Blount commissioners to discuss sales tax hike, adding new SROs

When Blount County commissioners convene Thursday, Aug. 21, they’ll discuss plans to increase the number of School Resource Officers from 10 to 18 and look at an effort by a grassroots organization to put a sales tax hike referendum on the November ballot.

Blount County commissioners on Aug. 14 voted almost unanimously to put discussion of a sales tax referendum on the Aug. 21 meeting agenda.

This is the next step in a grassroots group’s quest to raise the local option sales tax half a cent to the maximum allowed (9.75 percent) with revenues to be pledged for education.

Blount Countians for Education Excellence began meeting with local officials three weeks ago, lobbying to have the measure placed on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. Proponents said the idea is to capture this sales tax revenue for local school systems before the state does so and sends that money to state coffers.

While commissioners eventually passed the measure on for discussion at the upcoming meeting, it garnered much discussion, including how the new money would be split between the cities and county.

The current plan is for half the money to go to the three different school systems based on average daily attendance.

At commissioner Holden Lail’s request, County Finance Director and Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett explained the sales tax division, explaining that all sales taxes are remanded from the state to the county trustee and usually are about two months behind. “If the trustee puts in a million, the county gets 63.3 percent and 27 percent goes to Maryville and 9 percent goes to Alcoa. The second half is remanded to the jurisdiction where the tax was collected,” he said. “Maryville and Alcoa get the biggest chunk. The county gets our portion, and Rockford, Friendsville and Townsend and Louisville get whatever sales taxes they collected.”

Lail and others asked if the county could negotiate how the second half of revenues are distributed so that instead of going to the jurisdiction where they were collected, they went where students were.

“In my way of seeing it, even though the sales taxes are collected in Maryville, 63 or 65 percent generated comes from county residences and that represents students,” Lail said. “Rather than starting that split, why not, let it fall in the same portion as the population of students. The more students you have, the more need you have generated. In my way of seeing it, in terms of collections, most businesses exist in the cities, but most of the money is generated by residents of the county and most have students in county school. A fair distribution would be take that half cent and distribute it all by the population of students.”

Massey Electric Co. owner Randy Massey with the group Blount Countians for Educational Excellence, said the idea for pursuing the referendum to increase the sales tax came from state figures that showed 40 percent of the sales tax in Blount County was collected from transients, people from other areas spending money in Blount County.

Massey encouraged the commissioners to realize the people of the county needed to be on board with the cities so that everyone gets a share of the tax revenues.

“It’s in their interest for this to fail in Blount County and pass in the cities. As far as a negotiating tool, they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain,” he said. “We looked at Morristown and Hamblin County. It failed in Hamblin County and passed in Morristown. Hamblin County found out the reality that Morristown gets all the money.”

During the Aug. 12 Blount County Commission workshop, it also was announced that commissioner Steve Samples, County Mayor Jerry Cunningham and Sheriff James Berrong had come to an agreement to move more sheriff officers back into the schools.

The deputies had been taken out of the schools and put on patrol during budget tightening two years ago. The move was seen as controversial because the commission had budgeted funds specifically for the SRO program.

The commission will act on a budget committee recommendation to pay more than $125,000 for three new SRO positions. Sheriff Berrong will use money not spent this fiscal year, also known as turn back, to help fund the SROs. In addition, three deputies will be moved from patrol division, one from juvenile corrections and one from adult corrections.

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