published Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Hamilton County leaves tax rate unchanged

Mike Evatt, Chairman of the Hamilton County School Board
Mike Evatt, Chairman of the Hamilton County School Board
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Other action

In other business, commissioners:

• Approved a $550,000 contract with Galen Medical Group to start and operate an on-site health clinic and chronic care program for county employees. The clinic is slated to open in December.

• Voted to allow Register of Deeds Pam Hurst to start collecting a $2 fee for electronically filed deed documents.

• Agreed to change the commission meeting schedule. Starting Sept. 4, agenda sessions and commission meetings will be held on alternating Wednesdays.

Most property owners in Hamilton County will enjoy lower tax bills this year after commissioners voted Wednesday to follow Chattanooga’s lead and keep the county property tax at the 2012 rate.

Commissioners decided to keep the old rate instead of voting on a new certified rate that was seven-tenths of a cent higher. Instead of the proposed $2.7721 tax rate, residents will pay $2.7652 per $100 of assessed value on their homes.

Property values overall decreased in Hamilton County, so the certified tax rate was set higher to produce the same amount of revenue from taxes as last year. Instead, commissioners decided to throw taxpayers a bone, even if it’s likely worth only a couple of dollars. Retaining the lower tax rate on properties worth less money means smaller tax bills.

Commissioner Tim Boyd was the first to suggest keeping the 2012 tax rate. Commissioner Joe Graham made the motion. The vote was unanimous.

However, the decision means the county will have to pull about $255,000 out of the current budget, which was approved assuming commissioners would accept the new certified tax rate.

It also means the Hamilton County Schools will not get $270,000 due from the higher tax rate.

Schools accounting and budget director Christie Jordan said the system already pulled $1.2 million from reserves to balance the budget this year, so the $270,000 likely will be filled from the same source.

Mike Evatt, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, said the school system will carry on.

“In the overall scheme of things, that’s a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s going to affect us right off the bat. I think we’ll operate business as usual and see how it shakes out at the end of the school year, around budget time,” Evatt said.

Schools have a number of revenue sources aside from property taxes, and Evatt said there could be some savings realized at the end of the year.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said adjustments for the county also won’t be too difficult.

“We’ll go back and review that and do what we have in the past. In years gone past, we’ve cut $13 million out of a budget. We have no intention of doing anything but cut that money as we go along,” Coppinger said.

Coppinger missed Wednesday’s meeting to accompany Gov. Bill Haslam to a conference at BlueCross BlueShield.

But Coppinger took issue with Boyd’s assertion during the meeting that the 2014 budget included nearly $600,000 of “miscellaneous spending.”

“We can identify every one of those items. There is not miscellaneous spending. Those items just didn’t meet the threshold [to be listed as line items],” Coppinger said.

He also took issue with a claim that commissioners had not been given a copy of the finalized budget, which went into effect July 1.

“It was given to their staff two weeks ago, and it is their responsibility to check with their staff,” Coppinger said. Providing printed copies to each commissioner would cost $150 apiece, he said.

Also during the meeting, commissioners tabled a project to build a concession stand, restrooms and a storage facility at Middle Valley Recreational Facility until the $90 million credit line the county plans to use to pay for the $218,000 project is finalized.

Discussion started after Commissioners Greg Beck and Warren Mackey said they had similar projects in their districts that have been left by the wayside.

“How does a project like that get to the table before the projects I’ve been asking for eight years get to the table?” Beck asked county Finance Administrator Louis Wright.

Coppinger said the issue is easily explained.

“I think if I had been there, I would have had a better opportunity to explain that. It’s about us maintaining what we already own. It’s not like it’s something that never arises,” Coppinger said. He emphasized that the improvements at Middle Valley are needed because older facilities are deteriorating.

“For as long as the people will allow me to serve as mayor of this county, I will always address the needs — not what individuals want — and I won’t entertain those conversations. It’s about what is needed to move it forward. That’s what I’m responsible for and that’s what I intend to do,” Coppinger said.

Separately, Coppinger said he was displeased with the way commissioners spoke to county staff when they could not immediately answer questions in his absence.

“The staff works for the mayor, nothing’s changed. I’m extremely disappointed in the way that the staff was treated,” Coppinger said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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