Rhea County Courthouse

The historic Rhea County Courthouse is pictured above in a Herald-News file photo.

As the Rhea County Budget Committee and Rhea County Commission continue to finalize the 2019-20 county budget, budget committee members considered an increase in property taxes at a special-called meeting on Tuesday, July 2.

Rhea County Finance Director Kelley Morgan said that should the county take no action on increasing revenue, the county could eventually see a $1.7 million budget deficit in the general fund balance.

Morgan said that a 15-cent property tax increase on the current rate of $2.1966 per $100 of assessed value “will have you basically breaking even” in future budgets. She estimated that the increase would add nearly $2.7 million in revenue.

The county commission has not voted on the proposal yet, and said at Tuesday’s meeting that the 15-cent increase may not be enough to satisfy the projected budget deficit. Budget committee members also discussed a possible wheel tax in addition to the 15-cent property tax increase.

County officials have said routinely when the discussion of a wheel tax comes up that a tax on the nearly 32,000 vehicles registered in Rhea County would be a fairer tax levy than a tax on those who own property.

Rhea County Commissioner Billy Thedford said that, according to his estimates, a $25 wheel tax would increase annual revenue by $675,000, a $35 tax would increase revenue by $945,000 and a $40 wheel tax would increase revenue by $1 million.

“I’m worried that if we don’t do both this year, we could see another property tax increase next year,” Thedford said.

In other budget-related discussions on Tuesday, Rhea County Commissioner Harold Fisher noted that once the new justice center is complete, the county will no longer have to pay other counties to house Rhea inmates.

The state has mandated that while Rhea County plans a jail expansion at the new justice center, it must retain a population of nearly 88 at the current jail. According to figures provided by the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department, the county is currently paying anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million per year to house inmates in other counties.

Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said that the new justice center will be complete in anywhere from 18 to 24 months, indicating that the county will have spent anywhere from $3.4 million to $4 million on housing inmates in other counties.

“It is the county commission’s responsibility to build a jail, and it’s the sheriff’s department’s responsibility to maintain and run a jail,” Neal said. “It’s crucial that this new facility gets completed as soon as possible because housing inmates in other counties is costing the taxpayers.”

Neal said that while previous county commissions had perhaps dropped the ball on constructing a new facility, the current commission had the issue “laid in their lap when they took office.”

In 2010, Neal said the county had plans to construct a justice center across from Eagle Exxon. He said plans for that facility were nearly 80 percent complete, and the project would cost a total $12 million. The justice center currently under construction at the old hospital site is estimated to cost nearly $22 million.

The Rhea County Commission will meet next in a workshop session on Tuesday, July 9, at 6 p.m. in the conference room of the Phil Swafford Building, with a regular commission meeting set for Tuesday, July 16, at 7 p.m., also in the Phil Swafford Building. Both meetings are open to the public.