Sullivan Commission approves nearly 8.5-cent tax hike

J. H. Osborne • Updated Sep 1, 2017 at 7:52 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — It was a topsy-turvy morning Thursday at the historic Sullivan County Courthouse as the Sullivan County Commission struggled to get through two public hearings and three agenda items: a tax hike; setting a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 (on the state’s drop-dead deadline date for doing so); and approving county funding to nonprofit groups for the budget year.

In the end, the commission squeezed out exactly enough votes to approve the budget and more than enough votes to raise the county’s property tax rate by nearly 8.5 cents.

Much of the public comment, on both the tax rate and the overall budget, hinged on complaints the budget is balanced by shifting money away from schools — including taking 5.5 cents of the county’s tax rate from the general school fund (shared with city school systems because city residents pay county taxes) and putting it in the county’s general fund (not shared with the cities’ school systems) and also keeping all school renovation money for the county system (the funds previously have been shared with city systems).

Many of the nine commissioners who initially voted “no” on the budget (two were absent and one abstained) cited disagreement with “taking” money from education as their chief reason for not supporting the budget and some proposed either raising taxes a higher amount or finding cuts elsewhere to lessen the hike. It was all to no avail in the end, about four hours after the first public hearing began at 8 a.m.

As for setting the tax rate at $2.55 (per $100 of assessed value) — an increase of about 8.5 cents more than the state certified rate — longtime Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams said it equals a 4 percent increase, which will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $22. Williams said some neighboring counties have had much more drastic tax increases.

The tax rate, originally the lead item on the agenda, got pushed to the end after Commissioner Pat Shull wanted to introduce a series of amendments to the proposed budget. Those amendments were ruled out of order for that portion of the agenda because they pertained to the budget itself, not the tax rate that funds it. Shull asked then to defer action on the tax rate until after the budget vote. Once that was agreed to, Shull was made to submit each of his seven proposed amendments — cuts he said would trim more than $1 million from the budget and save taxpayers three cents on the tax rate — in writing. As Shull sat writing the amendments separately, rather than on a list he’d brought with him, the rest of the commission stood in recess.

Shull’s biggest suggested cut: trim all general fund accounts by 1.5 percent, across the board. He said it would save over $800,000. But other commissioners said the sheriff’s budget is within the general fund and mandating a 1.5 percent cut would seem to contradict a court-ordered settlement giving the sheriff more money to settle his lawsuit against the county for more funding. County Attorney Dan Street advised the commission Shull’s proposed cut would likely run afoul of the settlement. Taking the sheriff’s office out of the equation would have reduced the more than $800,000 by more than $300,000, Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey estimated.

All Shull’s proposals eventually went down in flames.

Settlement of the sheriff’s lawsuit included a 5 percent raise for all of his employees.

School system employees received a 2 percent raise (plus funding of all step raises) under the budget adopted by the Sullivan County Board of Education.

Commissioners Mark Vance and Randy Morrell introduced an amendment Thursday to give all other “rank and file” county employees a 3 percent raise. For the general fund, which most of the employees work within, that will cost about $345,000, including benefits, Vance said. The commission agreed to the amendment.

When votes were first cast, the overall budget looked to be one vote short of the 13 needed for approval. But before the results were officially announced, County Mayor Richard Venable called a recess. About 13 minutes later, Venable called the meeting back to order and — as is customary on all commission votes prior to the results being officially called — the full commission was asked if any member wished to change his or her vote. The question was asked at least twice.

And voila, when County Clerk Jeanie Gammon was asked to announce the results, the vote had moved from 12 “yes,” nine “no,” one abstained (Matthew Johnson), and two absent (Larry Crawford and Bryan Boyd) to 13 “yes,” eight “no,” and one abstained, two absent.

The original dozen “yes” votes: Mark Bowery; Darlene Calton; John Gardner; Andy Hare; Mack Harr; Dennis Houser; Bill Kilgore; Kit McGlothlin; Morrell; Bob Neal; Vance; and Williams.

The original nine “no” votes: Michael Cole; Sherry Grubb; Terry Harkleroad; Joe Herron; Baxter Hood; Bobby Russell; Cheryl Russell; Shull; and Angie Stanley.

The “no” who switched to “yes:” Grubb.

The commission subsequently voted 18-4, with two absent (Boyd and Crawford), in favor of the tax increase. Voting “no” on the tax increase were: Harkleroad; Hood; Cheryl Russell; and Shull. Voting “yes” on the tax increase were: Bowery; Calton; Cole; Gardner; Grubb; Hare; Harr; Herron; Houser; Johnson; Kilgore; McGlothlin; Morrell; Neal; Bobby Russell; Stanley; Vance; and Williams.