Sullivan County Commissioners finalized their budget for the new fiscal year with a lower-than-expected property tax increase.
Commissioners balanced the budget but rejected long-anticipated tax increases to pay for school system and sheriff’s department staff considered critical for public safety.
The new tax rate is $2.57 per 100 dollars of assessed value, up from $2.55 last budget cycle. That means the owner of a $100 thousand home will have to pay an additional $5 in taxes.
Commissioners are still split on the budget, approved with a last-minute two-cent property tax increase toward the county savings fund.
Todd Broughton was one of ten commissioners who voted down the idea. “I was surprised by that as anyone. I voted for no increase as many of us also did and we were disappointed as well that the two cents was added on…and we really don’t know why,” he said.
Commissioners were originally expected to approve a seven-cent property tax increase.
Part of that increase was expected to go to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department to fund 20 new employees for the overcrowded jail.
Now, the department will have to make do with just 10 positions after originally requesting funds for an additional 32.
“It’s ultimately a bandaid but not as big a bandaid as I wanted,” said Chief Jail Administrator Lee Carswell.
Carswell said they planned to hire new medical staff to help treat their inmate population, currently averaging 960. The jail’s capacity is 619.
Carswell said those plans will have to take a back seat to prioritize hiring additional officers.
“A lot of people were quitting and leaving the job because they weren’t getting any days off,” he said.
Carswell said from January 1 to date, the department is in excess of 7 thousand hours overtime. “That’s just meeting minimal staffing requirements,” he said.
The commission also rejected a two-cent property tax increase to pay for school resource officers on every campus, a proposal unanimously supported in September.
“It’s more than frustrating,” said Sullivan County School Board Chairman Michael Hughes. “It’s frustrating to hear commissioners that voted to hire these people say that they wouldn’t raise taxes to pay for them.”
Hughes said the school system will now have to pay for half the cost the county pledged to cover, an estimated $360 thousand expense.
When asked if they can afford to keep all of their SRO’s, Hugues said, “If we can’t find a way to work together and do that then the public should make us pay.”
Commissioner Broughton said the school system will still be operating in the green because they won’t have to make a 1.9 million dollar payment for an energy efficiency loan this year.
Hugues disagreed, saying there’s a chance the current budget doesn’t meet the county’s minimum funding requirements for a school system.
“The budget we submitted didn’t meet maintenance of effort by much so I would suspect that the state will reject this initial budget,” he said.
Hugues said the state is likely to weigh in by the end of this week.