NEWPORT—During its budget meeting on Tuesday night, members of the Cocke County Finance Committee discussed the impacts of putting back funds to invest in itself.
Currently, four budget options are on the table, with three of those proposals containing tax increases. Each proposal with a tax increase has two pennies earmarked for economic development and the landfill, with the remainder going into capital projects.
Those budget proposals would see the ending fund balance on capital projects remain at $18,291 without a tax increase to as much as $543,000 with a 17-cent property tax hike. The 7-cent proposal on the table would bring earmarked capital funds to $193,000 and a 12-cent tax hike would elevate the fund to a quarter of a million dollars.
Commissioners say the tax hike would be used — not to run the county government — but to store funds away for specific projects. The last property tax hike came in 2017, when the commission implements over a 30-cent raise to bring the rate to $2.83 per $100 assessed value. That tax hike though was to cover a shortfall in the budget, after the assessed property value dropped the amount a penny of tax revenue brings in.
Currently a penny of property tax brings in an estimated $55,000.
“Previous tax hikes were absorbed into the regular budget, just to make a budget for the state to accept it,” 6th District Commissioner David Veridal said in Tuesday’s meeting. “There’s been no real money put towards investment, that’s the difference in what we’re trying to do now.”
Aside from the major pending capital projects for the Cocke County Jail and Cocke County School System, also looming is the possible acquisition of land for a new Cocke County Industrial Park.
The current county commission last fall approved a resolution supporting steps to help locate Eternal Beverages, which already operates in Cocke County on the former Unified Marine property near Irish Cut, as the park’s first tenant.
However, because the county does not own the property, issues have arisen, according to finance committee chairman Forest Clevenger.
Clevenger said that property owner Bill Shults, a Newport attorney, has objections to the wording of the contract between the firm and his family, which could hold his family and heirs liable if any incidents occurred on the site or surrounding sites, which would be eventually included in the new park.
Shults was not at Tuesday’s meeting.
Clevenger did say though that the Shults family was willing to sell the property to the county on a deed-of-trust. He said that the sell would occur on a 10-year note for the 100-acre tract.
“We would recoup $150,000 right off the bat on the sale to Eternal, so that brings us to less than $10,000 an acre,” Clevenger said. “This is how Murfreesboro, Morristown and any economic powerhouse does it. They buy property, invest and it brings in jobs.
“People holler they want jobs, well we have to have the tools to do that,” Clevenger said. “There’s pretty intelligent people on (the county commission) telling us this is a good deal, and we need to do this to move the county forward.”
Clevenger also said the fact that the county does not own land for industrial development makes it harder to show state agencies and TVA that the county has skin in the game. The state Economic and Community Development office released site grants awarded on Tuesday and Jefferson County received a $500,000 site grant.
Cocke County Partnership President Lucas Graham said that the county lost out on the grant, because it did not own the property surrounding the proposed location for the Eternal Beverages site.
The grant was going to be used for secondary access roads in the park, as well as acquiring another 10 acre site and developing it to be pad-ready. Graham estimated the amount of funding lost was near $1 million.
“It makes perfect sense, because the state is not going to give you $1 million worth of money to invest in property that’s not publicly owned,” Cocke County Partnership Executive Assistant Jennifer Brown said.
5th District Commissioner Casey Gilliam raised concerns about not having Eternal Beverages representatives appear before the county commission.
Eternal Beverages representatives did though appear before the Cocke County Industrial Development Board in October, a meeting Brown said she personally invited commissioners to. The firm operates the warehouse facility in Cocke County and Roger Stokely, who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger last May, runs the local operations.
Clevenger challenged Gilliam to get involved in the process to find out more.
“Get involved, I got involved,” Clevenger said. “(Eternal) is not going to come kiss our rear. We’re a small county in the middle of nowhere. We’re lucky to have them interested in my eyes.”
7th District Commissioner Gary Carver said that Gilliam’s concerns are valid, but, the main concern should a pad ready site.
“I don’t think any of us would be about putting up money for the project unless we had a contract,” Carver said. “Even if they were to somehow wiggle out of it and paid us reparations, we would have a pad ready site.”
Clevenger echoed those statements, saying it is more important to make an investment in industrial property, then worry about tenants.
“I don’t care if they sell the first bottle, I want a facility built and to get the pad built,” he said. “If you get it developed, they will come. We will get people in there.”
The chairman however noted that it would be much easier for the county to operate if it had invested in land decades ago, instead of trying to help make deals happen with privately owned land.
“We have no say in it,” Clevenger said. “If we buy the property then we’re the one in the game and then we can move forward as a county.
“Everything boils down to bringing industry in and jobs. We hear it every day that we’ve got to have it, but we have to have the tools to do it. The only thing I can say is if we don’t have the tools, then we don’t have the ability and it won’t happen. If we’re comfortable with where we are, then this is where we will stay.”