BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The community's reaction to a vote last month by the Greene County Commission for a 20-cent increase on property taxes seems to be far from over.
The situation continued to boil with high emotions on Monday during the September meeting of the County Commission at the Greene County Courthouse.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting, all citizens who spoke directly addressed the property tax increase, prompting strong responses from the commission and the audience.
Meanwhile, a petition is circulating across the county, calling for the commission to rescind the vote and return taxes to last year's rate.
While not a formal or binding demand, the petition simply asks that the commission reconsider and rescind its action, said Randy Lintz, who has been organizing people to help circulate the petition.
"The [requests] are: to back up, rescind this recent tax hike, and go back to their original tax rate and work within their means," Lintz explained. "It's simple and short, because a lot of people are in strained financial condition now."
"Right now is not the time to be raising taxes. Everybody's having to budget," he added. "I expect my county to do the same."
"We've got several of these petitions out. We've got them in several places, and we're picking up a lot of signatures," he said.
Lintz said that a copy of the petition can be found at the following locations: the Greene County Farmers Co-op, Snapps Ferry Packing Company, Wells Repair Service & Sales, Country Store of Greeneville, Caney Branch Restaurant, 411 Grocery, Farmers Livestock Market, and Animals West Veterinary Hospital.
"People are wanting the county to think again on raising taxes. It's just not the appropriate time," he concluded.
On Monday, Judith Sexton directly asked the commission to rescind the vote.
"In my opinion, this was a self-serving process at the expense of most property- owners," Sexton said.
She later added, "Since only 10 commissioners voted to raise the property taxes and it was in their self interest that the property tax of 20 cents was imposed on property owners, then it should be rescinded.
"Some day you will have to stand before God and give an account of your actions," she concluded.
This prompted a short outburst from commissioners and members of the audience, with Mayor Alan Broyles stepping in to remind everyone to remain within order.
Commissioner Robin Quillen asked to reply to Sexton's comments, and Broyles granted permission.
"I don't know how we did it in a self-serving fashion. We all pay land taxes," Quillen said. "I read my Conflict of Interest [statement], as did others.
"I pay my taxes, as do others. I put myself on the 20-cent tax increase, just like everybody else. We were pushed into a corner."
Commissioner Fred Malone was the next to speak, sharing that he has approximately 150 acres.
"As far as I know, I voted for the tax increase on my own property, as well as everybody else's."
CALL FOR ORDER
Commissioner Hilton Seay questioned a reference that Sexton had made in stating that "a majority of the public appreciated" the vote of those who voted against the tax increase.
Sexton replied that "a good majority" of those she has spoken to in the community have expressed their opposition to the property tax increase.
"The night we voted on taxes there was no room in here for [all of the] people wanting a tax increase," Commissioner Jan Kiker countered.
Commissioner Ted Hensley, however, stood up to thank Sexton for her input.
"The majority of the taxpayers stood against this and are angry as all get-out," he said.
"Yes, they are!" Sexton agreed.
Larry Parman also took the opportunity to address the commission, but was called out by the mayor and commissioners alike for making personal comments about the finances or character of certain officials who supported the increase.
"I'd be a happy man if you'd keep your hands out of my pocket," Parman concluded.
"Mr. Chairman, I don't think that he should be allowed to stand up there and say those things, personally," Commissioner Quillen stated, addressing Mayor Broyles.
"He's a citizen," Hensley said.
"It is of a personal nature, and it's hard to determine by the chair," Broyles replied.
"We still have to recognize the rights of the people to speak and to give their input. We would like to ask the speakers not to be personal.
"It's okay to give comments. You certainly have that right. This is the reason why we are in a free country -- because we have that right to speak. We always have to recognize that," the mayor concluded.
Ronnie Lintz was the final citizen to address the commission.
Lintz asked that the commission consider implementing a tax freeze in addition to the county's current participation in the tax relief program, and requested an explanation of the two programs.
County Trustee Dan Walker answered the inquiries, explaining that the tax freeze became an option back in 2008, but that the commission preferred instead to remain with the county's match to the tax relief program.
The state tax relief program provides a discount to qualifying individuals on their property taxes in the form of reimbursements. The county provides a 30 percent match to this reimbursement.
The tax freeze program would have superseded the relief program, however, and would have actually "frozen" taxes for qualifying citizens at that current rate.
The very few counties that chose to go this route have not been pleased with the results, Walker said.
Administration of the program alone could be trying, he added, because the tax freeze does not prohibit increases prompted by property improvements and requires yearly inspections of participants' property and qualifications for the program.
As for many of those who fall under the current tax relief program, the recent property tax increase was largely matched by increases in the state's and county's contributions, Walker said.
Seay concluded questions and comments of the public hearing by answering what he said had been another question from within the community that he said he posed himself to the county Director of Schools, Dr. Vicki Kirk.
The rumor had been, Seay said, that Kirk spent $40,000 in school funds decorating and furnishing her office when she took her position as director.
Seay said that Kirk confirmed to him that she paid for her office's furnishings and decorations from the funds she received from her Kay Leonard reward and out of her own pocket.
"Not one penny of school money was spent in her office, and she said, 'I've got the receipts to show it.,'" Seay noted.
Seay explained that he wanted to raise this point because many of the opponents of the property tax increase had made comments about the school system wasting money.
"I feel like it's fair to her to make that [public]," he concluded.
Kirk and members of the Greene County School Board were not present at Monday's meeting due to a scheduling conflict with a meeting of the Tennessee School Board Association.