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Analysis: Sales tax, schools, and the 2013 property tax hike
Karen House
April 19, 2017, 3:47 p.m.

April 19, 2017 – The 2017 Dunlap mayor’s race went “hot” on April 13 when one of the challengers to Mayor Dwain Land’s reelection bid made statements about a 2013 tax increase in a campaign ad published in a local newspaper.

In her ad, Jennifer Lockhart Greer wrote:

In July of 2013, Mayor Land commanded a change to a 1976 agreement between the City of Dunlap and the Sequatchie School System, cutting the portion of sales tax allocated to the school system back from 72.22% to 50%.

Greer went on to allege that this change resulted in a “1/2 million dollar shortfall” to the school system that had to be made up by the Sequatchie County Commission, resulting in a property tax increase. This change, she said, caused part of the burden for support of the schools to be shifted from shoppers to property owners.

Jennifer Lockhart Greer, candidate for mayor of Dunlap

THE PEOPLE

At the time of this tax change, Dwain Land had just begun his second term as mayor of Dunlap, after running unopposed for reelection in May 2013. Keith Cartwright had been the county executive since the previous August.

Johnny Cordell was serving in his 18th year as county school superintendent. Tommy Johnson was chairman of the Sequatchie County Commission, back when the county executive and commission chairman were two separate positions.

THE 1966 AGREEMENT

The issue of the schools’ sales tax allotment arose from a 47-year-old agreement between the city of Dunlap and the Sequatchie County Schools. By state law, 50 percent of the sales tax collected belongs to the schools. But in 1966, the county school system wanted to build a new elementary school, and to help them come up with the money, the city of Dunlap gave them an extra 22 percent of sales tax collected within the city limits.

That money helped build Griffith Elementary School.

Then, in 1976, this agreement was extended, to pay for construction of a new high school, and Sequatchie County High School was built.

When the extended agreement was set to expire in 1996, the city simply let it continue.

Sequatchie County Executive Keith Cartwright

The city continued to allow the school system to receive that extra 22 percent,” County Executive Keith Cartwright said this week. “The city turned a blind eye. They said, through (Mayor) George Wagner, ‘The schools can use it to get ahead a little bit.’”

THE DECISION

Starting his second term as mayor, Dwain Land decided to take back the 22 percent of the sales tax on loan to the schools. At the time, the school system had a large reserve built up, so Land did not see that losing the extra sales tax would be a problem for the schools.

When Dwain Land became mayor, it was either take that money back or raise city taxes,” Cartwright explained. “Dwain decided in 2013 to take the city’s money back. It was theirs anyway. The school system had $9-10 million in reserve. They were doing well.”

Dunlap Mayor Dwain Land

THE CRISIS

The sudden obstacle for the school system, however, was not a lack of funds, but a state mandate. The state requires what is called “Maintenance Of Effort” (MOE) – which means that the local government can not give the schools less money this year than they did last year.

They have to maintain, or increase, funding for the schools each year. So, even though the Sequatchie County Schools were not hurting for funds, they had to come up with some way to make up the loss of sales tax, or the state would not approve their budget.

What we had to do at that point was start working with the schools,” Tommy Johnson said Tuesday. “We couldn’t raise taxes that much. Mr. Cordell worked with us flawlessly, to get that worked out. There was a lot of consternation toward the city. It sort of paralyzed the county.

Two ladies from the state came in and explained the requirements (of MOE),” Johnson said. “Mary Ann Durski was a wealth of knowledge. Without the School Board working with the county, it would have been a lot worse situation. It was a terrible mess. There was a lot of hard, hard feelings.”


The extra sales tax revenue the city of Dunlap gave to the schools helped fund construction of Sequatchie County High School (above) and Griffith Elementary School.

The MOE varies for each county, based on their ability to pay,” Cordell said Tuesday. For every $2 in state funding, the County Commission provides $1. It doesn’t matter if we have a reserve. They must provide at least the same level of funding as the previous year, unless there is a drop in enrollment."

The county and school system came up with a two-part solution: Divert some of the county’s property taxes to the schools, and use a little “creative financing.”

We estimated our revenue the same as the previous year – because we really didn’t know what our revenues would be, anyway,” Cordell said. “At the end of the year, the school finance director set up a restricted account , and the School Board put funds into that account, which is legal.”

Basically, the School Board put money from the right hand into the left hand and called it revenue. It satisfied the state.

We were $500,000 short,” Cordell said, “but we absorbed that ourselves.”

The county raised the property tax allocation for the schools 6 cents, making the schools’ share of property tax $1.02 per $100, and the city made a new agreement with the county, giving them back a portion of the sales tax on a 10-year plan, to help smooth the transition. That new agreement is still in effect, and is set to expire in 2023.

