Vote on budget set today

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Schools chief said he doubts 14-cent tax hike will pass

By Damon Lawrence

Roane County Commission is set to vote today – Monday – on the county’s no-tax-increase budget.
The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at the courthouse in Kingston.
The county’s current property tax rate is $2.18 per $100 valuation. The Roane County Board of Education is requesting an increase of 14 cents to make up a $1.582 million shortfall. The commission’s budget committee is recommending that the tax rate remain at $2.18.
School officials have attributed the shortfall to declining enrollment and changes in the formula that the state uses to allocate money to school systems.   
Roane County Director of Schools Gary Aytes didn’t voice optimism about the tax increase when discussing the issue last month.
“We’re not going to get the money,” he said. “We’re not going to get the tax increase.”
Aytes said the school system has two options without the increase.  
“We have enough in surplus that
we can use about $1 million,” he said. “It will get us below what the state says we have to have, but we have to do what we have to do.”  
The other option, Aytes said, is making cuts.  
“Everything we’ll try to cut will be something that does not impact our achievement,” he said.
“If we cut every position that we have besides the classroom teachers, we could cut $1.5 million, but then we would have nothing to offer students. Nothing.”
Any of the 15 commissioners could move to amend the budget at today’s meeting to include additional funding for the school system.
At a public hearing last month, school board members indicated they’d be willing to accept less than the 14 cents.  
The county’s property tax-abatement program is set to expire on July 14. The commission can prevent that from happening by voting to extend the program for six months. A resolution to do that is also on the commission’s agenda.
“I very much would like the program to be extended,” said Leslie Henderson, president and CEO of The Roane Alliance. “It would be very difficult for us to be competitive in the industrial recruiting arena without a tax-abatement program.”
Industries that have received tax abatements over the years include H.T. Hackney, Volkswagen and Toho Tenax.
Henderson said the program has been in effect since 2005 on a three-year renewal cycle in conjunction with Oak Ridge and Anderson County.
“The six-month extension will allow us time to look at the present program to see what if any changes are needed and also allow us to coordinate our expiration date with Oak Ridge’s tax abatement program, which expires in December,” she said.
Economic development officials had discussed exempting the school portion of property taxes on future abatement deals, but Henderson said her research showed it was not a widespread practice and would make Roane County uncompetitive.
The abatement program’s impact on the school system was discussed during a budget committee meeting last month.
Each side had a different take.
Roane County Executive Ron Woody, who chairs the budget committee, said talk about the program costing the school system millions of dollars is not true.
“I think the most that’s being abated in education is about $250,000,” Woody told school officials.
“So if we had no abatement programs out there, you all would probably have $250,000.”
Aytes said the abatement program is not hurting the school system.
“Some people have fussed about the tax abatement,” he said. “The tax abatement itself doesn’t hurt us. It’s cost us about $60,000 or $70,000.”
Aytes said where the school system gets hurt is on the funding formula.
“The change in the ability to pay has cost us about $600,000,” he said.  “If they (the state) hadn’t changed the TACIR model or if Roane County hadn’t added the industrial parks, we’d be in great shape. We’d never have to ask for a tax rate increase.”