published Friday, May 25th, 2012

East Ridge budget stuck in stalemate

  • photo
    East Ridge Vice Mayor Larry Sewell
    Staff File Photo

WHAT'S NEXT

East Ridge now has to have two more public readings and a hearing before it can pass its budget. Officials are planning to discuss methods to fund the budget during a public hearing Thursday.

East Ridge's budget is now in limbo.

About $1.4 million of city revenue -- the money it brings in from garbage fees -- is left in question after councilmen failed to agree on the best way to collect that tax during Thursday's meeting.

After the city's budget was voted down, councilmen engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth and sat through several strained silences before Vice Mayor Larry Sewell leaned forward and appealed to a dwindling audience to give them feedback.

"The clock's ticking. We need to dig down deep and find something," he said.

The city is faced with the dilemma of how to collect its garbage fees after Tennessee American Water announced it would stop attaching the fee to residents' water bills this year.

Officials say they have only two viable options, both of which have now been shut down by council members: Have the city bill and collect its own property taxes instead of Hamilton County and include the fee, or do away with the separate sanitation fee and make up for it with a 44 cent property tax increase.

That tax increase was the sticking point for Councilmen Jim Bethune and Denny Manning, who originally voted for the budget's first reading.

"I have a hard time telling people we're raising their taxes and getting rid of a sanitation fee when we can't control whether someone will bring back the sanitation fee later," said Bethune.

Bethune and Manning waited to cast their opposition votes until Mayor Brent Lambert, who is still in favor of the city billing and collecting its own taxes, voiced his.

The city does have another option: To bill the garbage fee separately in house or through another service. East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble insists it's not viable since it has such low projected collection rates.

"You're looking at $200,000 in lost revenue if we collect it separately. That's a conservative estimate," he said.

Despite the bickering over where the budget's revenues will come from, the council has spent very little time actually discussing its line items. Council members spent about one hour fielding budget questions to Gobble during a May 10 meeting.

During the public hearing about the budget, East Ridge resident Frances Pope said she did not think the council was addressing adequately the amount of money the city pays on its employees' benefit packages and the fact that the city attorney is thousands of dollars over budget.

Gobble said at this point the budget will remain untouched until a decision about the garbage fee is reached.

"What is clear is the council and the public are satisfied with the budget. What seems to the point of stalemate is the mechanism to fund it," he said.

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