I Vote No – Again

It has been a while since I posted anything. I’m not sure where the time went, but I have been busy. I have written a lot – but – sermons mostly. I’ve also been busy serving as a county commissioner in Sullivan County, TN (I represent Bristol, TN – District 2). And this post has everything to do with that role that I play.

I’m honored to represent the citizens of Bristol, TN (district 2) on the Sullivan County Commission. These past three years of serving have stretched and challenged me in a lot of ways and I’m grateful to have had the chance to serve. I have to be honest though, I’m not a very good politician but I’m trying to be a good representative for our community and I’m trying to do what I believe is right and good for the people of Bristol and the people of Sullivan County. There are times, however, that tough decisions have to be made and last week one of those popped up regarding the 2021-2022 budget.

For weeks leading up to the vote on the 21-22 budget, I, along with the other commissioners, received emails, texts, and phone calls from various teachers in the Sullivan County School System. We also received messages and had conversations with other members of the community who were concerned about raising property taxes again this year. Teachers within the county system have been paid less than their counter-parts in our city school systems, which includes Bristol TN City Schools and Kingsport City Schools. It shouldn’t be that way – but – it has been for decades and this year the county school’s proposed budget starts to address that disparity with a well-deserved 4% increase in teacher pay.

I’m all for paying teachers more. I’m all for investing more money into our schools. In fact, I’m okay with schools being the highest budget item – but – I should also say – my wife is a teacher in the Bristol TN City School system – and – I’m a huge proponent of education. However, when it came time to vote for this year’s budget, no matter how much I wanted to vote yes, I couldn’t and I didn’t.

You may already know this but indulge me for a moment. The schools in Sullivan County – which includes our county schools as well as our two city school systems (Bristol TN City Schools and Kingsport City Schools) – are locally funded by a combination of property tax and sales tax. While the city schools receive funding from state and city taxes, they also receive funding from the county because city residents pay county property tax as well. County school get their funding from the state and county taxes. As you can imagine, property tax is the more stable and reliable part of that funding, but schools’ systems do benefit from a portion local sales tax.

This past year, despite the pandemic – or perhaps because of it – sales tax dollars have grown, and they are projected to grow a bit more. That means that our schools may have a higher than average share of the sales tax dollar. That’s great news…except – again – it is a projection. Sales tax dollars are fickle and thus the reason that, while some of the budget is based on sales tax (because we know that people. are going to buy things in a given year), it isn’t wise to base a lot of a budget on sales tax nor depend on it.

Well, Sullivan County’s 2021-2022 budget shifts more of the school system’s budget from property tax to sales tax. Not only that, but that shift from property tax to sales tax, also shifts the amount that is sent to the city schools. In other words, as simple as I can put it, we share in property tax – but sales tax is collected and a portion is sent back to the point of the sale. So, when money is shifted from property tax dollars to sales tax dollars, not only does it mean that school dollars for 2021-2022 are based on projections and the hope that people spend money in Sullivan County, it means the money for city system drops.

I voted no on the 2021-2022 budget not because I’m against teachers getting raises, not because I don’t think we need to pay for the jail that the county voted to build in September 2020 (I voted no on that bond by the way because the funding source even then pointed to shifting money from schools). I voted no to the budget because I don’t think that shifting funds from property tax to sales tax is a solid, fiscal move. I also don’t think it is a good idea – ever – to take money from teachers, students, and schools.

Shifting money from property tax to sales tax means that our two city school systems lose funding, while potentially setting the county system up next year to lose funding, too – unless of course the county raises taxes again (which I think will happen – to some extent because of an additional $8.8 million). This year the shift in funding will equate to Bristol Tennessee City Schools losing nearly $500K and Kingsport something closer to $1 million.

While I am all for our county school teachers getting paid a more competitive salary, I’m not for reducing funding for education in order to pay for a jail bond. So, last week, I – along with the other commissioners – listened intently to our county teachers implore us to vote yes on a budget that would provide a well-deserved and necessary raise for them – which they deserve. I wanted to vote yes. I want teachers and students and schools in Sullivan County to flourish. Education is important to me and it is vital to the economic growth of our community. But the budget that was presented and passed, is one based on a shift in the way we fund schools, a shift that causes a drop in BTCS and KCS funding – and – I frankly, as much as I wanted to vote yes to support the teachers of Sullivan County, I couldn’t justify voting to reduce funds to BTCS – after all – those are the folks I was elected to represent.  

So – once again – I voted no on a the county budget – a budget that raises property tax by 9 cents -gives some teachers a 4% raise while reducing funds for others – and ultimately shift school funds from a stable source to a less stable source in order to pay debt service on a jail bond.

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