Note: This story was last updated with a poll at 10 a.m. July 31.
CLINTON—Pay raises for county employees and educators and new money for three school systems, including Oak Ridge’s, are in jeopardy after the Anderson County Commission rejected a property tax rate increase on Thursday.
A 10-cent rate hike had been anticipated in a budget approved by the Anderson County Commission in a 9-5-1 vote on Monday, July 20.
But the Commission failed to adopt the new higher tax rate during a follow-up meeting on Thursday, July 30. Commissioners rejected the higher rate in an 8-5 vote. Nine votes were needed for passage.
The higher tax rate was expected to help fund 2 percent pay raises for Anderson County Schools teachers and staff and county employees. It was also expected to generate another $423,000 in funding for Oak Ridge Schools and $134,000 for Clinton Schools.
But now, unless nine commissioners call for another special meeting, the Anderson County Commission may not discuss the budget again until its next regular meeting in August. Commissioners have already had three special meetings and two regular meetings on the budget.
The legislative stalemate could introduce new uncertainty into the budget process in Oak Ridge, where the City Council has already been running behind because of problems in the Roane County reappraisal process, where state officials ended up taking over.
But after recently receiving new information from the state, the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday was able to adopt a budget on second and final reading and adopt a new tax rate in the first of two readings.
Municipal and school officials in Oak Ridge had taken comfort in the $423,000 in expected new revenue from Anderson County to help make up a deficit of more than $600,000 in Oak Ridge Schools.
But now it’s not clear if that money will be there.
The higher tax rate was going to generate another $700,000 or so for Anderson County Schools. That new money, combined with about $100,000 in cuts, was enough for the 2 percent pay raises for school teachers and staff, officials said.
“The County Commission voted at the last meeting to raise the tax rate to support 2 percent pay raises for county employees and 1.75 percent for teachers, and then tonight, they voted not to fund the tax rate increase that they voted on earlier,” said Kelly Williams, Anderson County Education Association executive committee member.
Two commissioners from Oak Ridge—Jerry Creasey and Steve Mead—voted in favor of the 10-cent tax rate increase.
“I think we need to make good on our promises,” said Mead, citing last week’s approval of spending increases.
Two other Oak Ridge commissioners—Whitey Hitchcock and Theresa Scott—voted against it.
“I am going to vote ‘no’ for a 10-cent increase because cuts can be made,” Scott said.
Two other commissioners from Oak Ridge—Robin Biloski and Myron Iwanski—were absent.
Besides Creasey and Mead, the other commissioners voting for the 10-cent tax rate increase were Anderson County Commission Chair Robert McKamey and commissioners Mark Alderson, Chuck Fritts, Rick Meredith, Philip Warfield, and Jerry White.
Joining Hitchcock and Scott in voting against it were Anderson County Commission Vice Chair Steve Emert and commissioners Tim Isbel and Tracy Wandell.
Either Biloski or Iwanski could have provided a crucial ninth vote. Both voted for the 10-cent tax rate increase last week. Biloski won’t be present at the August meeting. She is resigning August 3 because she and her husband Bill are moving to Florida.
Anderson County Commissioner Zach Bates was also absent, and it’s not clear how he might have voted.
McKamey said the motion to approve the budget as submitted last week, with the addition of a 10-cent tax rate increase, will have to be rescinded. And that would put the County Commission “back to square one.”
Everyone wants to give raises, said McKamey, who seemed frustrated by Thursday’s outcome, but they don’t want to raise taxes to pay for them.
There were a few animated exchanges between educators and their supporters and commissioners who voted against the tax rate increase after Thursday’s meeting.
Some of those who have supported the pay raises, even if a tax increase is required, have said it’s been a long time since Anderson County Commission has “stepped up” for school operations, and they want to make the county school system more than a training ground for nearby school systems that pay more, including Oak Ridge.
But some of those who opposed the tax increase, even if they might be in favor of raises, said cuts can be made, and they’ve heard from too many residents who don’t want their taxes raised.
The new fiscal year began July 1, and McKamey said the county is operating under a continuing appropriation that continues last year’s spending levels into this year. He said the county can spend up to 25 percent of last year’s budget.
Before rejecting the 10-cent tax rate increase, the Commission did vote 10-3 to accept the new certified or tax-neutral rate recommended by Tennessee officials. That rate, calculated after five-year reappraisals were completed this year, is $2.6903 in Norris, Oliver Springs, Rocky Top, and rural Anderson County. It’s $2.4945 in Oak Ridge and $2.6589 in Clinton. The tax rate varies because of school debt obligations.
The 10-cent increase rejected by Commission on Thursday would have added another 10 cents to those rates.
The tax-neutral rate is designed to bring in the same amount of money after the reappraisals as before. It went up because overall property assessments in Anderson County went down 4 percent.
Voting for the new tax-neutral rate recommended by the state were Alderson, Creasey, Fritts, Hitchcock, McKamey, Mead, Meredith, Scott, Warfield, and White. Voting against it were Emert, Isbel, and Wandell.
The rate in Anderson County had been $2.529 per $100 of assessed value.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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