Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times Macon County Mayor Steve Jones responds to community feedback on proposed property and wheel tax increases during a public forum held July 9 at Macon County Junior High School. Pictured are (from left): Anita Hesson, Macon County accounts payable; Jones and Macon County administrative assistant Alecia King.

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

Macon County Mayor Steve Jones responds to community feedback on proposed property and wheel tax increases during a public forum held July 9 at Macon County Junior High School.

Pictured are (from left): Anita Hesson, Macon County accounts payable; Jones and Macon County administrative assistant Alecia King.

As the Macon County Commission considers raising property tax (16.7 cents per $100 of appraised value) and wheel tax ($15 per vehicle) to balance the county's general fund, citizens have been left with concerns about the impact on their own budgets.

Dozens of county residents attended a public forum held on July 9 at Macon County High School to weigh in on the issue and offer suggestions, and Macon County Mayor Steve Jones said that their feedback will be given to the commissioners at their July 29 meeting before they take action on the proposed budget (which includes the tax increases).

"Each year as the year goes along, there will be things that come up outside the projected budget," Jones said. "As an example ... a few years ago, we had a water heater go out at the justice center. We have a maintenance budget built in, but you'll still have things come up that weren't projected."

Jones said that the county tries to keep at least $2.4 million in fund balance in order to cover unplanned expenses throughout a given year. Last year, the county used approximately $265,000 from fund balance to cover expenses, but this year's projected expenditures have increased to approximately $945,000 (though miscellaneous expenditures could add to that number according to Jones, and items discussed at the town hall and recent budget meeting add up closer to $970,000).

"The fund balance today is good, but if we don't pay for some of the things we've got to do, we're getting in trouble," Jones said. "If our fund balance gets too low, we won't be able to operate, and then, we'll have to start reporting to the state ... they'll basically have to tell us what to do to make it up."

According to Jones, service costs within the county are rising along with its population (data from the U.S. Census Bureau places Macon County's growth rate at 9.2 percent from 2010-18), and members of the public approached the conversation with that in mind.

Attendees noted that the low cost of living is a significant factor in drawing new people into the county and that raising taxes could slow that trend and force current residents to make up the difference.

"If our growth is so much, then, you're already collecting more wheel tax from the people coming in," Scottie Sliger said. "You're already collecting more property taxes ... you're already collecting more sales tax, so why are we talking about increasing? Are we accounting for all that?"

Several residents shared proposals for generating revenue without increasing taxes, including allowing liquor by the drink sales across the county, liquidating properties not currently in use and having elected officials donate the funds from their state-scheduled raises (approximately $35,000).

"It seems like it's hard on the county and the city residents to have to pay a property-tax increase and wheel-tax increase the same year," Glen Donoho said. "We should have maybe done the wheel tax two years ago and this year the property tax. We're hitting everybody too much at one time, and that's a lot of the problem."

Other ideas discussed included privatizing some of the county's institutions, scaling back the size of the county commission to one representative per district and adjusting the property-tax rate specifically on duplexes and apartments to collect more from renters.

Charlie Jones recalled his time on the Lafayette City Council and suggested the county consider restructuring into a metropolitan government like Trousdale County's.

"The county, time and time again, got grants for water, sewer and gas lines," Charlie Jones said. "Each time, we get all the grants, and they all get put in, it's given to the city to maintain and also to prosper from. I never understood it then, and I don't understand it now, why the county would keep giving away that residual income."

Charlie Jones predicted that the county will continue having to look at tax increases to balance its budget due to a lack of residual income and said that a metropolitan government could also help attract industry and raise the commercial tax base.

"You have a problem ... the city's running your sewage department, and they do not have the sewage system to take any more factories that are going to pay for things," Charlie Jones said. "If you want to put a factory in now, you can't because you can't get rid of the sewage, and I think the metro (system) is something we're going to have to look at."

Angie Sullivan said that with the number of residents in the area on fixed or limited incomes, it is important for the community to figure out how to fund any necessary projects with those people in mind.

"A house divided will never make it," Sullivan said, asking the residents and commissioners to approach the problem as a team. "I ask that you look at what our needs are, and that we spend what we need, not necessarily what we want. We can work together on this, because in Macon County, that's what we do. I'm glad everybody came (tonight) ... I ask the commissioners to listen and do the best job you can, because when you lay your head down at night, you have to lay down with what you've decided."

Where would the money from the proposed tax increases go?

Ambulance service revenue shortage - approximately $250,000

Employee medical insurance - approximately $230,000 to cover rising premiums

Employee raises - $196,000 for 50-cent increase per employee

Macon County Justice Center - approximately $142,000 for jail additions

Water and electricity - approximately $60,000 for upkeep

Raises for elected officials - approximately $35,000, amount scheduled by Tennessee

Worker's compensation - $29,000

Macon County Animal Control - approximately $28,000 for a second animal control officer position

Sources: General fund budget figures presented by Macon County Mayor Steve Jones at the budget committee meeting on July 9 and public forum on July 10