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County: tax increase 'unavoidable' in Grayson

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Officials urged to make more cuts to avoid a 44% tax increase.

By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — County administration called a 44 percent real estate tax increase “unavoidable” in Grayson County during a public hearing last Thursday night on the proposed 2010-11 county budget.
More than 30 people hung around until just after 11 p.m. last week as supervisors prepared to hold a public hearing on the upcoming budget, which includes a proposed tax rate of 49 cents per $100.
While only 13 of those in attendance spoke, many pleaded with the board to cut the budget some more instead of raising taxes during these tough economic times.
Up first to speak was Brian Grimm, a postal carrier in the county. Grimm explained that Appalachian Power began delivering cut-off notices about a month ago to homes that had not paid their bills from the winter.
Grimm said he delivered over 20 cutoffs a day and told supervisors that people were having a hard enough time dealing with their electric bills, let alone a tax increase.
“What’s going to happen when this 44 percent tax increase is implemented?” he asked the board.
He added that the high taxes have a trickle-down effect on the local economy. If people can’t afford the taxes, they begin making cuts in their spending elsewhere, which will affect revenue for local businesses.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but a tax increase of this magnitude is not the answer,” Grimm said.
Grayson Commissioner of Revenue Larry Bolt spoke about the board’s decision to not pick up the full amount of state reductions, saying he was “disappointed” with the supervisors.
“My office plays an integral part in the budget process,” Bolt said. “We are the everyday faces of local government.”
He added that, when his department is not fully funded, his hands are tied and the duties and services will suffer. “What effect will reduced funding have on me? I will end up with one less position than before. We will still get our ‘basic’ services done, but that’s it.”
Bolt continued to say he had saved the county at least $55,094 in voluntary cuts to his budget since taking office and felt that showed he was a “team player.”
Previously, supervisors had called their decision to not fund the state cuts “sending a message to the state,” that it couldn’t keep reducing the funds and expect the county to pick those up.
Bolt said the board was “sorely mistaken” if they thought they were sending a message to anyone in Richmond and pointed out that nobody there cares about what “our little county does.” Richmond, he continued, is only worried about balancing the state budget.
Bolt finished by stating that a vast majority of what his office does is for the county, not the state, and that the levy would not be affected one way or the other if the county picked up the funding needed.
Grayson Treasurer Junior Young began his comments by saying “ditto to Mr. Bolt’s remarks.”
Young explained that about 95 percent of what his office does is for the county and wondered if the board really thought the state would continue paying the salaries when there wasn’t much work being done for it.
He added that the past year has been the worst year he and his staff have had. They have been cussed and pushed, he told the board.
Young then said he told the board years ago to prepare for tough times and that the county was running a deficit.
“All I have to say is, I told you so,” Young told supervisors.
He then asked the board to fund the offices, without constitutional officers having to come back “begging for money.”
“Without us, you have nothing,” he said. “We are proud of the work we have done for the citizens of Grayson County. I just wish this board was.”
Other speakers brought up the trash fee and 4-cent increase on the tax levy last year. They felt that the county had made some bad decisions, such as building a new school when it didn’t have the money.
“We have got to take and do things based on what we can afford, not what we want,” said citizen Fred Weatherman.
Jerry Testerman felt the county should be working on less people.
Testerman explained that he worked 44 years in Grayson and paid his taxes. Now the county wants even more money.
“The only thing Grayson County does for me is pick up my trash,” he said, adding that he felt the salaries were not in line with those around the county.
“There used to be two people in the courthouse and they wrote everything by hand,” he said. “Now it takes four and five people to do the same thing that two did. Something’s out of whack.”
Other citizens spoke about the increasing unemployment rate and how those on fixed incomes weren’t getting 44 percent increases in their spending, yet were expected to pay that much more in taxes.
“Unemployment is at an all-time high… many people have lost jobs and homes due to unemployment. It seems to me that we could have not chosen a worse time to increase taxes,” said citizen Steven Moxley. “The good people of this county deserve better. This tax will force some people to sell in a time when property values are lower than they have been in many, many years.”
Moxley added that other localities are cutting positions and non-essential services during these tough times and that the tax increase is “excessive and unfair.”
Just before midnight, the public hearing was closed and County Administrator Jonathan Sweet spoke to the board.
“We could literally close the courthouse doors and that would not alleviate the fact that we need a tax increase,” he said. “We do not have the revenues to cover expenses.”
Sweet added that the auditors have told the county it is one of the worst cases they have seen in years.
“It’s unavoidable,” Sweet said of the increase. “Fortunately, 44 percent is being imposed to a very low levy… to the lowest rate in the state.”
Chairman Larry Bartlett agreed that the increase was coming at the wrong time, but noted the repercussions associated with not providing adequate revenues to support the county’s bills.
Sweet agreed and said there are obligations to be met and that they will be met one way or the other. “Other jurisdictions have challenged that and failed.”
“If we don’t pay our bills, we go into bankruptcy,” Bartlett said. “And in order to pay our bills, this tax rate is required.”
Supervisors didn’t vote on the budget, and will do so on June 23. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the courthouse.