Samples pitches plan to lock tax rate using Alcoa, Inc., money

County commissioner Steve Samples has a plan for keeping the Blount County property tax rate steady.

During the June 9 Blount County Commission agenda meeting, Samples said he will vote against the proposed budget that requires an 11-cent property tax increase. The budget will be voted on during the Thursday, June 16, regular commission meeting.

“I want to let everybody know and put you on notice that at the full commission, I intend to make a motion to keep the tax rate at $2.04 (per $100 of assessed value) with the following plan,” he said. “A lot of this is based on the announcement we heard that Alcoa, Inc., will settle a 10-year-old lawsuit which will mean additional money will come into fund balance. Hopefully, next week I will have more definite numbers. I will make a motion keeping the tax rate at $2.04 and will give you a plan.”

An hour and a half before the commission agenda meeting, Blount County Property Assessor Mike Morton announced that Alcoa, Inc., chose not to appeal a State Court of Appeals ruling in regards to a 10-year lawsuit filed by the company against the county. The suit disputed that they pay personal property taxes to the county for the raw materials used at Alcoa Tennessee Operations.

Morton said at the press conference the county conservatively could expect to get $2.1 million and the City of Alcoa would receive $2 million.

(For the complete story on the back taxes, go to www.BlountToday.com.)

The county would have to split its share with the cities of Alcoa and Maryville since property owners in those municipalities also pay county property taxes.

“With the Maryville-Alcoa split, it leaves the county at $1.62 million,” Samples said during the agenda meeting. “It would put $600,000 back to schools, $370,000 in debt service and $650,000 in general county.”

Samples said that, according to the Finance office numbers, there is currently $16.8 million total fund balance with $2.09 million in the schools fund, $10.8 million in Debt Services and $3.1 million in the General Fund.

“With turn-back and the estimates on the Alcoa money and that division, the plan I will submit would be that we use a total of $1.58 million of the $16.8 million, leaving $15.2 million in the three fund balances,” Samples said.

(Turn-backs are monies departments were budgeted but did not spend that are turned back to the county at the end of the fiscal year, June 30.)

Samples said that when he was re-elected to commission in 2006 after leaving when he ran unsuccessfully for county mayor in 2002, “There was less than $800,000 in fund balance. I don’t think it will hurt for us to use money people have already been taxed and that we have in our account making interest to keep from raising taxes this year,” he said. “If you already have taxpayers’ money, use the money you’ve got and make cuts.”

Sample said this year there were $2.5 million in cuts made in the General County budget. “You can’t make all the cuts at once. We’ll make more cuts next year. I think we will have to. I think we have to look at insurance. There are a number of things to look at, but my point is this, if you want a plan to keep from raising taxes that uses less than $2 million in fund balance, this will be our chance. I will vote against sending this budget proposal because I don’t agree with a $2.15 tax rate. Next week I will make an amendment to keep it at $2.04.”

Commissioner Jim Folts said he appreciated Samples’ efforts. “I think they’re heading in the right direction, but this is a bad budget. It continues spending that is too high and the only serious cuts made are in the Mayor’s area. There are no serious cuts in most other areas. Nearly half the budget is in the Sheriff’s Department, and there were no serious cuts made there,” he said. “We’re talking about using savings account money to make it through this year, and we will be facing a bigger problem next year. This is a bad budget, and I won’t vote for it.”

The commission voted 16-4 to pass the proposed budget and tax rate increase to the full commission for a vote. Commissioners Samples, Folts, Gerald Kirby and Monika Murrell voted no, and Commissioner Brad Harrison was absent.

Commissioner Gordon Wright, Sr., made a motion to form a committee to search out where the county is losing revenue. “I’ve tried to find a more objective way of looking at helping our taxpayers out and keeping the tax rate the same. This survey and research I’ve done or am in the process of doing has mushroomed to such a point that I’m going to need help. At the commission meeting, I will be asking for volunteers from this commission to help me put this together,” he said.

Wright said Blount county’s tax base is unlike other counties. “We do not have the same amount of taxable property as most counties. We’re a unique county,” he said. Wright showed a color-coded map showing 50 percent of the county’s property isn’t taxed. A large portion includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wright said the county owns 116 parcels of property that are not on the tax roll. “There’s no reason some of these can’t be on the tax roll,” he said.

The commissioner said he also is looking at revenue the county is losing to other jurisdictions in the way of commercial services and materials that are supplied to the county from outside of Blount County. “That means, if you pay a bill in Knox County, it doesn’t come to Blount County. We also have Sevier Natural Gas in Blount County, and all those people are paying bills, and we don’t get a dime. This thing is growing to such monstrous proportions that we have a lot of lost revenue we need to capitalize on.”

Commissioners Wright, Mike Caylor, Tab Burkhalter, Ron French and Rick Carver volunteered for the committee that the commission approved 19-0-1 with French abstaining.

Some of the more contentious discussion came when Commission Chair Kenneth Melton asked for a committee to be formed to attend workshops at the University of Tennessee to prepare for any redistricting based on new census information.

Melton said information he obtained from the state showed Districts 1, 6, 7 and 10 could be affected. “I think 6 and 7 have too many (commissioners) in it,” he related.

Melton suggested Commissioner Tanya Burchfield to represent District 1, Commissioner Holden Lail to represent District 6, Commissioner Tom Greene to represent District 7, Commissioner Gerald Kirby to represent District 10, Chris Cantrell from the Blount County School Board and Larry Garner from the Blount County Election Commission.

Folts, who is one of the District 6 commissioners, said, “If 6 and 7 are going to be carved up, both commissioners from 6 and 7 should be on this committee, and I offer that amendment,” he said. Melton refused the amendment, to which Folts replied, “Now we know what kind of political games are going on here.”

Commissioner Scott Helton said, “We’ll have plenty of time to hash this out. We have until Dec 31, so there is no rush beyond the training.”

Sample said that as a commissioner he went through this in 1990 and again in 2000. Maps showing proposed redistricting based on population changes are computer-generated by the state and sent to the commission. “The computers in Nashville draw them up and ask if they are acceptable,” he said.

The motion to create the redistricting committee for training suggested by Melton passed 19-1 with Folts voting no.

Linda King, chair of Citizens for Blount County’s Future, said Blount County spends too much money on services. “We are unique in that we spend more to provide services than any county our same size. It costs us too much to provide the same services,” she said.

King was a leader in a protest held before the commission agenda meeting. Those protesting want commissioners to vote down a proposed property tax increase from $2.04 per $100 of assessed value to $2.15 per $100 of assessed value. Mayor Ed Mitchell has threatened to veto the $2.15 tax rate if commissioners pass it.

“I hope you saw the people around the courthouse, and I hope you listen to the mayor when he says we can make it with the $2.04 tax rate,” King said. “We are unique. Let’s show how unique we are and look at where we spend money. We need to show we’re going to do the right thing by the taxpayers who pay the bills.”

The June commission meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, June 16, at the Blount County Courthouse.

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