An Open Letter to the County Commission:
I’m Zack Walden. I am a 3rd district voter, a Campbell County property owner, Vice-Chairman of the Campbell County Republican Party, and an attorney. I am concerned about and disappointed in the recent actions of the Campbell County Commission, and I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts on the proposed tax increase that the county intends to use to fill a slush fund.
The 2018 property tax rate was set at 2.25. After this year’s reappraisals, the property values in Campbell County rose. Because reappraisals cannot result in a tax increase, the property tax rate was adjusted to 2.0659. However, the county commission recently proposed raising the rate to 2.25—a $1.3 million tax increase on property owners. The purpose of raising this rate is to make people believe that it was the reappraisal that caused the increase, but that is simply not accurate. Some commissioners still claim that this is not a tax increase. However, property owners will be paying more taxes, and the county property tax revenue will increase by $1.3 million. This is obviously a tax increase, and any commissioner who says otherwise is either being dishonest or has such a deep misunderstanding of the tax process that they should not be serving on the commission.
The important question to be answered is: What is the county commission going to do with this money? Recently, our long-underfunded school system faced a $1.8 million shortfall, but the county commission has proposed to allot no additional funds to our schools. Our county has also been hit with record-setting rainfall this year which has caused deterioration to our infrastructure, but our underfunded road department also will not see any meaningful increase in funding.
The recipient of this tax windfall is the “general capital projects fund.” After being funded .0884 cents of our 2.25 rate last year, this fund is going to be tripled to received .2613 this year which totals $1.8 million—coincidentally, the exact amount of shortfall the school system is facing.
I have spoken with numerous local officials and discovered that the only capital projects the county has planned this year is tearing down the old board of education building—which will cost $50,000—and an expansion of a campground at the White Bridge park, most of which is funded by a grant.
So what is the county commission planning to do with $1.8 million? They either won’t tell you, or they can’t tell you. This will be the commission’s special fund to give to pet projects throughout the year. This is not the result of visionary leadership, but a result of the power of corruption. Every member of the commission should be ashamed now that their plot has been exposed: continue to make the school system and road department scrape by while putting the proceeds of an underhanded tax increase into a slush fund.
But the other problem is that if our schools and infrastructure continue to be underfunded, we can expect more of the same.
Currently, the Campbell County Commission provides funding equivalent to $1,854.33 per Campbell County student. That’s less than half of what our peer counties provide. Anderson County provides $3,836.59 per student, and Roane County provides $3,945.27. Even Claiborne County provides $2,590.94. We should be embarrassed that nearby counties fund education at significantly higher rates than we do.
Some commissioners have pointed out that the school board did not request additional funding from the commission. There is a simple reason for this: School board members were bluntly told by the county finance department that the county commission would not raise taxes and would not increase funding for schools. We now know this is half true: the commission will raise taxes significantly, but they still will do everything they can to rob the children of Campbell County of a quality education.
For their part, the commission believes it is being responsible by not increasing school funding. They believe that Governor Lee’s voucher program will eventually affect Campbell County and cause the school system to lose hundreds of students. The commissioners have been incorrectly told that if Campbell County were to have three failing schools, they would automatically be included in the voucher program. This is false. The original voucher legislation would have affected school systems who had three or more failing schools on the 2015 list—not the current list. The legislation was eventually watered down to include only schools in Nashville and Memphis. The state legislature specifically chose the 2015 list because no rural county had failing schools in that year. The entire voucher program is designed to target schools in urban districts. There is no appetite in the state legislature to expand vouchers to rural districts such as Campbell County.
As a property owner, I understand what property taxes are for. The better that the local education system is, the safer that our community is, and the higher of quality life that we have, the more my property is worth. Therefore, property taxes are an investment into local priorities that give our property value: the roads that connect us, the schools that teach us, and the police and fire fighters that protect us. I am not opposed to a tax increase when local government uses that funding for local priorities. But let me be clear: this budget is an example of the dirtiest products of politics. It is a brazen attempt to mislead the public about a tax increase to fill a special fund with no accountability. This budget in its current form is and should be strongly opposed by the citizens of Campbell County. Any commissioner who would vote for the currently proposed budget is either uninformed, irresponsible, or corrupt and is unfit to hold public office.
The commission is now faced with a choice, now that their scheme has been exposed: You can fight on for your corrupt tax increase to fund your special projects, you can back down and accept the status quo, or, you can choose to display real leadership. You can finally take steps towards adequately funding our schools and roads. One commissioner has committed make a motion to amend the proposed budget to move $500,000 out of the capital projects fund into the school department, and an additional $500,000 to the road department. I hope some of you are bold enough to join him.
WLAF welcomes your input at firstname.lastname@example.org (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 06/25/2019-6AM)