By Scott Robertson
The way County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Finance Director Mitch Meredith saw it, a proposed 23-cent property tax increase would have been the county’s first step on a ten-year journey out of debt. The county commission voted in favor of the long-range vision Monday night, but rejected the tax increase.
Only three of the 25 commissioners voted in favor of the proposed 23-cent property tax hike, and one of those three, sixth district commissioner Tom Foster, resigned from the commission at the end of the meeting, citing concerns relating to the running of his business. The other two commissioners to vote aye were Lynn Hodge and Skip Oldham.
Immediately after voting down the proposed tax increase, the commission addressed the ten-year capital improvements plan, which, after lengthy deliberation, it approved 14-11.
Rejecting the increase
The proposed property tax increase would have taken the rate from $1.9798 per $100 of taxable property to $2.2098, an increase of roughly 11 percent.
Discussion of the resolution calling for the increase began with Robbie Tester immediately moving to send it back to the budget committee. After Steve Light seconded that motion, Joe Wise said, “I think we should just vote it up or down. There’s better ways to kill it. If you want to kill it, vote on it. We’ve got a room full of people who want to know how we’re going to vote on this; let’s vote on it.” The commission voted that motion down on a voice vote, after which David Tomita offered to move for passage of the increase just to allow discussion to begin, though he said he would not vote for it. Commission rules, however state that a commissioner who moves for approval must vote aye. Lynn Hodge eventually made the motion, with Tomita offering a second.
Several commissioners nodded their heads in agreement when Tom Krieger said, “My personal feeling is this came up too quickly with not enough notice and not enough time to be vetted. I don’t thing we have given the general population any time to prepare for another tax increase.”
Light added, “Of all the people I’ve talked to, I have yet to meet one who seemed like they were for (the tax increase).”
The vote was so lopsided that even Meredith, who along with Eldridge authored the resolution, voted no. The packed gallery burst into applause at the reading of the final tally.
Approving the CIP
Hodge moved for approval of the ten-year capital improvements plan (CIP) as soon as its title was read aloud, with Meredith offering a second.
Several commissioners who had expressed skepticism about the tax increase were more receptive to the CIP.
Robbie Tester, a staunch opponent of the tax increase resolution had already stated, “I’m glad we’re finally having a serious conversation about our debt problem…I hope that moving forward we can work together to figure out how to pay that debt down as quickly and as reasonably as we can.”
Krieger was more
critical, saying that every time the budget committee met changes to the plan had been made without warning. “I just see a big difference between adopting the capital investment and funding plan (as proposed) and adopting a capital investment and funding plan. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and come back with a resolution to adopt a plan brought from the committee. I would like to see a CIP put together by the commission, not by two people.”
Hodge offered, “We’re not voting to spend money when we vote for this plan. We’re voting to create a plan…Without a plan, we’ll continue to operate the same way we did in 2007, when the commission voted to issue $150 million in bonds and by the end of this year, the county will have paid $52.8 million in interest and the principal remaining to be paid is still $150 million. That’s what you get when you don’t have a capital plan.”
Some commissioners had expressed concern that approving the plan might lock the county into a specific plan regarding improvements on Knob Creek Road and/or county school building projects. Eldridge addressed that, saying, “Adopting this plan does not approve one single project.”
“Then why do it?” Light asked.
Eldridge replied, “What we’re saying is, ‘We’re going to adopt this way, this mechanism, this methodology, for going forward with capital projects and funding of capital projects in the future. What we’re talking about here is the method, the business process, if you will. ”
“I see the value of planning,” said Wise, who lamented the fact that so few commissioners had been given a chance to seriously examine the plan. “A CIP is a management tool. It’s going to be critical this commission have a couple of years with that plan to demonstrate how it works going forward, otherwise we run the risk of the CIP being thrown out with the stationery when we elect a whole bunch of new office holders. I agree in theory with what the mayor is saying, but I think the committees need to be a little bit more involved in the initial draft.”
“Individual projects still have to be vetted,” Eldridge said. “They still have to come through committees. They still have to be approved by the budget committee and they will still have to be approved by this commission before they ever become part of the CIP.”
“For this to be successful, there needs to be as much buy-in as possible from as many members of this commission as possible,” Wise said. “That’s one thing that committees are for.”
Tester added, “We also need as much buy-in as possible from citizens as well. They need to understand and be sold the plan if it’s good.”
Meredith then brought the discussion back to the primary goal of the plan. “Let’s approve this, then spend the next year trying to figure out how to fund these things without having to go to the debt market and mortgaging our taxpayers, their children and their grandchildren.”
“I think we’re hearing that we have support for long-term planning as long as as many of us can weigh in as possible,” said Katie Baker.
Rick Storey called for the question and the vote was cast with Commissioners Storey, Hodge, Oldham, England, Meredith, Wise, Baker, Chase, McAllister, Foster, Grandy, Larkey, Hensley and Boreing voting for approval of the resolution and Commissioners Matherly, Humphreys, McGuire, Tomita, Tester, Krieger, Davenport, Ford, Light, Morris and Edens voting against.
The rest of the story
Because four items later on the agenda were dependent on funding from the failed tax increase resolution, the commission had to deal with the question of whether, or how to fund them. A resolution authorizing funding for classroom technology improvements for schools was sent back to the health, education and welfare committee, as was a resolution calling for funding repair work on the roof at West View Elementary School. An addition to the budget for the Sheriff’s Department was sent back to the public safety committee. A resolution funding repairs to the county courthouse roof was sent back to the budget committee.
The resolution calling for funding for a new K-8 school in Boones Creek was tabled, amid concern that, if general fund dollars were spent on a project that size, the general fund could be tapped out.
In other action, the commission appointed Bryan Davenport as its representative on the Education Collaboration Task Force. The commission also agreed to hold all committee meetings for the month of October (with the exception of the budget committee) on the Thursday before the budget committee meets.
Finally, Foster announced his resignation, which was accepted with regret by the full commission.