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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

County budget funded with 31 cent property tax increase
Members of the Cocke County Finance Committee meeting Monday evening, on a second try approved a 2017/18 tentative county budget. The move increases the property tax rate by 31 cents, to a total rate of $2.90. However the committee will meet again this afternoon in an effort to fine tune the proposal which is expected to be acted upon by the full legislative body on August 21. The tax increase will bring in an additional $1.7 million in revenue, and leave an anticipated $168,596 fund balance at year's end. Mayor Crystal Ottinger told the committee that since 2014, 53 business opened or expanded in Cocke County. She said most of the start-ups are small but they filled a number of vacant buildings and several jobs. She pointed out that a planned RGE expansion will create 41 new jobs over five years and a new Workforce Training Program has begun at ConAgra in partnership with Walters State. Robert Brannon of the Friends of the Animal Shelter Humane Society presented a business plan. He said the shelter is undergoing a major renovation and will be opened in about a month but only if Newport and Cocke County each contribute $100,000 to the operation. Last year the city pumped $230,000 into the operation while the county contributed $60,000. Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes said animal control is a real problem primarily because residents do not spay and neuter their pets. And he said the Friends group provides a location for horses and donkeys that have been neglected. Commissioner Jimmy Lindsey expressed concern that money is going to the animal shelter when there is not enough money in the budget to fund other needs. But Brannon argued that the shelter provides a necessary service housing 65 to 70 dogs and a number of cats at any given time. He said last year 461 animals were brought from the city and 1,750 from the county. In the past, the facility owned by the Friends, was operated by the city but Brannon said in the future his group will operate like a business and will have the authority to hire and fire. The proposed county budget includes $100,000 for the shelter operation, and city officials have indicated they will match the contribution. Finance Manager Anne Bryant-Hurst said the county has raised taxes only twice in the past 15 years. She said the county has about 10 years left on it's current debt, however there are plans for a jail and an industrial park which combined likely have a $60 million cost. The committee did agree to cut another $60,000 from the proposed expenditures; $35,000 from funding for patrol cars and $25,000 from capital projects in the Highway Department. Commissioner Clayton "Skip" Ellison suggested simply going with last year's budget, with no tax increase. But Bryant-Hurst pointed out that the last year's budget was balanced with a good fund balance from the previous year. This year there is no fund balance to begin the year. Chair Andy Tritt again suggested that the Partnership be disbanded and the employees of the entities be put on the county and city payrolls. He argued for the city and county to have direct control of the programs. Until several years ago the chamber, economic development and tourism, were funded in such a way. However political infighting between the city and county stalled progress. It was at that point that a non-political, non-profit was established, controlled by a non-political board. The committee members voting for the proposal were Clay Blazer, Terry Dawson, Ben Hicks and Skip Ellison. Tritt was the lone "no" vote. If the budget is not ratified by the end of August, the state will end funding to schools.

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