are over.
“This is the last budget that the budget committee is bringing here and presenting to 10 commissioners to spend more grueling hours going through it cutting five dollars here and there,” Noe said. “That’s what we’ve done to get right back to where we are tonight. It’s not any less than what we started out at. So, from now on, it’s everybody. It’s all or nothing, people.”
The commission was trying to get the 2020 budget set in order to be sent to the Tennessee State Comptroller of the Treasury office for approval. Earlier this year, a representative from the office told the commission that they would have to change their habits of borrowing from the general fund to balance the budget like in the last few years or else face takeover by the Comptroller’s office.
“Unfortunately, we have dug ourselves a hole over the years (in borrowing from reserves to balance the budget),” County Mayor Mike Byrd said. “Now it is time to fill it.”
If the commission had not followed the Comptroller’s directions, the state would set a tax rate and decide on what services would be kept. Among the first cuts would be E-911 service and ambulance services.
“I’d hate to think that pride stood in the way so bad that I’d sit here and let the state come in,” Noe said. “We’ve seen this six times. We’ve all had ample opportunity to look at this same paperwork over, over and over again, not to mention half of us got it on this right here, (holding her cell phone). You can look at that any way you want to.”
“This right here (printing and copies of the documents) is part of the office expense if you think about that,” Commissioner Becky Johnson said.
“Stop being stubborn. That’s what it boils down to right now. I’m one of the most stubborn people you’ll lay eyes on. I admit it. I own it. We’re about to cut some services, and it’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Every one of us has a kid behind the wheel. What’s it going to be when they need 911 service? Who are they going to call? If you don’t have a child, you have a parent or grandmother, who are they going to call? If you’ve not needed them, you will. I guarantee it,” Noe said.