City tables metro talk

Friday, November 11, 2011

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

On a split vote Tuesday, Lewisburg's City Council declined to take a stand against the idea of studying how consolidation of city and county services might save taxpayers money.

Councilman Robin Minor sought to have City Manager David Orr write a letter to Marshall County leaders saying Lewisburg opposes merging with the county under a metropolitan charter until it's shown how that will benefit city residents.

"It doesn't mean that this can't be changed later," Minor said, having substantiated his position with various examples that the city's doing just fine on its own.

"The county needs the city more than the city needs the county," Minor said, gaining support from Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr.

Minor was also miffed that county leaders hadn't actually communicated with the city about the on-going public debate on whether a metro system could save taxpayers money. County Commission Chairman Mike Waggoner won commission support to have County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett and Commissioner Don Ledford consult with municipalities for their position on the subject and Waggoner asked Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods to make time for Liggett and Ledford if they sought to speak with the council. They didn't attend.

Given the circumstances, Councilman Steve Thomas opposed Minor's motion to have Orr tell the county that the city opposes consolidation.

"I have a problem with voting against something that has not been proposed," Thomas said. "Just from talking with some of the county commissioners, they're not ready to make a proposal."

Councilmen explored variations on the incongruity of opposing a nonexistent proposal until Councilman Ronald McRady's motion to table the metro discussion permitted councilmen to resolve other business at hand.

Minor's motion was "premature," McRady said.

Woods stopped the discussion, pointing out that motions to table require an immediate vote.

McRady, Thomas and Councilman Hershel Davis voted to table the question which, as described by Ledford, was whether local leaders ought to study consolidation of duplicated services, or perhaps two local governments.

Minor and Whitehead voted against ending the discussion on whether Orr should tell the county that Lewisburg councilmen oppose merging the city and county.

Minor requested a news report including the city's track record of not increasing property taxes for more than two decades, something the county can't claim. Even after reappraisal of property values to accommodate change in market prices, the city has maintained the same level of taxation. If values increase, the state sets a certified rate to identify a revenue neutral tax so local governments won't realize a windfall of revenue just because property values increased.

In September, Ledford asked Waggoner to facilitate creation of a committee to study consolidation to see if government services could be provided at a lower cost. Waggoner deferred action on that request. Instead, Liggett and Ledford were sent to get city leaders' reactions.

Liggett and Ledford spoke with mayors on Tuesday during a meeting of the countywide Joint Economic and Community Development Board (JECDB) when some said they've heard opposition and others said they don't have enough information to decide. Liggett said managing government is demanding. "We've got enough to do," he said. Ledford has said he feels an obligation to look for operational savings and is frustrated with what would appear to be government career building instead of public service.

Minor complained about the funding mechanism for the JECDB that assesses the five local governments based on population and other factors. Minor said 66 percent of the JECDB's funding comes from Lewisburg.

Instead of two-thirds, the city's support of the JECDB is just under one quarter of the panel's funding, according to calculations by Mike Wiles, executive director of the JECDB. The county funds 69 percent of the board's budget. Payments from Chapel Hill and Cornersville for JECDB operations total four percent of the board's revenue. Petersburg's part is one percent. The percentages are rounded.

Some 48-49 percent of the property taxes in the county are paid in Lewisburg, Minor said.

He also complained about the county property tax rate, pointing to a state study that says the county has the fifth highest rate in the state and after the four largest cities' are removed from the study, Marshall County is revealed to have the second highest rate.

Minor intimated that "some people know what's going on" and others apparently don't, so more information is needed.

"If," McRady replied, "you have metropolitan government, you merge the two entities together and it would have to have a referendum."

While Minor took a stand on what's known now, the mayor commented, "I think this was the way they were to start the process that you wanted."

Minor: "I don't see how it could benefit the city..."

McRady: "It's my understanding they they're looking at duplication of services."

Shortly thereafter, the subject was tabled.