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New county budget proposes four-cent property tax increase

By Jonathan Pleasant
County Mayor Larry Potter presented the board with this year’s proposed budget at Thursday night’s County Commission meeting. After raising the wheel tax by $10 last year, increased financial burdens were once again the subject of debate as county officials got their first real look at the road ahead. After working for months with the budget committee to reduce shortfalls, Potter gave a brief overview of the document, which ultimately recommended a $.04 property tax increase to maintain a healthy fund balance.
The board had several questions about the proposed increase but no action could be taken until a required waiting period has passed. Therefore, the meeting ultimately finished with a recess and a special vote on the budget will be held in the courthouse at 7 p.m. on July 30th.
One of the many problems facing the county is significant increases in the amount being charged for juvenile detention services. This item alone cost the county more than $50,000, a fact that left Commissioner Mike Taylor questioning what financial responsibilities are applicable to the parents in these cases. While he did not confirm for certain, County Attorney Bill Cockett explained that the limitations for parental liability were only a few hundred dollars, and that assessment of the costs was a part of the sentencing process set by the presiding judge.
Another costly item this year was an additional $65,000 to install a new computer system in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. Replacing the original system that was put in place more than 15 years ago, the new technology will hopefully pay for itself by making collections easier and more efficient. However, work was only completed and the system up and running in the last few weeks, leaving no real time to impact this year’s budget.
Requirements for software upgrades and new computers were responsible for another $20,000 increase for the Election Commission as well. Potter also pointed out that next year the county would have to fund two elections with an estimated price tag of $40,000.
Collections on last year’s wheel tax increase as well as general collections have been only slightly under expectations with Trustee Sue Hensley confirming that 91% were accounted for. Regardless, the budget committee was forced to look at making cuts where it could, suggesting reductions at the senior citizens’ center, the loss of a county planner, as well as a lessening of funds for programs including Safe Haven, Watauga Opportunities, and the county’s litter control. Even with these efforts the committee faced a $30,930 deficit until Sheriff Mike Reece found a way to cut an additional $17,000 from his budget, reducing the shortfall to $13,595.
Although enough additional cuts could be made to account for this last deficit, the commission would still have to take $445,777 from the county fund balance overall. This would leave less than $400,000 remaining for the miscellaneous costs that arise throughout the year and may not necessarily be budgeted. Because this amount is approximately half of what was left the previous year, county officials have voiced their concerns about affording the possibility of an emergency arising. As a result, the budget committee recommended the $.04 tax increase to generate an additional $112,593,which would leave the fund balance at just over $500,000. 
There is also a fear concerning the status of the state’s Hall Income Tax, which could bring in an additional $50,000 but has come under recent scrutiny by the state, which seems to be looking at eliminating the funding. The proposed budget also does not include any kind of raise or increase for county employees. Mayor Potter concluded by asking the commission to look over the document closely and welcomed any ideas where more money could be saved.
Mayor Potter had several other announcements to make as well, beginning by informing the commission that TDOT has approved the funding to widen Highway 67 to include a turning lane near Pedro Shoun’s Road in Doe Valley. A safety concern because of all the accidents at this location, Potter has been working diligently alongside Rep. Timothy Hill to get the project underway.
Potter has also been directly involved in another long running project to bring water to the Southerland Community between Damascus and Shady Valley. One of the longest ongoing efforts in the state, the mayor confirmed that the bidding process is nearly complete and the state should be seeking out a contractor within the next few years.
The last big announcement that the mayor made was to inform the commission that he had received a copy of the minutes from the most recent Johnson County Humane Society’s meeting. Included were figures for the lease or purchase or the society’s facility in Butler. Currently Johnson County depends on Mountain City for help with animal control, but there have recent efforts to establish an independent program. Securing a building is one of the biggest costs and with the human society facility already up to standards the county has a rare opportunity.
According to the minutes, the society would agree to a five year lease at $8,500 annually or an outright purchase of $250,000. The county currently has $15,000 set aside in the budget to fund animal control but would still be looking at finding significant funding to cover training and hiring an animal control officer as well as fuel and maintenance. No action was taken but the subject will likely be discussed as budget issues are finalized.
Howard Moon with the Johnson County Trails Association (JCTA) gave a lengthy presentation at the meeting, providing the commission with an update of the group’s Laurel Creek Trail Project. Extending just over three miles from the Virginia State Line, the JCTA is hoping to establish a connection with the Virginia Creeper Trail, and consequently bring additional tourism into Johnson County. The ultimate goal is to connect with Mountain City’s Goose Creek Trail project at Ralph Stout Park. However with several miles of easements necessary to make the connection, Moon did state that the association may want to re-examine their goals and could potentially focus on a Doe Mountain connection as that project gets underway.
The JCTA has been utilizing federal monies granted through the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and has also developed a strong relationship with the US Forest Service in the Cherokee National Forest. Moon went on to introduce the new US District Forest Ranger for East Tennessee, Keith Kelley, and also explained that the association would be creating a new memorandum of understanding with the agency to cover maintenance of the soon to be completed Laurel Creek Trail.
Most of the ongoing work is now being done on the trailhead to install bathrooms and a parking area, with an expected completion this fall. On the Virginia side, a route has been identified to Damascus and local organizers there are hopeful of state support. Once this first segment is open to the public, the JCTA will change their focus to extending farther into Johnson County through the acquisition of easements. Commissioner Mike Taylor, who is on the JCTA board, expressed his belief that the project will become a significant benefit to the county, providing not only recreation but also educational opportunities as a field trip destination.
In addition to showing his interest in the county’s trail projects, Ranger Kelley also explained that he had been approached by local residents seeking the installation of a new floating dock at the county’s only public boat ramp at Sink Mountain. Both Kelley and Mayor Potter confirmed that they were interested in the potential of such a project and that further research would be done to look at cost and feasibility.
The rest of the meeting was made up of less controversial decisions including approval for the highway department to sell several surplus items, and the appointment of Judy McGuire and Ralph Woods to the library board. Having discussed all of the items on the agenda, Chairman Freddy Phipps entertained a motion to recess, leaving the meeting to officially resume Tuesday July 30th.