published Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Sequatchie, Bledsoe and Marion counties massage budgets amid shrinking revenues, higher costs

PROPERTY TAX RATES

Below are regional property tax rates per $100 of assessed value as of 2010, with updated rates for Marion and Sequatchie. Tennessee’s lowest rate is Pickett County’s $1.42. Memphis’ is the highest at $7.2157.

• Bledsoe: $1.8608

• Bradley: $1.7920

• Franklin: $2.4661

• Grundy: $2.0954

• Hamilton: $2.7652

• Marion: $2.17

• McMinn: $1.5553

• Meigs: $1.8251

• Polk: $2.18

• Rhea: $1.7496

• Sequatchie: $2.1386

Source: Tennessee Comptroller, Division of Property Assessments


ANNUAL TAX BILL FOR $100,000 HOME

These calculations are based on the property tax rate times a $100,000 home’s assessed value. Assessed value is 25 percent of the appraised value of the property divided by 100.

• Bledsoe: $465.20

• Marion: $542.50

• Sequatchie: $534.65

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The Sequatchie Valley’s three cash-strapped counties are using cuts and property tax hikes to balance budgets amid dwindling revenues and climbing costs.

Over the past three weeks, Marion County boosted its property tax rate by 50 cents to help cover a $1.5 million budget shortfall. Sequatchie passed a seven-cent increase Monday to shore up its fund balance and help support fire services, the rescue squad and senior citizens center.

Bledsoe officials, who backed away from a 41 cent hike last week, are testing the waters with public discussions on a likely increase.

SEQUATCHIE

Sequatchie’s woes stem from rising costs that depleted its fund balance, County Executive Claude Lewis said.

“The main thing is, for the last three years, we’ve spent more money than we’ve taken in,” Lewis said. “Our fund balance has gone down drastically.”

About $200,000 placed in the county ambulance service put a major dent in the fund balance last year, he said. The E-911 needed a $50,000 boost, and jail operating expenses were higher because it held more prisoners than expected, increasing food and medical costs, he said.

“Those items were the big tickets that decreased our fund balance,” Lewis said. “On the plus side, the sheriff brought in about $650,000 from holding state inmates [in the county jail].”

Sequatchie commissioners approved a sales tax referendum for next August’s election ballot. Voters will decide whether to raise the tax from 9.25 percent to 9.75 percent, Lewis said.

BLEDSOE

Tornadoes that struck Bledsoe in late April have caused budget delays and recalculations, but County Commission Chairman Craig Mercer said a tax increase of some kind is almost certain.

“We’re going to have a special called meeting Monday,” Mercer said.

Commissioners still need to study some of the funding data before they decide on a tax-increase number for a vote, he said.

“I would think about 20 cents maybe will do it,” he said, but some commissioners probably will fight that much of an increase.

Mercer said most of the problem is cash flow. Revenue collections and the county’s greatest periods of spending are separated by about six months, leaving county coffers low in the interim, he said.

The cost of operating the new Bledsoe jail was a little surprising, he said, but officials are projecting the county will offset that with about $600,000 earned by holding state inmates, he said.

“We’re going to have to figure it out,” he said.

MARION

The late-August property tax hike in Marion County aimed to offset a $1.5 million budget shortfall and possible government shutdown, officials said.

County commissioners whittled all the funding from Marion’s volunteer fire departments, about $193,000, and eliminated contributions to nonprofit agencies to help keep the budget ship afloat.

But the picture still is dismal, officials said.

“We are at a critical point right now,” Marion County Commission Chairman Gene Hargis told a packed house at a commission meeting in August. “We’re basically broke.”

County Mayor John Graham said Marion’s tax burden would be spread more evenly if voters pass a wheel tax the County Commission is considering for the August 2012 ballot.

Marion officials contend the wheel tax — paid whenever a car is registered in the county — would lighten the burden on property owners because most residents own cars while not all own property.

PAID UP?

Officials say the tax increases are a reaction to the poor economy and rising costs, but have those with taxing authority been staying up to date with their personal property bills?

County trustees in the three counties said county commissioners and the three county mayors are paid up as of Friday.

Hargis owed more than $700 until a little more than a week ago, and Sequatchie County Commissioner Barney Slatton settled a $37 partial balance on a jointly owned piece property last week, according to county trustee records and officials. Bledsoe commissioners were paid up for 2010, records show.

Sequatchie County Trustee Larry Lockhart said it’s not uncommon to get payments at different times from the parties of jointly owned properties.

“[Hargis’ taxes] weren’t really behind, he was just late and had to pay a penalty,” Marion County Trustee Sue Blevins said. “It hadn’t been turned over for back taxes.”

Bledsoe County Trustee Deanna Rains said property owners there, including those on the County Commission, have good records of paying their tax bills.

“I collect about 92 percent or so,” Rains said of county property tax collections.

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about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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