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Budget discussion leads to emotive exchange

Knox Box mandate dies with a whimper

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Before Grayson city council convened last Monday evening, the Grayson Chamber of Commerce met earlier in the day, where they discussed the proposed Knox Box legislation with city clerk Duane Suttles. While not opposed to the voluntary use of such secure devices, which they could see benefiting some members, the Chamber was opposed to legislation mandating the installation of such devices. On top of the costs the Chamber cited security concerns.

What had started with such a bang and outcry, though, died with a whimper when council chose to abandon the initiative.

“On behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and our 150 members, and those folks who had concerns about the Knox Box ordinance, we do appreciate the tabling of that by the council,” Chamber president Jill York told council. She went on to explain that members had a lot of questions about who the boxes would most benefit, as well as a few security concerns, and they appreciated Suttles hearing those concerns, relaying them to council, and answering the questions he could.

“He brought more of the story to light, and was very receptive of our concerns… but on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, we very much respectfully appreciate you hearing our concerns and considerations.”

But while the Knox Box kerfuffle came to an amicable end, the thing that got passions heated again was discussion of a proposed doubling of the city’s occupational tax – from one percent to a full two percent – in order to cover expected budget shortfalls. Even with most of council seeing no way forward without some type of tax increase, they were eager to discuss options like annexation that could help offset the need for a full one percent increase, if not eliminate it fully.

Mayor, I’m sorry, but I’m being asked to take another one percent out of these people’s paychecks, and I don’t even have an updated copy of the budget? No, sir! I will not be doing that today.”

Councilman Troy Combs

And while he said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to items like raises for the police department, councilman Troy Combs said he couldn’t in good conscience entertain calls for a pay raise while operating under a deficit budget – especially when the budget they were working with didn’t reflect recommended cuts to various police, fire, and other department line items.

That suggestion came early in the discussion of the budget.

“This is a critical issue for us, because it will determine if we go forward or backward as a city,” Mayor George Steele said.

He went on to describe the issue with the Grayson police department losing officers to poaching from other neighboring communities, because of the lower wages offered by the Grayson PD. But while the department needed to raise wages, for retention, Steele said there was nothing in their budget they could currently cut to make up those wages while still providing the city with the level of police service citizens have come to expect.

“We’re going to have to up the occupational tax if we’re going to grow,” Steele said. “We’re growing, and if we weaken our fire department and police department now, we aren’t going to grow.”

Combs noted the city was “operating at a deficit” even with some costs currently being covered by ARPA funds, so he could understand the push for a tax increase – especially as federal funds associated with economic relief run out – but he wasn’t ready to settle on an amount for that increase until the city had more information on other revenue streams and cost saving strategies.

While Steele said, “nobody likes taxes,” he also noted that “services don’t come free,” and he “(didn’t) see any other way” to move forward without a full one percent tax increase – which he noted could be lowered in the future if the city developed other revenue streams through growth and annexation.

This led to discussions about areas where the city might pursue annexation options, and of areas that were surveyed in years past but never had an annexation ordinance put forward for a vote, but ultimately the discussion always circled back to an increase in the city’s occupational tax as the best way forward.   

 Councilman Bradley Cotten wondered about the impact of the new growth in the city, and how much money that development would add to the occupational taxes through organic growth, rather than an increase. Cotton asked if there was a formula that could help council determine what level of growth would allow them to meet the same financial goals with a smaller increase of the tax rate.

Council also discussed making cuts to other line items for each department to cover salary increases for the police department. While both the fire and police departments said they had cut 20 percent of their respective budgets already, Suttles said he hadn’t received those revised budgets yet, so they weren’t reflected in the documents found in council packets.

The street department said they couldn’t cut their budget any further unless they cut paving costs, “then we can give them your number for pothole complaints,” a department representative joked.

But while council expressed concerns that the budgets in the current packet didn’t reflect those requested cuts – or any changes for that matter – remaining identical to the previous budgets they’d seen, Mayor Steele sought to move forward with his recommendation that they further amend the next budget to reflect his proposed $5 per hour pay increase for all police officers other than the chief.

He said if council wanted to propose a salary increase for chief Travis Steele as well, they could do that, but it wasn’t a recommendation he could make.

Cotten, though, continued to express concerns about proceeding without more information.
“I don’t know where we’re at,” Cotten said, “because this (budget) doesn’t include cuts or the proposed $5 increase.”

Combs said he would also like to have that information before making a decision.

“I know it doesn’t sound like it, but we are making progress on the budget,” Steele then joked to the department heads, media, and assembled guests, before continuing to press on the tax increase and police wages.

“I’m really concerned about downgrading our first responders,” Steele said.

“What happens when you get down the road, though, and all of a sudden you’ve run out of money, and now you’re going to have to start laying people off?” new councilman Willis Johnson asked.

“It’s up to the council right here today,” Steele said, his voice rising in frustration. “You all have taken on the responsibility of being the government of this city, and that responsibility requires, sometimes, doing stuff that’s tough stuff. And a tax is one thing nobody wants to do, but that’s how we generate the money to provide the services for the people.”

Combs, though, would not have his hand forced.

“Mayor, I’m sorry, but I’m being asked to take another one percent out of these people’s paychecks, and I don’t even have an updated copy of the budget? No, sir! I will not be doing that today,” Combs responded.  
Steele countered that council would not be able to cut enough from the existing budget to provide for the city’s needs with the funds available without a tax increase, but the rest of council wasn’t ready to give up on a mix of business growth, annexation, and more modest tax increases to meet the expected budget shortfall.

“We at least want to know,” Combs said. “Maybe we don’t need to raise it a whole one percent. Maybe we just need a half percent.”

But, he said, they couldn’t know that without more data.

Before adjourning council moved to table the budget discussion for the moment and to take it up again in a special work session meeting, focusing purely on the budget, Saturday morning.

In other action council moved table action on the blighted properties ordinance until city attorney Jason Greer could make clarifications to the proposed law that would ease restrictions on the properties that could be rehabilitated under the ordinance. Greer said the changes would be significant enough to require another first reading of the ordinance, putting it back at the beginning of the process.

Council also discussed dissolving and reconstituting some inactive boards, and requiring each city board and commission to provide a monthly report to city council, and approved a motion requiring the monthly reports. Active commissions or boards would not be impacted by plans to dissolve and reconstitute their membership.

In addition, council moved to appoint Erik Kouns to the Tourism Commission and Jasmyne Lewis-Combs to the library board.

They also discussed the Windstream broadband project, and heard from library director Matt Parsons on planned roof repairs and other improvements to the Grayson branch building.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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