That opposition came after the city council, in a 3-2 vote, agreed to raise the property tax — or millage — rate from 9.035 mills to 12.69 mills.
Following the vote Monday, the council held the first of three public hearings on the proposed hike.
Two more public hearings, in which residents can ask questions and voice their opinions, must be held before the council can go ahead with the rate hike. The final two public hearings will be held Sept. 10.
The higher property tax rate is a measure to balance the city’s budget; to fund Rossville Public Library; and to eliminate an unpopular monthly administration fee of $6.50, which isn’t being paid by all Rossville residents.
“It has not been a popular tax at all,” Harris said about the administration fee. “There has been a lot of controversy over it.”
The largest portion of the rate increase — 2 mills — is to offset the elimination of the administration fee, which appears on residents’ water bills.
If Rossville continued the $6.50 fee, it would require a new billing company, since Tennessee American Water Co. will no longer collect any fees for municipalities.
One vendor being considered for billing will charge $1.42 for each resident’s bill.
While each homeowner has paid $78 annually to the city for the administration fee, that isn’t the same case for apartment tenants throughout the city or for homeowners with their own septic systems.
Many rental properties receive only one water bill, including Rossville Apartments on Walker Avenue, which has 110 units, according to council member Joyce Wall.
According to the water company statistics, 1,500 residents (of 4,100 total) paid the monthly fee to the city.
The administration fee was intended to apply to all city residents equally, but failed to do so upon being initiated nine years ago by then-mayor Johnny Baker, according to Harris.
Under the new property tax rate, a home worth $53,000 would pay an increase of property tax equivalent to the former administration fee ($78 in one year), while a $200,000 home would increase by $214 more in taxes annually, according to Harris.
Council members Rick Buff and Cindy Bradshaw voted against the proposed tax rate increase.
Buff explained how the administration fee helped the city’s reserve fund while avoiding tax increases. It is the first millage rate increase since 2000.
“The property tax (rate) increase is not a fair tax because not all of the people are going to be taxed the same,” Buff said. He said he prefers to use reserve funds for the upcoming year.
“It (a millage rate increase) is not going to be popular, but once you break it down it should be understandable,” Harris said.
Harris quickly called for a vote on the proposed rate hike after Buff’s statement, which drew the ire of the crowd, which sought more discussion. One citizen interrupted and challenged the mayor with a “point of order” for discussion, which was vigorously denied by Harris after hammering his gavel 15 times.
Upon a second motion on the issue, Bradshaw focused on the library portion of the proposed millage increase.
She questioned state funding mandates and the library’s loss of support from the Walker County school board.
Bradshaw also asked Cherokee Regional Library director Lecia Eubanks a host of questions that were contentious at times, ranging from Eubanks’ earnings to a $200 line item for travel in the budget.
The city contributes one-quarter of a $16,000 supplement to Eubanks, in addition to her $74,000 salary, set by the state. Her secretary, for 20 hours a week, has been eliminated due to budget cuts, becoming another responsibility for Eubanks. The state will not allow libraries to furlough employees as a temporary measure in the matter, according to Eubanks.
Eubanks explained county-level funding cuts and the massive increase ($700 monthly per employee) required in local contributions to employee health-care imposed by legislators.
“Times are tough and we can’t give you this money unless we go up on property taxes,” Bradshaw said. “We’re not earmarking that and never would I agree to do that.”
The city does provide maintenance for the library, which was built with state funding, and property that was donated to Rossville, according to Eubanks.
Eubanks reminded council members of the importance that libraries provide for citizens seeking forms during tax season and for the unemployed seeking jobs who would become taxpayers.
“I am one-hundred percent for supporting the library,” Buff said, describing it as an “important asset for kids” at a time when the recreation department was ended.
According to library data cards, 4,219 residents in the city are among the 10,742 users at the Rossville library, which had more than 45,000 visitors last year.
Concerns from crowd
Following the initial vote on the proposed property tax rate hike, citizens were allowed to voice concerns.
The speakers included two groups: library supporters with concerns for the next generation; and those in opposition to additional taxes, which were mostly retirees.
One resident questioned if more county residents utilized the Rossville library than those who live in the city.
“Passing a tax increase is the easiest thing in the world. …. Any idiot can do it,” a former council member said. “Why should we fund it for those in the county, if the county isn’t going to fund it?”
Another person asked, “What would we have left to attract potential residents and for our own children” if the loss of both a recreation department and the library occurred?
“We need to think about the children before we think of anything else,” Barbara Moore said.
A number of the residents were from Mission Ridge Road, an area that overlooks downtown Rossville, including a resident who claimed to be on a “fixed income” and that Mission Ridge residents paid approximately 80 percent of the city’s taxes.
Former mayor Johnny Baker, whose administration created the administration fee, spoke against the tax increase. He also criticized city officials for not giving a salary raise to law enforcement.
Baker categorized the fee elimination as a “successful campaign pledge” for his successor Teddy Harris. “We’re a proud city and we’re messing with the wrong people,” Baker said about imposing a greater tax burden on property owners.
Cindy Sharrock spoke about the community impact of libraries. Prior to receiving a home from the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” she did not have a computer and frequently utilized resources at the library, including faxing 300 pages of her application to the reality show that built her Rossville home in February 2011.
The smallest portion of the property tax rate increase — 0.655 mills — is to balance the city’s budget, which was reduced by $57,000, according to Sherry Foster, city clerk.
The city’s reserve fund stood at nearly $1 million dollars in 2006, but has been utilized continuously as revenues have fallen in recent years and currently stands at $660,000.
An additional 1-mill increase has also been added to “fully fund” the Rossville Public Library, which will provide $67,000 without using reserve funds, according to Harris.
Council member Hal Gray said the first cuts were internal departments. All budgets were affected, except the library funding, according to Foster.
That level of support by the city has only recently returned from 2001, which provided $64,475 that year. The following year mayor Baker cut the library budget to $30,000 from the previous year, according to Eubanks, which threatened to close the library while city reserve funds were growing.
“Fortunately, that same year, Dade County increased their contribution by $30,000,” Eubanks said, which offset the funding cut in Rossville.
“Last year was the first that (Rossville) funding returned to the 2001 level,” Eubanks said.
The city’s funding increased to $47,000 the following two years and slowly increased during the eight years that followed.
Any raises for all city employees were also eliminated from the current budget.
Municipal court collections are down by more than $100,000 over the past two years, according to Harris.
“We also lost the biggest taxpayer (Brockway Plastic Container) in the city two years ago,” which paid $47,000 annually in taxes, Harris said.
Nearly 25 percent of the delinquent property taxes in Rossville (which total $101,000) are in bankruptcy, which significantly delays tax collection, according to Foster.
The largest amounts of back-taxes due are on the Peerless Mill property. The Hutcheson family, which had the property returned to its ownership on July 3, has recently paid $23,000 of those back-taxes to Rossville, half the amount owed, according to Harris.