BLOUNT COUNTY COMMISSION…

Tax proposal modified in special meeting; unit system creeps forward

In a 3-0 vote with District 2 Commissioner Carthal Self abstaining, the Blount County Commission Thursday rescinded two provisions of its Dec. 14 1-cent sales tax resolution. Self, who had voted against the original resolution, abstained saying he had “already voted my conviction” on the matter.

Tax resolution action

Removed from the resolution was provision 2, authorizing collection of an additional .5 percent sales and use tax on gross receipts for agricultural and manufacturing tax categories, and provision 6, authorizing collection of an additional sales and use tax of .5 percent on automotive vehicles, including travel trailers, mobile homes, and boats. Municipalities are restricted to use of their distributions for roads and bridges and educational purposes only.

The action reduced the amount of taxes produced by the plan by about $440,000 annually, including about $330,000 that would have flowed directly to the county’s general fund, averting an operational crisis in the near future. The general fund supports all aspects of county government, including county employee salaries and benefits, law enforcement, expenses of all other departments (other than road/bridge maintenance), and all other categories of county expenditure such as public health, welfare, culture/recreation, and education.

The revised resolution has been forwarded to members of the Blount County legislative delegation, who have been asked to draft enabling legislation required for the county to allow citizens to vote on the 1-cent sales tax increase in the November election this year.

Unit system action

The commission also passed a motion to conduct a comprehensive study of the unit system of county administration, detailing its organization, projected cost savings, and equipment needed, headed by District 4 Commissioner Gary Stricklin and county engineer Winston Sitton. The study would be presented to the commission following the six-month period allowed for its completion and used as a basis for decision on whether to proceed with unit system implementation.

Discussion

District 3 Commissioner Dean Calvert briefly reviewed the commission’s recent history of gradual migration toward the unit system, concluding with the statement that he is an advocate of the unit system, but that changing over in the near future would be premature. He said it needs to await implementation of a comprehensive management information system providing road data the engineer’s office will use to scientifically manage road maintenance and improvement. That will require about two more years, he said.

Calvert, who did much of the legwork on the road plan leading to the tax resolution, then reviewed aspects of the plan, focusing on the 20 roads (70 plus miles of farm-to-market roads) to be repaved as a result of the one-cent tax increase plan.

In addition to about $1.5 million annually devoted to road improvement, other components of the plan include about $1 million annually to be split between the county’s two school systems, about $500,000 annually to be split among county municipalities, and $50,000 annually to be split among the county’s volunteer fire and rescue departments.

Although not a part of the 1-cent tax increase plan, Calvert also introduced a new proposal to address rural residential roads (“pull-up” roads) not a part of the major /minor collectors (often called farm-to-market roads) paving plan. He proposed earmarking the $600,000 annual revenue that would accrue to Blount County as a result of the Governor’s 5-cent gas tax proposal – if passed by the Legislature – for use exclusively on the county’s approximately 800 miles of pull-up roads.

The special meeting was conducted before a full house of more than 30 squeezed into the commission boardroom, including a cross section of county leaders, with additional folding chairs placed in the aisle to accommodate late arrivers.

Public criticism and commission push-back

In the public comment part of the meeting, more than a dozen leaders and residents spoke, with comments generally supportive of the tax increase and in favor of conversion to the unit system. Several comments were openly critical of commissioners’ “squabbling” among themselves and failure to work together for the good of the county.

When one commissioner asked a unit system proponent why it didn’t make sense for the commission to appoint a committee to study the prospect of unit system conversion, the elderly gentleman echoed the tenor of the discussion when he replied, “Because y’all won’t never get together on anything.”

Commissioners’ response to many of the public comments, with the exception of Stricklin, who requested the special meeting, was defensive and/or argumentative.

Other comments from the floor focused on the need for the commission to conduct public meetings to inform residents about the needs underlying both the tax increase and the unit system conversion. At various times, the commission has acknowledged the need for such meetings, and has indicated it plans to conduct an aggressive public information campaign in the coming months in connection with both matters.

In a comment before opening the floor for discussion, Commission Chairman Chris Green made the following statement:“I support the sales tax resolution 100 percent. We have a window of opportunity here to help the whole county. A whole lot? No. It’s not that much money. Enough to make a difference? Yes. We have until November to educate the public to show them the needs and the benefits. If every one of these groups who benefit – schools, municipalities, fire departments, and road proponents pull together, we can help the whole county, especially as it looks to the future. Education and infrastrucuture – that’s what the economic future of the county depends on. We’ve been told that over and over. If we don’t all work together and pull it off, I don’t know what else we can do, but I don’t want to miss this opportunity.”

The Blount Countian asked Green to comment on the meeting and its outcome.

“It (the meeting) was a pivotal moment in the future of the county,” he said.“If there’s any doubt, just look at the size of the crowd, the cross section of leadership present, how many of them spoke out, the relevance of their comments to the good of the county, and so on.”

On loss of the general fund support in the resolution, Green added:“We have struggled in recent years to hold our ground on general fund expenditures. However, as costs go up, we need a shot in the arm as we look to the future. As expenses go up – salaries, insurance, maintenance, fuel, utilities and everything else we keep having to squeeze other areas of the general fund to cover those increases. We’ve been doing it for several years. There’s a limit to how much we can squeeze and still maintain the quality of services people expect. This would have given us a little breathing room for the next few years.” _______________________________________________

Motion modifying sales tax resolution of Dec. 14, 2015 (Language of record.)

“To omit item 2 that references agriculture and manufacturing; to omit item 6 that references automotive sales tax; and to add language regarding municipalities in item 5, subsection 4, that restricts the municipal portion to roads and bridges and general educational purposes within the limits of Blount County.”

Motion to develop unit system implementation plan (Language of record.)

“Motion…authorizes the county engineer, working in conjunction with the county administrator, Commissioner Gary Stricklin, and other commissioners as time allows, to develop a suggested plan of implementation for the conversion to a unit system in Blount County that would include an organizational structure, estimate of potential monetary savings, and a list of required equipment to operate a unit system, and that such plan be presented for commission consideration within six months.”