The dwindling economy nationwide has had definite repercussions on tax revenues in Southeast Tennessee counties north of the of the primary Hamilton-Bradley shopping areas. But officials of two of the smallest counties said they’re seeing surprising increases in the tax take.
In Meigs County, sales taxes are up about 8 percent from last year, according to County Mayor Ken Jones.
“I don’t really have an explanation for that, other than our people are shopping more at home — at the Dollar Store and at the Piggly Wiggly rather than the Wal-Mart in Athens,” Mr. Jones said. A Super Saver grocery opened in southern McMinn County in August, he said.
New home sales and new vehicle registrations are down, but Mr. Jones said that doesn’t represent too great a loss for county coffers. Meigs doesn’t have large car dealers or major construction and hardware retailers, so it isn’t losing the tax from lost sales, he said.
The November unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, compared with 6.6 for the same month in 2007, state figures show. But Mr. Jones said two small industries in Decatur are planning to expand.
Total 2008-09 budgets for select rural counties:
* Meigs: $20 million
* Polk: $36.8 million
* Rhea: $47 million
* McMinn: $68.1 million
Source: County governments
He said county officials are being very careful with their budgets.
“We are having monthly department manager meetings to keep a close watch on our revenue screen,” Mr. Jones said. He fears that state lawmakers might try to plug a statewide shortfall by withholding state-shared revenues next year. That could mean major problems for all counties, he said.
“There is serious jockeying going on in the halls of state Legislature,” Mr. Jones said.
Polk County’s sales taxes for several months also were above last year’s levels, County Executive Mike Stinnett said, and property tax collections are “a tick ahead of last year.”
Mr. Stinnett said high gas prices and the economic slowdown could have kept people at home to shop.
He said county officials are operating close to the bone and keeping a wary eye on the state. He said December and January usually have a big inflow from property tax payments, and the county has been able to make payroll.
“It looks like we will make it to the first of the year without having to borrow on tax anticipation notes,” Mr. Stinnett said.
Rhea County, which has more retail trade than some of the smaller area counties, has lower sales and property tax collections, County Executive Billy Ray Patton said.
He said people are spending less and layoffs at local industries have hurt the county. He estimated that sales tax collections in the first five months of the fiscal year are down 15 percent to 20 percent.
“We have had to take out a tax anticipation note just last week for $100,000,” Mr. Patten said.
McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said the general fund is down about $11,000 and property tax collections are $400,000 lower than in the same period last year. But he said December is a big month for property tax payments.
Mr. Gentry said that although the county has $200,000 left from last year’s budget and about $9.8 million in undesignated reserves, officials manage the budget carefully.
“We have tight controls and most capital expenditures have been made before the first of the (fiscal) year,” Mr. Gentry said. He said no large expenses are planned for the rest of the fiscal year.
“In these times, we see the great benefit of being debt free,” Mr. Gentry said.
All the county leaders said that while this year is tough, they’re more worried about the economy and their budgets for the 2009-10 fiscal year that begins July 1.