Thirty-nine Blount County civic entities taken together received just above $3 million in tax proceeds in 2017 from the Moving Blount County Forward (MBCF) one-cent sales tax increase Blount County citizens authorized by vote in 2016.
All entities contacted received their disbursements of proceeds as promised in 2017, the amounts were very close to the amounts projected, and all have gone about converting those taxes to benefits for citizens. Recipients included the county commission, the two county schools system, 13 municipalities, and 23 volunteer fire and rescue departments.
This article surveys those recipients of MBCF proceeds – by spot-checks in the case of municipalities and fire departments – in order to report on specific uses to which citizens’ tax money is being put.
Blount County Commission
The largest share of tax funds – 50 percent, or about $1.5 million – was designated for the county commission for use in maintaining county roads and bridges. In the 11 months of 2017, the commission actually received $1,417, 975. (Distribution of proceeds did not begin until February, due to the time required to set up the collection and disbursement system between the election in November 2016 and the January 2017 start date of the tax increase.)
The money is being used to service the annual debt on a loan of $9,999,999. The proceeds are being used to finance 23 projects to repave county high-traffic-volume roads – called major and minor collectors – some of which have not been repaved for more than 20 years. Of those 23 projects, ten were completed and another one partially completed in 2017. Road miles paved was 50.8, for a total cost of about $6 million.
Roads paved in 2017 included:
District 1: County Road 4 (Rickwood Caverns Road), County Road 7, and Armstrong Loop Road
District 2: County Road14; County Road 10; and County Road 21
District 3: County Road 28; County Road 29; and County Road 12
District 4: County Road 13; and County Road 57
Remaining to be paved in 2018 and beyond are 12 complete road projects and one multi-road project that was begun in 2017 (County Road 43/ Armstrong Loop and/Wallstown Road) and will complete in 2018. Total road mileage of these remaining projects is 54.2. Cost of completing them is estimated at $4.1 million, roughly the amount remaining in the commission MBCF budget after the first year’s paving outlay.
Roads to be paved in 2018 include:
(Those shown in bold have already been paved and are complete, lacking only finishing touch-up work, along with permanent striping.)
District 1; County Road 43/Wallstown Road (two roads, same project)
District 2: County Road 51; County Road 49
District 3: Springville Boulevard/ Boat Landing Road
District 4: County Road 33; Five Points Road
Roads to be paved in 2019 include:
(pessimistic view – one or more could complete in 2018 )
District 1: County Road 22 (Deans Ferry Road – bridge to County Line); County Road 37 (Joy Road)
District 2: County Road 35; County Road 34; County Road 36 (two districts)
District 3: County Road 36 (two districts)
District 4: Center Springs Road
“Moving Blount County Forward has allowed us to pave some roads not touched for between 20 and 30 years,” said county engineer Dustin Stewart. “It’s allowed us to get on a more frequent cycle – about 10 years instead of 15 years or more– for repaving these higher traffic roads.”
The two county school districts collectively received $916,468 in eleven months of 2017, or one-third of the total MBCF disbursement. According to a formula based on student enrollment, Blount County Schools received $773,980 during 2017, while Oneonta City Schools received $142,488.
Blount County Schools Superintendent Rodney Green
“Moving Blount County Forward funds have already helped the school board with a number of parking, sealing, and striping projects at Cleveland, Susan Moore, Hayden, Appalachian, and Locust Fork. These projects were completed last summer before school started back. We were proud to do these projects so our taxpayers could see their money going to work immediately all over Blount County.
“This new money has given us funds to improve the appearance and quality of our school facilities without having to borrow additional funds. We have also used funds from MBCF on our STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) initiative with the opening of a new state-of-the-art lab serving Cleveland Elementary and Cleveland High schools, and a new lab serving Susan Moore schools opening this fall. We are using funds to support our third grade Chromebook initiative which will put a Chromebook in the hands of every third grader in the district to use at school this fall.
“Currently, we are using MBCF funds to help support renovations in several schools and capital projects at J.B. Pennington High School and Locust Fork High School. We also plan to complete paving projects this summer and fall at J.B. Pennington High School and Hayden Primary and Elementary schools. The board’s plan for MBCF funds is to continue to improve technology, and to complete school improvements and capital projects at all schools across the district.”
Oneonta City Schools Superintendent Daniel Smith
“The MBCF tax funds will continue to be applied to the Chromebook lease, as it was last year. Academically, the benefits of Chromebooks provide our students with the best opportunity available to meet their future with college and career readiness through provision of a personal learning device. Digital curriculum, testing, and research are available on a daily basis. Student assignments are stored on “the cloud” and are accessible at any time in the home setting for middle school and high school students who are assigned a Chromebook, enhancing student engagement and digital availability.
“The gains demonstrated in student assignments are results that emphasize and validate the importance of student access to personal learning devices. These results also demonstrate that students are more engaged in the learning experience by using a digital device. Using the Chromebook in class is more efficient and fulfills requirements in reading comprehension and technology skills. The 21st century classroom is ideally suited for these digital devices, and we are witnessing the marked improvement in both student learning and academic gains as a result of placing Chromebooks into the hands of our students.”
Blount County’s 13 municipalities participated in the division of one-sixth, or about $500,000 of MBCF tax proceeds, based on town population, with amounts ranging from $10,000 to $13,000 annually for smaller municipalities located entirely within county boundaries to more than $200,000 annually for Oneonta. Two towns located partially within the county and partially outside, received smaller amounts. A majority of towns fell into the $20,000 to $50,000 annual range.
