Sullivan to consider tax increase August 31

J. H. Osborne • Aug 18, 2017 at 9:32 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — It looks like the Sullivan County Commission may approve a tax rate and county budget on the last day not to miss a state-mandated deadline to do so.

The full commission has yet to see an actual draft budget proposal for the fiscal year that began July 1.

One is expected to be distributed to commissioners and thus presented on “first reading” at the commission’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, Aug. 21, at 9 a.m.

There’s little more on the agenda.

One thing that is known about the budget proposal: It will include a recommendation from the commission’s budget committee to raise the county property tax rate by about 8.5 cents.

The committee signed off on that during a called meeting earlier this week, based on an oral presentation from Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey.

Because of requirements in state law (publication of a proposed budget summary, advertisement of public hearings on the tax rate and overall budget) the commission will have to meet in a called session on Aug. 31 to have “second reading” and a potential vote on the issue.

The public hearing on the proposed tax rate is scheduled for 8 o’clock that morning. A public hearing on the overall budget will follow at 8:30 a.m. The commission will convene for the sole purpose of considering the budget at 9 a.m.

At a work session Thursday night, County Mayor Richard Venable said his office has been informed two of the county’s 24 commissioners won’t be able to make the Aug. 31 meeting. That drops the number of votes needed for approval from a simple majority of 13 to 12, Venable said. Because two of the 22 commissioners expected to be present can’t legally vote on the budget, because they work for the county, that means the budget and tax increase could pass with at least 12 “yes” votes, up to eight “no” votes, two passes and two absent.

Earlier this year the state set the county’s certified tax rate at about 11 cents lower than last year’s tax rate. In theory,that would keep a property owner’s tax bill close to the amount they paid before their property was reappraised during the recent countywide reassessment.

But this year the county went into the budget development process with two big-ticket items already on tap: $140 million for a school facilities plan (which is shared with the city school systems in Bristol and Kingsport) and resolution of Sheriff Wayne Anderson’s 2-year-old lawsuit seeking more funding for his department.

Late last year, the Sullivan County Commission agreed to issue $140 million in bonds for the schools plan. And at that time it was estimated it would take nine cents of the property tax rate to pay debt service on that loan.

Mediation between Anderson and County Mayor Richard Venable led to Anderson’s $6.6 million lawsuit being settled for about $2 million (that’s about 5.4 cents’ worth of property tax, based on the new $371,000 estimated value of each penny).

For the  commission to consider a tax rate higher than the state-certified rate of $2.4652 (per $100 of assessed value), it must advertise it as a tax increase — even if it is equal to or below the $2.5754 (per $100 of assessed value) property owners within the county (including in the cities) paid last year.

The Budget Committee voted to recommend a tax rate of $2.55.

Bailey said the county’s budget will: include about $5.8 million in new money for debt service on the school bond issue; include another $2 million in new money for the sheriff’s department; will shift 5.5 cents of the tax rate from the general purpose schools fund to the county’s general fund; and for the first time be designed to end the practice of sharing school renovation money with the two city school systems — a move that gains the county budget about $1.8 million.

The latter change is possible due only to a court decision elsewhere in the state a couple of years ago, Bailey said.