Decision on tax hike up in the air

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By Damon Lawrence

School officials didn’t get a yes on their request for a 9-cent increase in the property tax rate when they met with the Roane County Commission’s Budget Committee last week.

They didn’t get a no, either.

The committee voted 4-0 to pass the budget along to the full commission without a recommendation.

“This is what we expected,” Director of Schools Gary Aytes said. “We’re good.”  

Last week’s action doesn’t mean the schools will get the increase, but it does allow the committee to move forward with setting up the public hearing on the overall 2014-15 county budget.

“This is going to give me time to study it,” Commissioner Randy Ellis said of the school portion of the county budget. “Then we’re going to have our public hearing. That’s going to give the people that we represent time to come tell us what they feel about it.”    

The public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 14, a week after the Aug. 7 election.

“I understand they’re asking for a 9-cent tax increase,” Commissioner Bobby Collier said of the schools. “I’m going to have to study it and see what’s in there.”

Ellis, Collier, Steve Kelley and Copper Bacon are the four commissioners who serve on the budget committee.

Ellis and Collier have opponents in the election. Kelley is unopposed and Bacon is not seeking re-election.

“I think my voters would want me to study it to make an informed decision,” Ellis said.  

State law requires the county to hold a public hearing before approving a budget. The law also requires at least 10 days notice of the public hearing.  

The budget committee will go into session immediately following the public hearing.

At that time they could again choose to send the school budget along to the full commission without a recommendation, or they could recommend that tax increase be taken out.

The committee could also recommend to give the schools a tax increase, but less than the 9 cents that’s being requested.

The ultimate authority on whether to raise taxes rests with the full commission.

Even though all 15 commission seats are on the ballot, the new terms don’t begin until Sept. 1.

The 2014-15 county budget could be approved during a special-called meeting in August before the new commission terms begin.  

“When would the commission vote on it?” Aytes asked.

“They could either have a special-called meeting, or they would wait until September,” County Executive Ron Woody responded.   

In June, school board Chairman Everett Massengill said he thinks the commission should wait until the new terms start in September before voting on the budget.

A 9-cent increase will generate an additional $1.017 million for the school system.

The schools asked for a 14-cent increase in the property tax rate last year, but the commission voted to keep tax rates the same.  

The meeting was packed with school officials and their supporters when the budget committee took up the school budget last year.

That wasn’t the case last week. No one from the public attended the July 21 meeting at the courthouse. Aytes and business manager Eric Harbin were the only school officials present.

“It’s certainly very unfortunate that the local taxpayers have to make up for the cuts in federal and state funding,” Kelley said.

“It’s awfully difficult to ask them to do that, but at the same time, schools are pretty darn important.”