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published on 08/23/2001

Budget Information Work Session

By staff writer

Town of Signal Mountain Town Council Public Information Work Session
Monday, August 20, 2001, 7:00 pm.

1. Discussion of Property Tax Increase
2. Discussion of Water Rate Increase
3. Discussion of Sewer Rate Increase
4. Adjourn

Mayor Jim Althaus opened the meeting informing the members of the audience that this was a “formal, public, informal meeting.” By that he meant that even though this was not a formal Town Council meeting, it would still be conducted in a formal and orderly manner. Residents were instructed to limit discussion to one item on the agenda at a time. Vice-mayor and Councilmember Bob Steel added that he wanted residents to identify themselves before speaking.

All members of the Town Council were present as well as Town Recorder Diana Campbell, Town Attorney Joe Wagner, and Town Manager Hershel Dick.

The Mayor then introduced the Department Heads of the Town of Signal Mountain:
1. Larry Eddings – Public Safety
2. William Sanders – Water & Sewer/ Recreation Manager/ General Maintenance
3. Art Perry – Town Engineer/ Street & Sanitation/Storm Water
4. Bill Wagner – Town Inspector/Recycle Center/ Storm Water
5. Connie Pierce – Librarian
6. Karen Shropshire – Mountain Arts Community Center/Playhouse
7. Scott Cook – Recreation Department

Mayor Althaus reminded everyone of the purpose of the next Town Council Meeting which is a public hearing scheduled for Monday, August 27 at 7:00 pm. (See “August Town Council Meeting".) He also tried to explain how confusing municipal accounting is, that it can’t just be looked at but needs explaining. He pointed out that a twenty (20) year plan for street maintenance was being put into the budget and that the Town of Signal Mountain has a very narrow tax base. One half per cent of sales tax collected in the Town goes toward the new high school or other schools on the mountain if the high school is abandoned. The Town’s fiscal year begins in July and there must be in place operating capital to hold the town over until the budget is approved. Fifty per cent of the taxes are collected by October and the other 50% are collected in January/February. Taxes are delinquent after March 1st.

Members of the audience began asking the Councilmembers questions; most were answered by Mayor Althaus who asked Town Recorder, Diana Campbell who is also the Town treasurer to explain the budget questions.

When asked why the budget had not been raised in over 20 years, the Mayor said this was done deliberately and that he felt the residents would not have supported a property tax increase when there was a surplus in the budget. Several residents disagreed and pointed out that now we have this 44% increase because the taxes were not gradually increased over the 20 years to reflect the cost of running the town.

Councilmembers Rachel Bryant and Steve Ruffin both were asked how they felt about the tax increase, and each agreed that an increase is necessary. They pointed out that cutbacks would not be an option but are concerned about the ramifications on some citizens, especially those on fixed incomes, with such a dramatic increase in taxes.

When the Council was asked who is responsible for the problems we are having now, Vice-mayor and Councilmember Bob Steel said without naming names it was the previous Town Manager, Rick Sonnenburg. Mayor Althaus, then said “The buck stops here” but went on further to say that it is the citizens who need to make changes and keep up with what’s going on in the Town.

Discussion continued with different citizens speaking out on their feelings about where we are today and why we got where we are. Some had ideas to increase the Town’s revenue, others wanted services cut, but most just wanted the members of the Town Council to learn from this and not let it happen again. The key issue is COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION, COMMUNICATION. As one resident pointed out, even attending the Town Council meetings on a regular basis does not mean the Town Council is communicating to the public what the current situation is.

The next business discussed was the proposed 10% increase in the water rates. The rates have not been increased in over ten years and several expenses are expected like the repair of the storage tank. Although one resident complained about the rate increase, on general principle most agreed that making this small increase was acting responsibly and would eliminate having to make a giant increase in the future (i.e. like we’re having to do now with the property tax).

At this point many residents in the audience left or started to leave as the final item discussed was the 150% increase in the sewer rates, which affect only those residents who are on the sewer system. (This is a state law as answered by Mayor Althaus when a citizen asked why the rest of the Town couldn’t contribute to the cost of fixing the sewers.) Although the Councilmembers tried to come up with an alternate plan, Tennessee state law prohibits anyone paying for sewer that isn’t on sewer. If the Town does not fix the lines by 2003, the Federal government will fine us $10,000 a day until it is fixed. So we have no choice. When asked once again why the sewers had not been maintained since put into place, the Mayor said that Hershel Dick, before becoming Town Manager was responsible for sewer and had asked the previous Town Manager for more money to maintain the sewers and the Town Manager, Rick Sonnenburg never passed that message on to the Town Council.

Hershel Dick, Town Manager, said that he deeply regretted having to ask for this money and that every effort to make the repairs as efficiently and carefully as possible will be made.

The discussion went on with different residents expressing their concern and unhappiness that it came to this and even wondered what would happen if the Federal government came in one day and made the Town clean up any environmental damage made from the septic tanks all the other residents have in Town. Would the “sewer people” then be doubly charged if such a thing happened? Since that would be a Town fine and not one levied on just the “septic people.”

I apologize, but I am not sure what time the meeting ended as I left at 10:15 P.M.

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