NEWPORT—With a deadline of passing a budget now nine days away, the Cocke County Legislative Body overwhelmingly voted down a pair of proposals on the table at Monday’s regular monthly meeting.
Neither budget proposal, both of which feature tax hikes of over 30 cents, got more than 3 affirmative votes from the 12 commissioners present on Monday evening. Commissioners Lonnie Ottinger and Gwen Roach were absent.
Option B, which sets the tax rate at $3 and provides for 10-cents to be placed into outlines for capital outlay projects — including a new industrial park and the county jail project, received only three votes.
Commissioners Skip Ellison, who has voiced his approval for a new industrial park during the past two months of finance committee, voted to approve Option B, along with Clay Blazer and Terry Dawson.
Budget Option A, which sets the tax rate at $2.90, was defeated by a 2-10-2 margin. Only commissioners Love Henderson and Blazer voted for the proposal.
Commissioners had little discussion on either budget option. There was no discussion on Option A, with only a handful of questions regarding Option B.
When discussing the second option, which would place seven cents into a fund for a new industrial park and three cents into a fund for the Cocke County jail, several commissioners had questions regarding the proposal — which came out of the finance committee.
Robert Green asked if there was an official vote on the outlay of the extra 10 cents in Option B.
“Of the 10 cents in capital projects, (the committee) discussed at their last meeting to put three of those cents to the jail and seven cents goes into capital projects in the line item for the industrial park,” Cocke County finance director Anne Bryant-Hurst told the commission.
Jimmy Lindsey, a longtime veteran of the commission, sounded concern on an industrial park.
“We don’t know how much it costs, we’re left in the dark. Sometimes we need more information,” Lindsey said, expressing concerns on not having enough with the tax increase to fund the entire new industrial park.
Lucas Graham, President of the Cocke County Partnership, said he would propose doing the industrial park on an incremental basis, but he can’t proceed without a contracted option on the site.
“The seven cents doesn’t have to pay for everything on day one and it doesn’t need to,” Graham told the commission. “We need sites that are pad ready and marketable. We get two or three done, fill them and move on to the next and fill them and move on to the next.
“If I have a budget to work with, I can make incremental plans. If I have a budget, I can draft up a plan. But I have to have something in place to do that.”
With neither budget proposal passing, the county has until Aug. 31 to pass a budget. If a budget is not passed by the end of the month, the state comptroller’s office will come in and take over the process.
Blazer, who is the chairman of the commission, said that something has to be done, but without a finance committee meeting established, that there needs to be some plan of action.
Bryant-Hurst told the commission that they need to speak up on how to tackle the budget, because she can not make the decisions.
“If you’re wanting a budget with no tax increase, you’re having to cut people,” Bryant-Hurst said that. “You (the commission) have to tell me that. I can not go and cut people, if that’s what you’re waiting on.”
She also told the commission that they can not accomplish passing a budget without a tax increase.
“It’s not a matter of moving a few pennies around,” she said. “Even if we move every penny out of capital outlay, we still couldn’t do it without making big cuts and you’d be right back in a worse situation next year. You’d really hate yourself for that.”
With the deadline looming in nine days, Blazer implored his fellow commissioners to try to help come up with a plan to pass a budget. Members debated a meeting on Saturday, as well as one before next Monday’s special called meeting, before finally settling on the latter.
“The big issue is we’re meeting next Monday and I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Blazer said. “Whatever we would do, I don’t know if we’d have a fully finished product to vote on Monday night.
“What are we doing to do? Options have been presented and we’re spinning our wheels and not getting anything done.”
The commission finally decided on finance committee meetings on Monday at 5 p.m. and Tuesday at 4:30 p.m., which will go along with the special called full commission meetings on Monday and Thursday, which will both be held at 6 p.m.
FREEZE RESOLUTION: Also during Monday’s meeting, the CLB declined to establish a property tax implementation committee. The proposal came to the commission out of the finance committee, after Mayor Crystal Ottinger proposed a property tax freeze for elderly citizens.
After hearing presentations from County Trustee Rob Mathis and Ottinger, the commission voted 3-9 against the measure. Mathis said the issue would cause his office a tremendous volume of workload, while Ottinger said the majority of the extra work would fall under the property assessors office.
“This year it wouldn’t help them at all, so why don’t we table it for another year,” Lindsey said.
“It was tabled back in 2007, I wouldn’t table it a year. It was told at the budget meeting it wouldn’t help this year,” Ottinger said.
Green, who last week advocated for long-range plans for the county, said this was another instance of a need for this.
“We can always bring it back up next year,” Lindsey said after the failed vote.
WAIVING THE NOTE: The commissioners also approved waiving the promissory note, if legal, on the Spec building. The Cocke County Partnership’s Economic Development Commission approved last week to accept an offer made on the building, along with the former Newport Precision site.
County Attorney Carter Moore said that he would have to check if this is legal. Other commissioners chimed in that they were unhappy about the building’s sale and their lack of knowledge of it, since the Spec site was up for discussion as a potential new jail or justice center for the county.
“I’m glad to see it sold, we needed to get rid of it,” Lindsey said.
After suspending the rules to vote on the issue, the commissioners voted 11-1 to approve the measure — if it is legal to do so.
FIRE CIVIL SERVICE: At the end of Monday’s meeting, Green made a motion to rescind the fire civil service board that the commission approved last summer.
The motion failed with seven votes against it.
In response, Ellison made a motion to not bring up the issue again, pending the outcome of a suit filed in court by former fire chief William Smallwood, which seeks to determine the legality of the board. Ottinger and attorney Moore both argue that the board is not legal.
Ellison’s motion was seconded by Terry Dawson, despite Moore telling the board he didn’t think a motion could be made to stop another commissioner from making a motion.
Seven commissioners — Love Henderson, Cindy Holt, Dawson, Shalee Benson, Ben Hicks and Ellison voted in favor of the motion. However, the vote was tied 6-6, but needed eight votes to pass.
OTHER ITEMS: The commission also unanimously voted to refund several property taxes, including $3,500 to Michael Shular of the Shular Company, $309 to Gray, Robert and Gabrielle Taylor and $45 to Frederick Spence.
The commission also unanimously approved appointing Doug Shoemaker and Melissa Goddard to the Cocke County Regional Planning Commission. Goddard will serve a four-year term, replacing the late Dr. Jack Clark.
Also approved was setting the speed limits on Boulder Road (25 mph), Ground Hog Road (15 mph) and Terry Street (10 mph).