THE PROPERTY TAX HIKE

In the midst of all this, an unrelated bookkeeping problem complicated matters:

That same year, we had an issue with the comptroller on how we were calculating revenue,” Cartwright said. “They required us to do a huge tax increase. It had nothing to do with the schools.

We had a 43 cent (20 percent) tax increase in the 2013-14 budget. That mostly came from years and years of not raising taxes, and the way our budget committee calculated revenue. It was also a lack of oversight by the state comptroller. We had been counting borrowed money as revenue.”

Because of his background in finance, when Cartwright became county executive, he noticed a discrepancy in the county’s budget. For many years, the county had been counting borrowed money as revenue.

I started doing monthly cash-flow analysis,” Cartwright explained. When he noted the mistake, he brought it up to the state comptroller.

I asked, ‘Why are the Fund Balance and the cash not closer?’ They had missed it! They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘We’ve been doing it for years.’ They wanted us to raise property tax 70 cents. We wanted to raise it 22 cents. I said, ‘What’s the lowest amount you’ll agree to?’ We finally decided on 43 cents, and they approved it.”

It was the largest property tax increase in the history of Sequatchie County, but it was necessary to set the accounts in order.

The city and county had the great misfortune that this “adjustment” coincided with the sales tax controversy. To the casual onlooker, it appeared that a 43-cent increase in county property tax was because of the city taking back the sales tax from the schools, when in reality only 6 cents of that increase went to schools.

In the end, the Dunlap City Commission and the Sequatchie County Commission both voted unanimously to adopt the sales tax agreement.

CLOSING STATEMENTS

County Executive Keith Cartwright: In 2013, Dwain decided to take his own money back. It wasn’t ever designed to be a forever thing. Seventy-eight percent of our budget is the school system. We put a big value on educating our kids.

Mayor Dwain Land: Government agreements, policies and procedures are very often difficult to understand. My opponent, Jennifer Lockhart Greer, has made some untrue statements about the 2013 county property tax increase and the reason it occurred. It is my hope that she is saying what she is because she does not fully understand the details of what transpired at that time between the city, county and school system. Let me first point out that our school system is extremely important to myself and the commissioners. We have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends that attend our schools. It is of utmost importance to each of us that our school board and superintendent have what they need to be the most effective to the students and community. Despite everything that was done, and all the agreements that transpired, the city commissioners and myself were not the cause for the county $0.43 property tax increase. All decisions made on this agreement were voted on and approved by all members of the Sequatchie County Commission and the City Commission. Anyone can confirm this by going to the county clerk’s or county executive’s office and getting the details of the agreement that was made in 2013. I am available to explain exactly what happened to anyone that would like to contact me.

Jennifer Lockhart Greer, candidate for mayor: I think the way the current mayor went about changing the sales tax revenue is very indicative of his mindset: "I want it, and I want it now.” If the city was in such dire need of funds, there was clearly a more tactful way to approach the subject. It would have made more sense for the city to have worked with the county and slowly implemented the change so that the county could absorb the financial shortfall without passing that on to the taxpayers. Furthermore, it is extremely ironic that Mayor Land strong armed the extra funding for the city and he is still unable to balance a budget. (See 2010-2015 official city audits.)

Numerous mayors prior to him saw the importance of funding local education and never felt the need to renegotiate the agreement, so one could speculate that Mayor Land does not see funding education as a priority for his administration.

Last Week's Feature
"Voice in the Dark" -- Dispatch is tough job, important service
Karen House
April 14, 2017, 2:39 p.m.

Dispatcher Tiffany Phillips handles a call into the 911 center. Phillips also serves as liaison for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).

April 14, 2107 – If your father has a heart attack, or your child can’t breathe, or you hear someone breaking your window in the middle of the night, the first thing most people do is dial “911.” But who is that “voice in the dark” on the other end of the line?

The week of April 9-15 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, recognizing the invaluable service that 911 dispatchers provide to the public.

They are the unsung heroes,” Dunlap Police Chief Clint Huth said this week. Huth serves as chairman of the governing board for Sequatchie County Emergency Communications – better known as “911-Dispatch.”

They don’t get much glory, and they don’t get much pay,” Huth said. “But we appreciate the dispatchers and what they do. When it comes to emergency services, they are just as much a part of it as we are. Nobody ever sees them, but they have an impact on the outcome of what we do.”

The Sequatchie County Emergency Communications office, housed in an unassuming brick building on Cedar Street in Dunlap, is where all the 911 calls are handled, for all emergency services – police, fire, rescue squad, and ambulance. It was established in 2005.

Currently, the department employs a dozen people: Director Winfred Smith, Supervisor Dawn Johnson, mapper Tiffany Frost, plus full-time dispatchers and two part-time dispatchers. This staff provides around-the-clock, 24/7 coverage for 911. And when there is a major emergency – like the tornado that hit the county in November 2016 – people not scheduled to work will come in and help out.

