By Jeff Keeling
He was elected on a fiscally conservative platform and was part of a slim majority that voted down a proposed property tax increase last year, but Johnson City Vice Mayor Clayton Stout told the News and Neighbor Monday the city probably needs to raise its property tax rate this year.
“It’s not something I’m looking forward to, but it’s my job,” Stout said. “Doing nothing would be irresponsible and the easy way out.”
Stout was very specific about budget areas he believes merit attention this year, and called a 37-cent increase mooted by Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and City Manager Pete Peterson late last week, “way too aggressive.” He said he is willing to address what he called significant underfunding of neighborhood street resurfacing, and to work with the school system to better fund technology.
“I can’t think of a better economic development tool than to enhance the technology at our school system,” Stout said.
The city is midway through its annual budget process, but Stout said he studied the budget carefully following last year’s contentious process. He said he realized the city was shuffling money between departments, and added that he’s come to a level of confidence that the city’s management and staff have done a good job being responsible with the funding they’re given.
“We’ve been juggling money, robbing Peter to pay Paul, compromising in buying police cars, fire trucks, road resurfacing. The line’s kind of been drawn and it’s time to address that.”
Stout said he would like to work with the school board on a transparent, specific, line item-related project to increase needed technology, and to put an extra $1 to $2 million annually into the road resurfacing budget beyond the $2 million that had been the norm until this year.
Stout said the city’s years-long run without an increase has come as people adapt to much more frequent increases. “You’re talking $10, $11 more a month in the amount I’m looking at. Pull out your cell phone bill, your cable bill, and then look at when you pay your property taxes what services are provided for you. It’s endless.”
For a family with a home appraised at $200,000, it would take a 26-cent tax increase to equal $11 more per month in property taxes. That, in turn, would yield about $4.5 million in additional annual revenues for the city.
Departmental requests are almost sure to total more than that, but Stout said he doesn’t want to place what he considers too great a burden on taxpayers in one year, particularly with a potential Washington County tax rate increase on the horizon.
“It may be a combination of increases and some borrowing, but it has to be addressed, and I’m not going to shy away from that,” Stout said.
Johnson Citians currently pay a combined city and county property tax of $3.60 per $100 of assessed value ($1,800 a year for a $200,000 home as appraised for tax purposes). That compares with combined city/county rates of $4.25 in Kingsport and $4.55 in Bristol ($2,125 and $2,275, respectively, for a house appraised at the same amount).