published Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Sequatchie County hikes property tax rate

Sequatchie County, Tenn., property owners will have to pony up almost 10 percent more in property taxes after a vote to increase the rate by 21 cents.

A chunk of the increase approved last week in a 12-3 vote stems from state requirements that county government fund the local school system at the same or greater level year to year, County Executive Keith Cartwright said. The rate was boosted from $2.13 to $2.34.

The school funding issue accounts for about 6 cents of the increase to cover the $384,500 "maintenance of effort" that must be made up from county coffers. The coming year's total budget is $32.2 million, down from just under $36 million last year.

"What we did was we structured a deal with the state's blessing that we give them 6 cents in this upcoming appropriations budget. We've not given the schools any new money in 13 years because they've done a good job with their money," Cartwright said, noting that about 76 percent of the county budget goes to schools.

The whole matter "is a budgetary issue," he said.

Cartwright was "aggravated" that state requirements wouldn't allow budget growth to take up the slack. That would have forestalled so much of a hike, he said.

Accounting for the rest of the 21-cent increase, 2 cents of the hike will go to the county's solid waste fund for equipment and an increase in tonnage fees at the Marion County Landfill, and the remaining 13 cents of the hike is earmarked for the county general fund balance, which Cartwright described as "scary low."

"We haven't had a tax increase since 2011 and in that time we've had three state-mandated raises for elected officials," he said. Those raises added up to about $150,000, he said.

Officials say other factors hitting the county budget are requirements to insure county employees and the change in ambulance service from county-owned to private, which got rid of some expenses but also nicked some revenues, too.

Commissioner David Martin -- who along with commissioners Jeff Barger and Denise Kell voted against the increase -- said it was the 6 cents for schools that stuck in his craw.

He said Sequatchie's school system already has $8 million in reserves and $960,000 in nonreserves while the state comptroller's office is requiring the county to toe the line on the maintenance-of-effort issue.

That combined with the fact that voters shot down sales tax and wheel tax referendums in the last couple of years left county officials with too few options, he said.

"That MOE is a problem for a lot of schools in rural areas," Martin said. "I voted 'no' because my people in the 8th District said they didn't want a tax increase."

Martin said he hopes the commission presses state legislators in the next legislative session "to get this can of worms opened up," he said. "But it's hard to beat the house sometimes."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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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