Blount County Commission passes tax increase, Mitchell vetoes budget

The Blount County Commission passed a budget and a property tax increase Thursday night, June 16.

Friday morning, County Mayor Ed Mitchell used his veto.

“From what I understand, this is the first time in Blount County history the budget has been vetoed,” Mitchell said.

Commission is now scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Friday, June 24, to discuss and vote on the veto. The mayor said it takes a simple majority, 11 votes, to override his veto.

In a statement Mitchell said, “In today’s economic environment where people are struggling, it is not the time or place to add a tax increase to the burden we find ourselves already under. My only fear is that the citizens have become too apathetic to insist that right now more taxes are not the answer. If we do not draw the line and say, ‘No,’ when will we find the strength to say enough is enough? It is for these reasons that I have made the decision to veto the tax increase imposed by the Blount County Commission. I do this with total conviction in my heart that it is the right thing to do for the people of Blount County.”

The rate increase, sponsored by Holden Lail and seconded by Mike Lewis, raised the property tax rate 11 cents to $2.15 per $100 of assessed value. The measure passed 12-9 with commissioners Jim Folts, Ron French, Roy Gamble, Mark Hasty, Gerald Kirby, Peggy Lambert, Monika Murrell, Steve Sample and Gordon Wright Sr. voting against it. Voting for it were commissioners Tonya Burchfield, Tab Burkhalter, Brad Harrison, Mike Lewis, Mike Caylor, Gary Farmer, Jerome Moon, Richard Carver, Holden Lail, Scott Helton, Tom Greene and Kenneth Melton.

Thursday night Mitchell said he was surprised the measure passed. “I didn’t think they had the votes to raise taxes,” he said. “There were absolutely too many constituents that were adamantly against it and could not afford it. In this economic time, we cannot afford to put any more burdens on the taxpayers.”

Samples put forward a proposal to use fund balance and a portion of a $2.1 million settlement with Alcoa, Inc., to keep the tax rate at $2.04 per $100 of assessed value. That measure was defeated by a margin of 8-13.

Commissioner Mark Hasty made a motion to charge full-time county employees $12.50 a week for benefits and to deny part-time employees vacation and insurance benefits. County employees currently pay nothing for insurance. Commissioner Jim Folts supported Hasty’s measure.

“People are paying $200 to $400 a month for medical coverage and county employees are paying nothing,” Folts said.

The measure failed 4-17 with commissioners Folts, Gamble, Hasty and Murrell voting for it. Lewis said the measure would be discussed in July’s Human Resources Committee meeting.

Folts has compared Blount County’s budget to other counties and said Blount spends $9 million more annually than the three counties closest to Blount County in population. Folts began showing slides from a comparison his group, Citizens for Better Government, created, showing different aspects of the Blount County government spending.

When he finished, Commissioner Rick Carver questioned why Folts didn’t show it sooner. “In April, I requested you give us documentation to review, and you said your members were reluctant to share this, and you wouldn’t give us the documentation. I don’t understand why you bring it up now,” Carver said.

Commissioner Gerald Wright took issue with Folts comparing Blount County to Sumner County. Wright, who said during the commission agenda meeting on June 9 that more than 50 percent of the county’s property is off the tax rolls, is leading a newly formed committee to find lost revenue. On Thursday night, Wright said, “Sumner County -- if we had their tax base -- we would have a tax rate of $1.43, not $2.04. Our governments are set up differently, and you’re not allowing the grants they have. As far as I’m concerned, this is worthless.”

It was standing-room only as the commission room was packed with more than 150 to 200 people on hand for the budget vote.

Several individuals spoke out against a tax increase before the vote. Commissioner Peggy Lambert said this wasn’t the time to raise property taxes and reminded the commissioners, all of whom ran as Republicans, that the party is for limited government and low taxes.

“The average family is spending 50 percent of their budget on some kind of taxes. I was in a the drug store complaining about the high co-pays, and the pharmacist said some people are taking their medication every other day because they can’t afford it,” she said. “These are symptoms of a very sick economy.”

Carl Koela of Rockford encouraged commissioners to vote against the tax increase and if they didn’t, said residents would remember come election time. “They’ll remember, and they’ll vote against you,” he said.

Buddy Allen of Maryville said this wasn’t the time for a tax increase. “There are a lot of people hurting in this county,” he said.

Folts spoke out against the budget increase and said that the budget passed Thursday night would require another tax increase next year. “That will amount to about a 25 percent tax increase in two years. I don’t think the people will be happy,” he said.

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