published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Coffee County eyes answer to $2.5 million shortfall

BY THE NUMBERS

$2.5 million: Anticipated 2014-15 budget shortfall

25 cents: Equivalent possible property tax increase

$50: Equivalent possible new wheel tax amount

$1.2 million: Estimated annual cost of operating new jail

$600,000: Estimated annual cost of operating new school

$600,000: Estimated required by law to be given to city schools

Source: Coffee County, Tenn., government and officials

Operating costs of a new middle school and a new 400-bed jail could mean Coffee County, Tenn., residents get hit with a property tax increase, a new wheel tax or both.

The new facilities will produce a $2.5 million shortfall in the 2014-15 fiscal year's budget, according to County Commission Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Rush Bricken. That budget won't be set until June or July, he said.

Bricken said the three solutions commissioners are studying include a property tax increase of 12.5 cents to 25 cents, a $25 to $50 wheel tax, and spending cuts or a combination of those proposals.

A wheel tax or property tax increase are not popular ideas, but "the reality is the new jail and this new school are both going to generate additional operating costs," Bricken said.

Commissioners Lee Duckett and Tim Morris agreed with Bricken that the options are few.

Spending cuts by the commission and school board could soften the blow, but officials want to start working now so the public can learn about the possible solutions, the commissioners said.

The commission would place the wheel tax on the August ballot as a referendum question if that route is pursued, Bricken, Duckett and Morris said.

A $25 wheel tax on the county's roughly 50,000 eligible vehicles would generate $1.25 million. A 12.5-cent property tax increase would generate about $1.2 million, Bricken said.

The $22 million jail will require about 24 more employees than the old jail, and its location three or four miles from the courthouse will add some transportation costs to daily operations.

The new middle school will have about $600,000 in new operating costs, but that amount must be doubled under state law to provide matching funding for the county's two city school systems according to average daily attendance percentages.

Most people see that they don't use many of the services their tax dollars fund, Bricken said. Jails are for criminals, schools are for taxpayers with children, emergency services are for those with emergencies, but all are vital to a robust community that takes care of the essentials and looks to the future, he said.

The county's primary revenue source now is property taxes, but a wheel tax approved by voters would bring in money from everyone who owns a automobile, officials said.

A referendum on the wheel tax could be seen as voters' choice of solutions, the commissioners said. If voters nix the wheel tax, then they are saying they would rather a property tax increase cover the shortfall.

Morris and Duckett were adamant that people understand that the $22 million jail must be fully staffed and certified by the state so taxpayers' money isn't wasted.

The commissioners said the panel would work to educate people about the options and make the county's budget available.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com 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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