published Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Cleveland proposes property tax hike

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Cleveland leaders tentatively have agreed to support a 12.4 percent city property tax increase as a way to boost police and firefighter personnel numbers and provide a 3.5 percent cost-of-living raise to city employees.

On Monday, almost all Cleveland City Council members said they could work with a budget that proposed to raise the city property tax rate of $1.4904 per $100 of assessed value to $1.6755, an increase of 18.51 cents. Councilman Charlie McKenzie did not make any commitment to items presented to the City Council during a daylong budget review.

"This is the same rate we had 10 years ago," said Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland, who praised councilmen and city staff for working hard to balance the city's finances and services.

"We are fortunate to make the choices we are making," said Cleveland Vice Mayor Avery Johnson.

The tax bill on a piece of property appraised at $100,000 -- which is assessed at $25,000 -- currently amounts to $372.60. The proposed increase would add another $46.28 for a total of $418.88.

Four-and-a half cents of the proposed increase would be necessary just to maintain the level of staff and services currently provided by Cleveland, said City Manager Janice Casteel. That amount originally was calculated at 5.3 cents, but it is expected to be offset by plans to refinance Cleveland's long-term debt.

Each cent of property tax translates into about $100,000 in revenue, said Casteel.

The cost-of-living raise for city employees accounted for 6.12 cents of the proposed increase; library funding amounted to 4 cents.

Nearly half the proposed increase -- 7.27 cents -- will go toward adding six more police officers and retaining six others who have been funded through grant money that expires June 30. The investment in law enforcement personnel will create a savings of $178,000 in overtime currently paid to the police department, said Casteel.

The additional officers will put the police department close to optimal staffing numbers, said Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder. Without the six additional officers, he said, the police force will continue to operate at 1999 staffing levels.

The Cleveland Fire Department, which requested four additional firefighters and a deputy chief, received support for an additional two firefighters. Councilmen also expressed approval for a motor equipment operator for the Public Works Department and a property maintenance official responsible to investigating improperly kept properties.

A critical issue affecting the proposed budget for 2013-14 is the June 30 termination of the city's contract with Bradley County to provide fire protection to fringe areas outside city limits, said Casteel. The end of the agreement will cause a drop of $911,000 in revenues.

The end of the agreement did not necessarily mean much in a reduction of expenses, said Cleveland Fire Chief Steve Haun. The fire department would mostly see some reduction in wear and tear on equipment and in fuel costs. Regarding staff, it has primarily been built for Cleveland, he said.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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