I was out in the field, and they had to contact Bledsoe Telephone, contact SVEC, telling them where trees were down, and power lines were down, in the south end of the county,” Smith recalled. “When something like that happens, everything stops.”

With a bad wreck,” Johnson added, “You have to call officers, EMS, fire department for extrication, sometimes the THP (Tennessee Highway Patrol), maybe the Highway Department. Several different agencies may respond to that one call.”

Sequatchie County Emergency Communications Center on Cedar Street handles all 911 calls in the county.

Because they already have an efficient communications network set up, Dispatch also gets called on to communicate warrants and “BOLOs” (Be On the Look Out) to law enforcement. And if they are notified of some dangerous character that may be passing through the area, they give officers a heads-up, so they will be careful with even common traffic stops.

You definitely have to multi-task,” Johnson said. She and Frost stand ready to fill in, any time the dispatchers are short-handed or overwhelmed.

Last year, the department installed a new “CAD” system, which stands for Computer-Aided Dispatch. CAD speeds up the process of sending help by making it all point-and-click.

Even with CAD, though, there are sometimes problems with getting help to where it’s needed. Often, it is a simple issue of where the call is coming from. When someone is in a very stressful situation, they have a hard time staying calm and speaking rationally, at the very time when a life could depend on that.

The dispatchers are the ones having to take that thrashing on the phone,” Smith said. “They try to make sense of what you’re saying, where you are, what you need.”

Many homes are not clearly marked with their street number, which means first responders may waste precious seconds, or minutes, trying to decide which house is the right one.

The dispatcher is trying to paint an image for the officer before he arrives on the scene,” Johnson said.

The caller can maybe give the color of the house,” Frost said.

Or describe the cars in the driveway,” Johnson added.

So he knows when he pulls in, what to expect,” Smith said.



Sequatchie County Emergency Communications staff: (front, l-r) Tiffany Phillips-Alt/TAC, Roxy Leon, Haley Dent, Tiffany Frost-Mapping, Courtney Smith, (back, l-r) Dawn Johnson-Supervisor/TAC, Melissa Anderson, Tera Smith, Jordan Reel, Melissa Skidmore, Director Winfred Smith. Not pictured: Sue Negri.

Putting a street number next to the driveway is the best way to mark your house, Johnson said.

You just need something visible,” Smith explained. “You can get just a cheap piece of 4 x 4, drive it up in the yard, and stick reflective numbers on it. Reflective, because once it goes nighttime, you’re fighting with can’t see.

A problem that Smith just became aware of is cell phones with 949-exchange numbers. Always in the past, dispatchers knew that a “949” number was a local, land-line phone, and so the street address that popped up on the computer was the location where the call originated. Only recently, Smith said, he found out that is no longer the case.

As of now, that’s not true,” he said. Dispatch received a call just last week that showed up as a 949 number, but the caller had requested that number from Verizon for a cell phone . . . which complicates matters for dispatchers.

Cell phones ping a tower, and there are three towers in the local area, so special devices on those towers triangulate to locate the cell phone for any 911 call. It takes a little longer to pinpoint than a land-line call.

And the “text phase” is coming next, Smith said, although it’s not here yet.

A cell phone can even pick up a tower outside our county and call us,” Smith said. “The safest, quickest way to know where you’re at is dialing from a land-line number.”

It also helps to give your street address to the dispatcher that answers your 911 call.

Or a cross street,” Frost said.

Some kind of landmark, like a church,” Smith said.

Or say, you’re on the ‘road next to Walmart,’” Johnson added.

While all of these are issues that dispatchers learn to handle, the one unique problem they struggle with most is the emotional toll. If a dispatcher is handling an emergency call, like a police pursuit, and it culminates in some kind of violence or other dangerous situation, the dispatcher feels like “that’s my officer” out there.

If the officer is shot, or has a wreck, the dispatcher feels the pain of it, because she is the one that sent him out there.

Children are the hardest,” Johnson said. If a child is injured or dies, that weighs on the person that handles all the calls and communications about it. Often they never hear the outcome of a crisis until they read about it or watch it on the news.

And the “voice in the dark” is not allowed to share the information heard in the 911 office with anyone outside that office.

You can’t carry on a normal conversation,” Frost admitted.

It’s hard to turn it off,” Johnson said.

It takes a different breed to be a dispatcher,” Smith commented. “Sequatchie County is lucky to have the quality of dispatchers we have. I am very proud of the dispatchers we have. They hold themselves to a high degree of wanting to help the public.

They go above and beyond what’s required, to make sure the county gets what they need. They are dedicated 100 percent to the center. All of them are.”