“We’ve collected $141,340 in Moving Blount County Forward proceeds so far this fiscal year since Oct. 1, so we’re on schedule to meet or exceed the $210,000 annually that was forecast,” said Oneonta City Manager Ed Lowe. “So far, we’ve been escrowing that money for future paving projects, and as far as I know at this point, that’s what we’ll continue doing. We’ve got some streets on a list that we’ve identified as high priority and when we’ve got enough volume of work accumulated, we’ll bid it out. The more you spend at one time, the more efficient it is, and you get better pricing. Of course, we can use some of that money to support local education as well, but for now we plan to use it for street paving.”
“Where it’s really helped us is paving all of our roads,” said Cleveland Mayor Jerry Jones. Cleveland’s annual disbursement is estimated at more than $41,000, according to MBCF projections, and Jones said the town has received monthly checks totaling roughly that amount. “We won’t use that money for anything but keeping our roads up,” he said. “It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. We’ve got our roads paved and we’re going to use that money to pay off our bond issue.”
Hayden’s MBCF allocation of $42,000 and change annually was accumulated last year and this year in order to combine with other funds to do a significant town repaving project, according to Hayden Mayor Larry Armstrong. “We’re fixing to do a big paving project just within the next little while,” he said. The project he’s targeting is Atwood Road, the three-lane road that connects Ala 160 to Hayden High School. He said the next project after that will probably be Second Avenue, the street that runs for two blocks behind Hayden Town Hall, serving both Hayden Middle School and the Hayden Satellite Courthouse.
“Any time you get extra revenue, you can put it to good use,” Armstrong said. “Most of our money will go to roads.”
“We’ve used our money (about $38,000 annually) to pave municipal roads, starting with the road that runs by Locust Fork school’s parking lot,” said Locust Fork Mayor Joe Hughes. Hughes said other roads that have benefitted from MBCF funds include Turtle Drive, Spunky Hollow Road, Keegan Lane, Pine Ridge Drive, Town Hall Road, and Old Town Road. “It’s a nice source of revenue,” Hughes said. “You have to sit on it and accumulate it a little while, but then you take it and mix it with other revenues, or use it as a match for other funds and you can make it stretch and do more projects that way.”
Blountsville’s annual disbursement was initially projected at almost $54,000 for 2017, and Blountsville Mayor Mike Glass said the town is getting a check of between $4,400 and $4,500 monthly. He said some of the money was used last year to make moderate street repairs, but that going forward the town will concentrate on street paving projects. “We’re going to use those funds for matching other grants and revenue sources and use it to pave all the streets in town,” he said. “We’re glad to get it, and we’re going to put it to good use,” he said.
Volunteer Fire and Rescue Departments
Blount County’s 23 fire and rescue departments split $50,000 evenly between them each year – $2,173 and change apiece. They get their money off the top and all in a lump sum at the beginning of the year. They got their first payday in February of this year. Departments included in this spot check have annual operating budgets ranging from less than $20,000 to $400,000 annually, so the impact on individual departments varies greatly.
Fire Chief Scott Payne said Allgood received its allocation right on schedule this February and that it has been a definite benefit. “We used that money to help us buy a new rescue truck after our existing truck went down,” he said. “We were able to buy the replacement truck and adapt it to what we need without going into debt. It’s not a terrific amount of money, but it definitely helped us out, and you know, even a small amount of money like that may be enough to keep some small departments from going under.”
“Any money you get is good money, and we’re thankful for it,” said West Blount Fire Chief J.J. Ivey. “We get a lot from the county, including fuel, and taken all together, it’s huge for us. As far as this distribution from the sales tax, we’ll probably use it to buy turnout gear. Fire departments always need replacement turnout gear. A full set costs about $2,500, so this money will just about provide us a new, complete set.”
Fire Chief Steve Pass said there’s no shortage of things his department needs to spend money on, and the new tax money may be used from time to time to help cover all of them.
“We’ll use that money to cover various operating costs. We recently bought a used brush truck and reconditioned it – added a 500-gallon tank and pump – and we’ll use it to fight brush and woods fires,” he said. “We’ll probably use that money to help buy Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) equipment to use in going into burning buildings, and for upgrading other equipment. One big thing that’s eating us up is insurance – liability insurance for all these trucks – we’ve got 12 vehicles now, and insurance is a major cost.”
Fire Chief Bob Sanford added to the apparently endless list of needs besetting volunteer fire departments – things that many smaller departments seem to have a more urgent awareness of than larger departments with larger budgets to work with. “We applied that MBCF money toward getting SCBA equipment and on hose testing and replacement. Just the testing takes more money than you’d think. We’ll also use it for things like truck repairs, engine repairs, turnout gear, and to accumulate matching funds for a new tanker. We had a storm here that damaged the station roof and ceiling. Those repairs aren’t cheap. We’re also thinking about getting a battery-powered extricator (to cut people out of wrecked cars). That saves on having to carry the fuel for it with you, eliminates problems with getting them started when you’ve got an emergency, and so on.”
New turnout gear may be the most realistic use for the first year’s allocation of sales tax funds for the Susan Moore Fire Department, but Fire Chief Jonathan Ledbetter has ideas on future needs as well. “We secured a pumper truck and we’re having it refurbished. Extra money will help with that. One thing we really need in this area of the county is better communications with dispatch, and there’s been some discussion about getting several departments to work together by pooling their funds to upgrade the dispatch communications system.” If that doesn’t work out, Ledbetter said communications can be improved for individual firefighters by providing new hand-held units.