Property tax rate will drop

Friday, April 27, 2007

Marshall County property owners will see their tax rate go down this summer, but officials and close observers know that's because property values went up, although how much depends on reports due this spring.

In anticipation of a reappraisal report by Property Assessor Linda Haislip, the county's budget director, Freda Terry, has been issuing requests to her fellow department directors for their estimates on how much money they need for the next fiscal year.

These steps by county leaders are as predictable as April showers and May flowers. However, with unusual weather this spring, local governments' annual march through budget sessions may include side trips across shifting sands until tax base calculations and spending deliberations produce another annual budget.

It's as important as a child's education because spending on schools is the largest part of any county's budget. Marshall County is no exception.

"Education is the biggest part," Terry said Friday while reviewing the current budget and gesturing toward budget request forms that she started distributing to county departments last week.

The county budget is now about $67 million and almost half, $33.12 million, of that is available to run the schools, her figures show. The county has borrowed nearly $10 million and, because much of that is to expand and improve schools, a great deal of what the county must repay annually on that debt might also be seen as a cost of education.

Terry's requests to department directors start with statements on what they actually spent in the nine months after this year's budget was approved and how much they anticipate spending in the three months ending June 30.

While it may seem as dull as counting sheep, the budget process is important to the annual goat festival and other civic activities because they're in the budget, too.

Contrary to the famed fainting goats reaction to frightening circumstances, the county property assessor has issued an extensive explanation so property tax payers won't swoon when they see notices she's issuing as a result of reappraisal. [A summary was published here Wednesday. The entire statement was posted on the newspaper's web site, www.marshall]

State law requires the reevaluation of property values so taxation is as fair as possible, and Marshall County's next budget and the accompanying property tax rate will be affected by results of reappraisal.

One result is from a mathematical calculation that, by law, forces the rate down as the value of property goes up.

Long-time property taxpayers may realize that the tax bills they pay won't go down. Terry would agree, although she emphasizes that county leaders did lower the tax rate some years ago as they promised because of a rate hike to deal with debt. That political promise was kept, she said.

The tax rate cut this summer will be a result of mathematical reasons.

The rate dropped because of reappraisals in 1991 (from $4.11 to $2.49), in 1997 (from $3.18 to $2.70) and in 2002 (from $3.14 to $2.86.)

When the 2003-04 fiscal year budget was developed in the summer of 2002, county leaders faced difficult budget decisions when ICP closed and moved machinery from the county. That eliminated taxable personal property and that tax revenue stream was reduced. As a result, the rate went back to $3.14 per $100 of assessed property and it's remained at that level since.

About 10 years ago, the county faced a debt load that was seen as something that had to be resolved, and a tax rate hike was imposed with the promise that it would be lowered when the debts were paid, Terry said.

In the mid-1990s, Marshall County's property tax rate went up after the year reappraisal forced it down and its changes thereafter were as follows: From $2.90 in 1993 to $3.23 in 1994, and then to $3.31 in 1995. The next year the rate was dropped to $3.18 and that was the year before reappraisal.

Marshall County's property tax rate is now $3.14, a rate that has held steady through four tax cycles since 2003, Terry's records show.

Public safety is the largest part of the general government fund. Sheriff's Department, Jail, and related operations cost $3.3 million out of the general government fund which totals $10.4 million. That's separate from the education budget, but it does include the solid waste fund that weighs in at $578,440, a sum funded by a host fee paid by Waste Management Inc., operators of Cedar Ridge Landfill.

Schools and solid waste were the two big issues faced by county leaders, County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said last week before commissioners voted on the landfill's request to expand. Had the request been denied, some leaders said the contract with Waste Management would be void and the county would have to find another money to operate the convenience centers and fund the solid waste department.

"There are some other things we'd like to address if the money is there," Liggett said. Water is "a continuing concern," he continued. "We hope to get started on several projects this summer."

The county has a five-year plan, but state law requires utilities to be self-sufficient and the county's fee on new construction is channeled to the Board of Public Utilities.

Here's a broad overview on where Marshall County has been spending its money: $6.7 million for the water utility; $29.8 for schools; $10.4 for general government including various so-called courthouse and fee departments; $3.2 for roads; $4.9 for debt service; $104,894 to prevent juvenile delinquency; $86,673 on tourism, economic and community development, and; $72,500 for the Joint Economic and Community Development Board. There are a few other smaller accounts.