Payroll tax appears dead

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By Ben Carlson

At least four magistrates said Monday that they will not vote to enact a payroll tax on those who work in Anderson County, meaning the controversial issue is likely dead.

Asked if he thinks the measure has a chance of receiving a majority vote among the seven members of the Anderson County Fiscal Court, Magistrate John Wayne Conway said no.

No, it wont pass, and I know that for a fact, said Conway. I know where the votes are at.

Magistrate Larry Smith said he wont vote for the measure because its unfair to the small number of people who would have to pay it.

Its the most unfair tax we could put on anybody, he said. I cant vote for it.

Magistrate David Ruggles said Monday that he has never been in favor of an occupational tax, and Magistrate Martin Harley and his opponent in the Nov. 6 election, Forrest Dale Stevens, are both on the record against the tax, too.

Magistrate Jason Denny said the only way he will vote for a payroll tax would be to have a portion of the revenue it generates set aside to fix the countys aging system of roads.

I will not vote for an occupational tax and put it in the general fund, said Denny, who said designating a portion specifically for roads or any other category is not something that can be done at this time.

I havent found a way to lock it in where court members couldnt move it, he said. Thats what Im afraid of.

Im not going to be the kind of person who says I will never vote for something. But at this time, thats the only way Ill vote for it.

Their statements came just three days after the court voted last Friday to approve Magistrate Juretta Wells idea to create a committee designed to examine the countys finances and offer suggestions on ways to solve what some have said is a pending fiscal crisis.

Asked Monday how the committee will operate, Judge-Executive Steve Cornish said he was still trying to communicate with magistrates on how it will be established and how residents will be appointed.

Smith said creating the committee will likely make the situation more confusing for the public, the majority of which, he said, has little understanding of the countys finances.

[The committee] will never work, he said. Its just going to confuse everybody and everything will be blown out of proportion. The simple thing to do would be to print the audit and let people see it.

It wont do any good, added Conway. I dont have a problem with people coming in and looking at the budget. That will let the public know that were not trying to hide anything from anybody.

But I think theyll come back and give their opinion that the countys in good enough shape to take care of the budget in hand, and maybe next years budget, but I think theyll say that, somewhere down the road, you people are going to have to do something.

Regardless of any recommendations from the committee, Conway said he has already made up his mind on a tax increase.

It will not bear on my decision at all, he said. Im out on any tax raise. Im done with it.

Wells said she still thinks having a committee look at the budget and provide input is a good idea.

We need teachers, some business people and some just plain citizens to be involved.

The community needs to be involved in the process. Then at least people will have had an opportunity to have input. Im tired of its (revenue) being on the agenda (of each court meeting) and us not doing anything.

Magistrates Smith, Conway and Denny each said they continue to be frustrated over the lack of public understanding of the countys budget and the demands placed on it by the state and federal government.

People dont understand the constraints were under, said Denny. I want [the committee] to look at our budget and go through it. If they think were wasting money, I want that to be a part of their presentation.

Since the idea to implement a payroll tax first surfaced in an open meeting Oct. 8, Cornish has said that the countys ability to raise additional revenue is limited to a payroll tax or property tax rate increases, adding that the countys reserve or surplus funds are rapidly being gobbled up by escalating health care costs, along with state-mandated retirement match funds and hazardous duty pay for police officers.

The majority of people dont have a clue why were spending $800,000 a year in Frankfort for the jail; they ask why we dont build one, said Smith, who said a study several years ago nearly led the county to build a jail, only to learn a few weeks before approving the measure that the state and federal governments would not provide prisoners.

That would have cost us $1.2 million in taxpayer participation to keep it open, he said. Its a good thing we didnt build it.

All three agreed that there is likely money in the 2007-08 budget that could perhaps be trimmed, but not much.

I dont have the total figures down yet, but theres a little here and a little there, including several thousand dollars in some line items, said Conway.

If you take a look at the whole budget, youre going to find some holes, said Smith.

But 96 to 97 percent of the budget is right on the money. Theres no illusionary spending.

Can we shave a few more places? Maybe. But there are places you cant shave, said Denny, and I want people to know that.