The County Commission voted 5-4 on Wednesday morning against a 34-cent property tax increase for the county schools.
Opposed were Greg Martin, Randy Fairbanks, Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd and Sabrena Smedley.
In favor were Chip Baker, Katherlyn Geter, Warren Mackey and David Sharpe.
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the action means that none of the budget is approved until the schools come back with a new budget that omits the requested $34 million in new funds. That will happen after the School Board meets and makes reductions from the current budget, then it is re-submitted to the County Commission.
The showdown vote came before a capacity crowd after a long campaign led by County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Supt. Bryan Johnson.
Commissioner Baker, at the start of the high-tension meeting, came out for the full 34-cent property tax increase. He made a quick motion to approve the proposed budget, and it was seconded by Commissioner Sharpe.
Commissioner Bankston made an amendment that would cut the tax increase and Commissioner Tim Boyd seconded. That was the motion that was eventually approved.
Earlier Commissioners Smedley and Fairbanks had indicated they would oppose the tax hike, while Commissioners Mackey and Geter had been expected to approve the tax increase.
That left Commissioner Martin as the key swing vote.
Commissioner Martin afterward said, "My vote today was not as easy one for me, and I'm sure I will hear from those who disagree with my decision. That's okay, but i believe going forward it's time for the School Board and County Commission to collaborate on a strategic plan to fund our public education needs and address our long-term facility issues.
"Raising property taxes is not the only solution to this challenge. As someone who served on the School Board for many years, I believe the solution will require the School Board to make some difficult decisions on their end, especially when it comes to closing some of our schools and rezoning students. Equally as important, I believe it's time for our community to take a serious look at identifying other potential revenue sources to fund our school system.
"I stand ready to be a part of this important dialogue. I look forward to hearing back from the School Board on how we can begin the discussion n addressing our long-term public education needs."
Both sides were given 20 minutes for a final say on what the commission should do before the vote.
A 34-cent property tax increase would have meant an additional $170 per year on a $200,000 house.
There was also a large crowd outside the commission meeting room.
Commissioner Baker, who was on the school board for 12 years, said business leaders closely examined the requested school budget and endorsed it. He said, "I think now is the time when everyone is aligned. We've got to get it done now."
Chairman Smedley said, even without a tax increase, the schools were getting $18.9 million more than the prior year. She also said, "I've heard from a number of senior citizens calling me in tears. Every day they have to decide whether to buy medicine or food."
Commissioner Boyd said he went through the submitted county school budget line by line and cut out $34 million "without touching any academic programs."
Commissioner Sharpe said the commission was taking action on senior tax relief that he said would be a "positive" for some of the elderly as far as their taxes were involved.
However, only three commissioners voted in support of his plan to ask the Legislature to move the eligible income level for senior tax relief from just under $30,000 to over $40,000. Also supporting were Commissioners Geter and Mackey.