The Hawkins County Commission voted 14-6 Monday to increase the property tax rate by 15 cents, which will help raise salaries for county employees and 911 dispatchers.
The property tax increase is also intended to prevent the county from dipping into savings during the 2022-23 fiscal year.
That increases the Hawkins County property tax rate in 2022-23 from $2.1677 to $2.3177. For a home valued at $100,000 a penny on the property tax rate amounts to $2.50 on the annual tax bill.
That $100,000 home value is about average for Hawkins County, which means the property tax increase will cause an average increase of $37.50 on county homeowner property tax bills in 2022-23.
Earlier this month the Budget Committee considered recommending an 8 cent increase and a 4 cent increase, both of which were voted down 3-3.
At Monday’s meeting Commissioner Hannah Winegar recommended the 15 cent increase. Winegar also made a motion to increase the county employee cost of living adjustment (COLA) from 7 percent to 9 percent in the county budget.
Coming into Monday’s commission meeting the commission was facing a proposed $3.2 million budget deficit. Traditionally the Budget Committee over-estimates spending and under-estimates revenue as a safeguard in case of emergencies.
Historically the county has spent as much as $2 million less than budgeted, which would have left an estimated $1.2 million in actual deficit to be drawn from savings at the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.
”Gets our employees where they need”
The 15 cent property tax increase will generate about $1.873 million in new revenue.
Although the 15 cent tax hike would have eliminated that estimated actual $1.2 million deficit and created a surplus, Winegar’s proposed employee COLA increase from 7 to 9 percent creates what is expected to be a break-even situation when actual numbers come in at the 2022-23 fiscal year.
The 7 percent COLA was projected to increase spending on salary increases by $573,588. The 9 percent COLA adds another $174,039 for a total of $747,627 in new expenditure salaries.
The budget also includes extra funds to address low salaries at the sheriff’s office salaries and Hawkins County Central Dispatch, both of which are extremely short-handed due to employee leaving to find better paying jobs.
“I feel like for us to break-even on the budget, as well as take care of the employees that desperately need it, that’s where I came up with 15 cents,” Winegar said.
”What’s it going to be next year”
Two citizens addressed the commission from the audience about the tax increase including Rogersville businessman Bill Sharp who said he felt it was needed.
“I’m against paying taxes, but we need it,” Sharp said. “The county is in bad shape, and I think we need to go ahead with the tax increase. I was going to suggest more.”
Sharp added “It takes a lot of money to fund these roads. For Sheriff Ronnie Lawson to send his deputies all over, and now Ronnie is having problems keeping deputies, and 911 has having trouble keeping dispatchers.”
Rick Linkous told the commission he is a taxpayer in District 3, and he doesn’t understand how the commission overspends its budget every year.
“Every year we go through this and you expect us to pay for it,” Linkous said.
Linkous added, “Two million dollars a few years ago, $50 dollars extra on the wheel tax. Now here we are $3.2 million, and you’re wanting 15 cents property tax. What’s it going to be next year, or the year after that?”
Commissioner Charles Housewright, who voted against the tax increase, made a motion to increase the COLA to 12 percent. Winegar argued that 12 percent COLA would put the county back into an actual budget deficit situation again, and Housewright’s motion was defeated 5-14.
Winegar’s motion to increase the COLA to 9 percent was approved 13-6.
Aside from the additional $747,627 price tag of the 9 percent COLA, the final 2022-23 budget also includes an extra $232,000 for Hawkins County Central Dispatch to hire more staff a increase pay; $145,000 to equalize the pay of road deputies and jailers; and $115,066 to cover the salaries and benefits of three new courtroom security officers for the Hawkins County Courthouse and Church Hill city/county building.
”Maintain some frugalness”
County budget director Eric Buchanan told the Review after Monday’s meeting that when actual numbers come in at the end of 2022-23 the budget will more than likely break even.
On paper the final projected 2022-23 Budget deficit in the budget is almost $1.6 million. The general fund was projected to end the 2021-22 fiscal year with $9.7 million in savings.
“I think we’ll hold the line, but its’ going to take some conservation on the part of our office holders,” Buchanan said. “Although we over under-estimate revenue and over-estimate expenses, it’s not to a huge tune. Our biggest savings usually come from unspent money, so I hope our office holders, especially when he have a couple change at election time, will maintain some frugalness because we’re going to need it.”
Buchanan added, “That’s still a little bit of a scary deficit. That’s still pushing it, in my opinion. If we didn’t have the tax increase I’d definitely call it a terrifying budget. What I hope to see is a break-even budget, but it’s going to take some cooperation from office holders.”