LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — The Metropolitan Lynchburg Moore County Council tentatively approved a property tax increase on Monday night, less than three months away from a resolution on the August primary ballot that will ask the voters of Moore County if they’d support a property tax increase to fund upgrades, improvements and renovations for Moore County high school and middle school campus.
Rather than go toward the much-debated school improvements, however, the tax hike presented by Budget Committee chairman Tommy Brown is instead planned to aid in the renovation of the Moore County Jail and the expense anticipated when the county’s 911 dispatchers move from their current location in the jail to the new 911 facility at the intersection of Main St. and state Route 50.
Officials with the county’s 911 service have been trying to get the dispatchers moved out of the jail for more than a year. While the 911 service, the new facility and much of the equipment used are paid for solely through a phone tax and available grant money, the dispatchers are county employees.
Despite not being trained corrections officers, the dispatchers often have to assist corrections officers in their day-to-day duties at the jail. Moore County is one of only two county’s in the state that currently have their dispatchers housed in the jail facility, with the other being tiny Lake County.
Brown presented council members with a budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016-17 that included a 20 cent increase on current property taxes. The budget passed on first reading — barely — getting an 8-6 vote to pass the budget as-is. One councilman passed.
Brown, Marty Copeland, Glen Searcy, Shawn Adams, Parks Norman, Gordy Millsaps and Coleman March voted ‘yes.’ David Boyce, Amy Cashion, Patrick Maynard, Arvis Bobo and Denning Harder voted ‘no,’ while Wayne Rhoton passed.
The discord among the council members, which led to a 50-minute debate, stems in large part from the council’s decision to seek input from voters where the school funding is concerned, while arbitrarily moving forward with a tax increase for the jail project — and other budget items — without seeking the same input.
Brown said that 10 cents of the proposed increase would be used to pay off the loan the county will have when the $1.35 million state-mandated jail project is completed. It is currently budgeted for and set up to be paid off in 12 years. According to Mayor Sloan Stewart, a tax increase would pay off the note in just two years.
The lion’s share of the rest of the tax increase is necessary according to Brown to cover salaries and benefits packages for hiring five corrections officers and one dispatcher to man the facility once the dispatchers move from their current location into their new facility.
“It’s probably not a plan I really like … most on the budget committee didn’t either,” said Brown. “I think what we’re looking at is getting the jail out of the way. It’s already in the making. We have to do that.”
Not everyone on the council agreed.
“The funds was there to pay for the new jail. Without any tax increase, it was there,” said Boyce. “It’s pretty devastating to be growing government at the rate we are,” he said, adding that the county’s government keeps growing while the county’s population continues to shrink.
Metro Moore County Sheriff Mark Logan said if a solution was not found, there was a chance the jail would still remain unoccupied after its completion. Citing the need to move the 911 equipment before the State Fire Marshal’s office would sign off on the project, Logan said the council needed to either pass the tax increase to add the six new county employees or make a plan to relocate the 911 equipment elsewhere within the jail facility.
He said the latter option could prove equally as costly because it’s possible that any space available would not be up to code and therefore need further renovation.
“We had to have a plan of action to give the fire marshal. That was to move the 911 equipment,” said Logan, adding that that has to be done before the new jail will pass inspection.
Cashion wondered aloud whether or not there was a double standard when comparing raising taxes to fund the school project vs. raising taxes for the jail project.
“When we talk about the school project and raising taxes, we say we have to ask the people,” Cashion said. “But now when it comes to paying off this jail sooner, we’re (not asking).
“Have we thought about how much more that it will cost in two years to fund the (school project) versus how much we’ll save just to pay off a (low interest) note early? Are we shooting ourselves in the foot here?”
Maynard asked Brown why the council couldn’t simply go ahead and raise the property taxes (to fund the school) now. To which Brown replied the council could if it had enough votes to pass, though he said he doubted that would happen.
Most on the council were in agreement on one thing: if this property tax increase does pass, it’s highly unlikely that county voters would cast their vote in favor of another property tax increase when they make their way to the polls in August.
Other takeaways from Monday’s council meeting
—A public hearing on the budget is scheduled prior to the council’s June 20 meeting. No time was announced, but most public hearings are held approximately 30 minutes prior to the regular monthly meeting. The News will publish the time when it is announced.
—The proposed budget included a 3 percent pay raise for county employees, as well as money to pay for one new sheriff’s patrol car.
—On the table is a 20 cent property tax increase that would raise county tax to $2.63 and taxes in the urban services district to $2.67.
—The county has not had a property tax increase in either of the last two budgets and still has one of the lowest tax rates in the state at $2.43 per $100.
—To figure land taxes at the current rate, take 25 percent of its appraised value; divide by 100; and multiply by 2.43 for the county rate, or 2.47 for the rate inside the urban services district.
—What could have been a key step in getting the Moore County High School renovations off the ground (a Wheel Tax referendum) suffered a lopsided defeat by Moore County voters in March. The referendum was defeated 1,251 to 480.
—Quotable: “This county is dying ‘cause some people don’t want nothing else to come here. We need some money out of that whiskey. We’ve got to grow or this place is gonna die,” said Councilman Glen Searcy.
—Moore County voters turned down a referendum for a sales tax increase of .25 percent in November 2012. If passed that would have raised the local rate from 2.5 percent to 2.75 percent and raise the total Moore County sales tax from 9.5 percent to 9.75 percent, which is the state maximum.
—The council accepted the resignation of Anthony Brandon retroactive back to May 5 and voted to advertise the new 5th District vacancy.
—By ROBERT HOLMAN, Publisher (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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