The Blount County Commission voted at approximately 6:30 p.m. tonight, Friday, June 24, to override Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell’s veto of the budget for fiscal year 2011-12, which means an increase in the property tax of 11-cents per $100 of assessed value.
The vote was 13-7 with Commissioner Brad Harrison abstaining.
Commissioners Gerald Kirby and Roy Gamble changed their votes from "no" on the original budget on June 16 to a "yes" vote to override the mayor's veto. When asked why, Kirby said, “The county commission sets the tax rate, not the mayor.”
Gamble said he changed his vote for the children of Blount County. “For education. We’ve got the new Prospect School that has to be opened,” he said.
The move effectively raises the property tax rate from $2.04 per $100 of assessed value to $2.15 per $100 of assessed value as of July 1.
Commissioners voting to yes to override the veto were: Kirby, Gamble, Gary Farmer, Tom Greene, Jerome Moon, Tonya Burchfield, Holden Lail, Mike Lewis, Tab Burkhalter, Scott Helton, Rick Carver, Kenneth Melton and Mike Caylor.
Commissioners voting no to override the veto were: Peggy Lambert, Gordon Wright Sr., Jim Folts, Mark Hasty, Steve Samples, Monika Murrell and Ron French.
Commissioner Jim Folts, who campaigned against overriding the veto, voiced concern. “I’m fearful. We’ve passed a budget using one-time money to keep the tax rate at $2.15, and we’ll be facing a $2.50 or $2.60 rate next year,” he said. “We’re not addressing the real problem. County spending is rising two-and-a-half times faster than the income of the citizens.”
In an interview after the meeting, Mayor Mitchell said finance director Steve Jennings had plans ready to go for which ever tax rate was approved. Now that the budget and tax rate are decided, the mayor said it is time to get back to work.
“This was just part of it. (The commission) voted the way they believed, and I believed in the veto,” the mayor said. “Now it is time to get together and go back to work and do what’s right for Blount County.”
Harrison abstained from voting because of concerns about a conflict of interest. Folts raised a question about the matter during discussion before the vote took place. “I’d like the county attorney to comment on Mr. Harrison’s ability to vote,” Folts said.
Harrison works for Blount County Highway Department, a job he secured after becoming a county commissioner. County attorney Craig Garrett said he had been in contact with CTAS regarding the matter of Harrison having a conflict in voting on the budget since he became a county employee after he was elected.
“I have looked into this issue and spoke with Commissioner Harrison," said Garrett. "While this is not as clear-cut as it may appear. it is my opinion and the opinion of CTAS that Mr. Harrison has a conflict. In his defense, this is a confusing area.”
Garrett said there are certain statutes that would allow an employee to vote with a disclaimer, and another statute which states that when a commissioner becomes a county employee, if their stint on the commission predates employment, it is a conflict, Garrett said.
“It is not something that is black-and-white. CTAS furnished this opinion, and I think it is in his best interest to abstain from voting on the veto of the budget appropriation,” Garrett said.
Harrison was elected to commission in 2006. Before he finished his first term, he became an employee at the Blount County Highway Department. Harrison told the commissioners that he believed state law stipulated he could vote on the property tax increase, but could not vote on the appropriation or budget motion because money from the budget could go to the department where he worked because he started working for the county after he became a commissioner.
“For the sake of argument, I will abstain from voting, I don’t want to spend any more time or money on this, so I’m going to abstain, although I don’t feel like the Highway Department gets anything from these tax dollars,” Harrison said.
Harrison said he let his constituents know when he was running for re-election that he had taken a job with the Highway Department. “I think I should be able to do what I’ve done all my life, plow the roads, run dump trucks and work with heavy equipment. There is no conflict of interest. I have Blount County in my heart. I won’t vote, but not because of Mr. Folts and those who are arguing because they lost the ball game,” he said.
Another conflict of interest question came up at the beginning of the meeting, following a comment by Linda King concerning Commissioner Tab Burkhalter. King questioned whether Burkhalter could vote because he has taken on some judicial duties.
Burkhalter asked the commission chair Kenneth Melton to request a ruling from Garrett before the vote. Burkhalter sometimes fills in for Juvenile Court Judge Terry Denton. “I have been filing in for five days for Judge Terry Denton,” Burkhalter said. “I need a county attorney here to address whether or not I was in violation.”
Garrett said he had spoken with CTAS regarding the matter, and because Burkhalter is serving on a contract basis and isn’t employed by the court, he has no conflict.
“Sitting in for a judge does not make you an employee of the county,” Garrett said. “It is not a legal conflict.”
Farmer made the motion to override the veto, and Helton seconded it. Several commissioners spoke before voting.
“I think everyone on this commission knows I’m strongly against the tax increase," said Commissioner Peggy Lambert. "I’m not going to be redundant. I would ask each and every one of you to vote your conscience and to thine own self be true.”
Greene thanked everyone who had called and emailed him. “Different people had different thoughts on it. When I came on in this position, I had no idea it would be like this,” he said. “My response to everyone in here, whether you like me or don’t like me, I do what I think is right. I hope one day we can think of another way to get this money. I will not and cannot live with cutting services to this county.”
Carver said he worked hard in the months leading up to the budget vote to learn more about the different county departments and the services they provide. “I did try to investigate to the best of my knowledge and get answers to what services are needed,” he said. “I’m proud to serve this whole county to ensure we have the services we need to be protected, grow and prosper.”
Wright said he believes the committee he is heading up to find lost county revenue will be successful. “There is going to be revenue we will collect,” he said. “I don’t think we ought to raise taxes at this time. We have other revenue we know of, and I’m hopeful this commission will find other revenue.”