The Lookout Mountain, Tn. Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday on first reading to raise the property tax rate by 20 cents.
This will raise the tax rate from $1.47 to $1.67, and amounts to a 13.6 percent increase.
Town Consultant Dwight Montague justified the tax increase by saying that the rate had not been changed for the last eight years during a time when large capital outlays had not been needed.
In the coming year, however, both the department of parks and playgrounds and the public works department need an infusion of cash for maintenance, repairs and replacement of worn-out equipment, he said.
One tennis court at The Commons has a crack that cannot be fixed, therefore it must be replaced. Work needs to be done on two others, so the town has proposed to replace all three. The original estimate was $55,000 per court. Maintenance is also required at Navarre Pavilion along with repairing a light pole at Senter Field because of safety issues and replacing six rusty water fountains. The town has planned to allot $200,000 for the work, anticipating a reimbursement of $100,000 which will come from a grant. Contractors that are submitting bids to do the work have expressed concern about the cost of replacing all three courts, so the scope of the work may be adjusted.
Dan Crates commissioner of public works, said the town’s postponement of buying new vehicles in the past was perhaps penny wise and pound foolish. The department now has an aging fleet with costly maintenance. A new Ford Explorer Interceptor outfitted with police equipment will be delivered in the next few weeks at a cost of $30,646. The department also needs a couple of new dump trucks, a salt spreader and a snow plow.
Other expenditures in the proposed budget include the cost of a new community website to be shared with Lookout Mountain, Ga. to promote the mountain as a great place to live. There is also a three percent across the board pay raise for employees of the town, a 15 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, and a couple thousand dollars added to the garbage and waste costs to allow for a dumpster to be put at the maintenance barn every three months.
Mr. Montague told the commissioners that income from building permits has been declining. He said that the amount the town will receive from Hall income taxes will not be known until July 16 -17. He had called the state revenue department to get an estimate on which to base his budget. The information he was given, is that the amount statewide is about 4.4 percent lower than the previous year. Since it is projected to go down, he reduced the predicted amount to be received. It was also noted that the town has a $200,000 CD maturing in February which currently is paying four percent, but that rate is not likely to be available when the time comes to reinvest the money. The town will not be hiring a meter maid this coming year because the job did not pay for itself. The last lease payment on a police car has been made as well as the last bond payment, which will provide a savings for the town.
The main purpose for upping the property taxes, it was explained to the commission, was to keep the town’s general fund reserve at 100 percent of the yearly operating expenses while still making the needed expenditures. Will Moses, commissioner of parks and playgrounds, was the only voice in opposition to the tax hike. He presented comparisons which showed the average expenses and income of the town for the last 10 years. These numbers showed that with the exception of two years, each of which had major capital expenses, revenue had exceeded operating expenses. Commissioner Moses said that he did not want to over-react to this one year that required such costs. He said while it is noble to keep the reserve fund up to 100 percent, it should not be done at the expense of the citizens. It was also noted that the amount in reserve is intangible. His report showed that all needed improvements and expenses could be made with no tax increase by taking the excess needed from the general fund reserve, which he calculated would draw it down to 73 percent of operating expenses. He said this is considered a rainy day fund and it should be used for such now. His estimate projected that the fund could be replenished to the current rate by 2015-2016. He also suggested that each department could take a second look at their budgets, and make cuts of $5,000-$8,000. He also noted that once the rate is increased, it will not likely ever be reduced.
Mr. Montague responded that it is not realistic to think this is the only year that expenses will increase. He said the future of the Hall Tax is uncertain, and the current plan is to begin buying vehicles on a yearly, rotating basis.
When the discussion had been exhausted, Mayor Greg Brown called a vote on the ordinance, which passed with all commissioners voting yes, except Commissioner Moses. After the vote, Mayor Brown said, “if we get a surprise from the Hall tax in July, we can amend it.” The ordinance will require a second reading to become final.
In regular business, the commissioners each gave a report of their respective departments. Commissioner of Fire and Police Carol Mutter read the monthly statistics prepared by Police Chief Randy Bowden. The police answered 115 calls, patrolled 5,078 miles, answered 19 burglar alarms (all false), had six assist citizen calls, three 911 calls, and made 40 traffic stops. There was one theft and one home break-in with some watches being taken. To date, there have been no leads on this case. During the month of May, the police made two arrests and there were no automobile accidents. The fire department responded to seven medical calls and two false fire alarms. Commissioner Mutter commented that all citizens should be especially vigilant during the summer when there are more people on the mountain. She also wanted to remind residents to get their car decals since it helps the police determine who lives in the community.
In addition to the previous explanations of the planned work that is needed at The Commons, Commissioner Moses, reported that the town is now in the second week of Commons Camp. The older group has 27-28 participants compared to 45 last year. The kiddie camp has just 10 campers this year which is attributed to the competition from so many other surrounding summer programs.
Commissioner Dan Crates’ brief report told the commissioners that the public works department was doing its job. Commissioner of Schools Walker Jones welcomed Principal Ruth White to the meeting. He thanked Mitch Mutter for speaking at the Lookout Mountain Elementary graduation, saying it was a nice send-off. He announced that the school won first place this year at the Hamilton County Math and Science Olympiad. He reported that two teachers, Sarah Webb and Carol Chambliss, are retiring this year, and he thanked the PTA for being such a great partner to the school.
Ansley Moses, the town’s representative to the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA), gave an up-date to the ongoing problem of third-party billing for sewer service. Since Tennessee American Water will discontinue this billing service Oct. 31, the city has engaged a consultant who has gotten quotes from four billing services and will choose the one to be used.
Mr. Moses told the commissioners that the WWTA had recently gotten a $6 million dollar loan to work on sewer problems. He emphasized that if a citizen has a problem with their sewer lines, that the WWTA is responsible for replacing it, so be sure to notify them. This service is being paid for by an $8 monthly charge that has been added to sewer bills since 2009. Under the program, the WWTA is responsible for the pipes from the road to a house.
Gwin Tugman came before the commission to request that the city get into the business of recycling. She has located a company that provides a service called “single streaming” which would place a single bin at the maintenance barn. Recyclables would not need to be separated and everything could be put into the single container. RockTenn would be responsible for sorting the materials. According to the information Ms. Tugman had, the company does not charge for the bin and would pay the city a portion of the proceeds its gets from the materials it can sell. Mayor Brown will check on this for future use.
In new business, Mayor Brown proposed an ordinance to lower the speed limit on Scenic Highway between the commercial district to the state line, where the new Ramble walkway will join the new walking trail from the Georgia side, and where people have to cross the street. Lowering the speed to 20 MPH would make it safer for pedestrians. Chief Bowden has told the mayor that his department will enforce the new law. There was unanimous approval for the ordinance.
The last issue voted on was the Hazard Mitigation Plan. This is a plan the town is required to adopt which was prepared by FEEMA and TEEMA. It entitles a town to make application for grants for emergencies. The $55,000 that FEEMA reimbursed Lookout Mountain, Tn. for storm cleanup after the April 27, 2011 storms was made possible by this program. It was voted to accept this plan.
Mayor Brown in closing told those present that the town lost a great friend with the passing of Martha Law. He said that for many years she had been the go-to person for any question about the town’s gardens and that she started the Lookout Mountain Beautification Fund. He told the commissioners that she will be sorely missed.
The next meeting of the Lookout Mountain, Tn. commission will be on July 24 at 5 p.m. By this time, the amount of money the town will receive from the Hall income tax should be known