Six-cent tax increase on table in Sullivan County

J. H. Osborne • May 29, 2019 at 11:48 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s Budget Committee voted Wednesday to recommend a six-cent increase to the county’s property tax rate. The recommendation will go to the full Sullivan County Commission on first reading at a called meeting, followed by a vote in a second meeting in June.

The county’s next budget year begins July 1. The budget committee will meet again next week.

The proposed six-cent tax increase would cost a residential property owner $15 per $100,000 of appraised value. For taxing purposes, property is assessed at 25 percent for residential parcels and 40 percent for business parcels. So a $100,000 home has an assessed value of $25,000 ($100,000 X .25). The tax rate is applied on every $100 of assessed value. In our $100,000 home appraisal example that means  $25,000 ÷ 100 = 250. Six cents times 250 equals $15.

The commission approved additional school resource officers months ago with the understanding it would require a two-cent tax increase in the coming budget year. The commission has been debating a request for more funding to pay for additional employees at the jail, a move proponents say would make it safer for both inmates and officers.

Increasing the jail staff could also ultimately save money if it reduces overtime, which Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy has said cost at least $71,500 just since Jan. 1. The Sullivan County jail has been under review by the state for nearly five years due to the constant overcrowding. The two jail facilities together are certified to house about 622 inmates. The inmate population in recent months has topped 900, and Cassidy said it will hit 1,000 this summer.

Commissioner Hunter Locke introduced a resolution last month originally seeking $2 million in new funding for the sheriff to pay for 32 new employees in the long-overcrowded jail. Locke later amended the resolution to seek $1 million for 20 new employees, and County Mayor Richard Venable clarified that the resolution, if approved, wouldn’t actually do anything other than amend the sheriff’s budget request for the upcoming budget year.

The commission ultimately approved the resolution this month by an overwhelming majority. And that’s how it ended up at the budget committee on Wednesday.

Venable, chairman of the budget committee, and Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey presented a draft budget outline that listed all requested departmental increases and potential sources of revenue to cover them. Bailey’s outline suggested giving the sheriff’s office $350,000 in new money to go toward new jail employees, estimating that would cover two new nurses and four new correctional officers. The $350,000 was based on projected revenue the county receives from the state for housing convicted inmates who haven’t been transferred to state prisons.

Citing the heavy support commissioners showed for the $1 million request at their vote earlier this month, Commissioner Colette George moved to approve Bailey’s proposal — and add two cents to the tax rate to make up the rest of the cost. Commissioner John Gardner seconded. The motion was adopted by the committee.

Bailey’s outline also showed it will cost about $65,000 to give state-mandated raises to elected officeholders. Commissioner Mark Vance asked how much it would cost to give all county employees a 2 percent raise and Bailey estimated about two cents on the tax rate. Vance proposed adding two cents to the tax rate to give employees the raise and it was adopted by the committee.

Vance also was the catalyst for changing another portion of the budget outline presented by Bailey and Venable: the committee voted to cut Sullivan County Trustee Susan Ramsey’s budget request to reflect her decision earlier this year to eliminate two full-time workers and one part-time worker when she closed satellite offices in Kingsport and Bristol. Bailey estimated the cuts will total about $100,000. Ramsey has said she planned to leave the positions in her budget because she hasn’t yet determined what it will cost to provide some other option to city residents to do business with her office without driving to Blountville.

Vance said if Ramsey objects, she can come to the full commission and explain why she needs to keep the money in her budget.