published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Rhea County hunts for jail, school funds

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    George Thacker was elected Rhea County executive in 2010.
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The $48 million question for Rhea County leaders at a Fall Creek Falls State Park workshop this weekend was how to raise the funds to pay for both a new justice center and a new high school.

County commissioners, the mayor and other officials addressed two proposed capital projects and general budget issues like centralized maintenance, solid waste, potential county raises and possible layoffs. Fewer than 10 county residents made the trip to sit in on parts of the meeting.

The county already authorized an investment services provider to get a bond rating to finance a new high school, which could cost as much as $35 million. But some commissioners are not convinced the county will have enough to repay the debt.

“I definitely don’t want to go down as the commission that broke the county,” said Jim Reed, a commissioner from Spring City, Tenn. “I’m scared that we’re not going to have enough growth come in to handle that school.”

A local CPA previously raised concerns about projections the investment services provider relied on in quoting the predicted terms of the bond. At least two commissioners raised more questions Saturday. Reed said an upcoming reappraisal of county properties could decrease revenue.

Also, County Mayor George Thacker told commissioners that Gov. Bill Haslam warned local officials they should prepare for a 30 percent drop in state funding.

In addition to the school project, the commission is considering building a justice center, which would contain a jail, courtrooms and potentially the county’s emergency services.

The state decertified the county’s jail in June, after the county already had taken steps to build a new high school. A jail committee is considering a model based on Henderson County’s justice center, which cost about $13 million, Sheriff Mike Neal told commissioners Saturday.

Finance Director Jim Graham estimated that repaying the debt for a $13 million justice center would require new revenue — either a $38 wheel tax or a 16 cent property tax increase.

Commissioners voted down a wheel tax once. They discussed seeking a private act from the General Assembly for the wheel tax, but Reed said Friday that route would not help them bypass placing the measure on the ballot for a citizen vote.

A feasibility study yielded three potential sites, one of which is close to a county elementary school. Commissioner Bill Hollin, who earlier in the workshop talked extensively about the county’s need to improve its economic development efforts, argued that site shouldn’t be considered.

“I hate to show them a good looking school and 500 feet down the road show them a jail,” Hollin said.

Graham, who passed around a budget with a proposed 2 percent raise for county workers, said he once thought the county taxed property too much, but he’s changed his opinion. He said workers need a boost in morale after only receiving one raise in four years.

“We don’t tax enough,“ Graham said. A property tax of “$1.74 does not pay for the services Rhea County provides for its citizens.”

But several commissioners, including Reed, questioned the need of spending $140,000 to give that raise at a time when the county is scrambling to raise funds for a school and jail. Rhea County pays 100 percent of its workers’ health benefits.

“If we cannot afford to give a raise, what’s going to happen in two years?“ Reed asked “We’re either going to have to lay people off because we can’t afford to pay them or we’ve got to jack taxes.”

The commissioners and Thacker also talked about potentially laying off as many as five workers in the county’s centralized maintenance department, which is being restructured after the departure of former director Marty Derlak. After several rounds of attempting to tally the number of employees in that department, commissioners reached a consensus that it was 18.

“They can’t unstop a commode,” Commission Chairman Ronnie Raper said of some of the workers. At least one job that Raper estimated should have taken 11 days took 61.

Commissioners also asked Thacker to evaluate ways to reduce the cost of solid waste disposal, which lost the county more than $320,000 last year.

Commissioners kicked off their day with a breakfast buffet sponsored by Bell and Associates, the general contractor for the proposed high school.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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