By Sabrina Bates
MVP Regional News Editor
Tensions are high in Martin as the Board of Mayor and Aldermen work past the city’s deadline to approve an operating budget for Fiscal Year 2023-24. In all of the years attending city board meetings, which average around 15-30 minutes in length, I have witnessed record attendance at the most-recent City of Martin meetings.
The process started when the City of Martin opted to keep its certified property tax rate at $1.75 per $100 of assessed value. This came on the heels of a county-wide reappraisal of properties, which is scheduled for every five years in Weakley County. The last reassessment of property values took place in 2018. Property values increased exponentially across the board from five years ago. Take into account the cost of building supplies increasing and a housing market in the last couple of years where buyers were bidding on properties, sometimes more than asking price, and now citizens have property that has increased in value since 2018. To help alleviate some of the taxpayer burden, the State Board of Equalization sets a new, recommended tax rate for municipalities and counties. If a municipality chooses to exceed the state’s recommended rate, the board is charged with giving the public notice of its plans to exceed it, then hold a public hearing for discussion of the tax rate.
The Board of Equalization recommended the City of Martin’s certified property tax rate at $1.24 per $100 of assessed value. There were no notices published that contained information about the city’s plan to exceed the recommended rate. There were no notices to the public that even made mention of the city’s current rate or recommended rate, other than through a news article published online by The Martin Post, approximately two hours prior to the City of Martin’s second and final reading and public hearing on a proposed budget. Instead, the city published an overview of a proposed budget with citizens finding out later that leaving the tax rate at $1.75 would increase the city’s revenue by approximately $1.2 million. That was if the original proposed budget passed. After several community members showed up in force at the board meeting on July 31 and spoke out against the high property tax rate, the board of aldermen rejected the first proposal, leaving the departments to go back to the drawing board to draft new budget proposals. The city is operating on a contingent 30-day budget until a new one is in place.
After that meeting, threats of major cuts for the city drew a lot of attention on social media. Those threats included the potential canceling of several community events, such as the Soybean Festival through next year, Santa’s Village, Community Concerts, basically all of the events that make up the community spirit of Martin. If those threats weren’t enough, there were more that targeted the closing of fire station 2, putting six local firefighters out of a job. In addition to that, a three-percent raise for all city employees landed on the chopping block too.
Citizens didn’t want to lose community events, see firefighters lose their jobs or no raises to employees when federal inflation is at an all-time high – around 8 percent.
But, how did we get here? Board members claim they have only increased property tax rates in 21 years. If the city kept prior-year tax rates during reappraisal years instead of taking a lower, state-recommended tax rate, that, in a sense, is an increase in property tax rates. The Board did pass one property tax rate increase post-COVID.
Citizens are actively vocal about this entire process, with one, unifying theme mentioned time and again – transparency. Another unified theme is accountability. Some citizens said it was irresponsible of the board to not increase property tax rates through the years, and instead, leave a significant rate in place where residents are paying much-higher property taxes.
Throughout this process, citizens are left wondering what the actual numbers are, in any of the proposed budgets. Citizens were not “allowed” by city leadership to ask questions of Finance Committee members during Monday night’s meeting and again on Tuesday, when a new budget was presented to the board. Citizens were allowed to speak for only two minutes after the board voted to pass the budget and not prior to a vote. Again, citizens were not allowed the opportunity to ask questions; they could only provide comments.
Transparency is still lacking on what the City of Martin is paying for and what each department is projecting in revenue and expenses. Citizens can request a copy of the proposed budget from city hall and decipher through 40-plus pages of line items themselves. But, if they aren’t allowed to ask questions during public meetings, they are left with their own interpretation of items they may not understand. When Mayor Randy Brundige asked the board of aldermen if they had any discussion on the newest budget proposal during Tuesday night’s meeting, they were silent. That silence was a let down for citizens to be fully represented. After hearing several concerns expressed by residents on Monday night, the only hope for Martin community members rested in the hands of the board of aldermen, a group that failed to even make mention of the concerns people have been sharing with them for several weeks.
In the spirit of transparency, I was advised to leave any questions pertaining to the budget of the aldermen at City Hall. All of the board members have “mailboxes” at the city hall location for community correspondence. I plan to leave questions for them about the city’s operating budget in general and will post the responses I receive in this newspaper. In the meantime, I encourage all citizens to do the same thing and leave questions at city hall for your elected officials. Here is a sample of questions I plan to ask, feel free to ask the same.
- Even though it has been in place like this for years, why don’t different departments get to keep their revenue streams instead of all of the money funneled into one general fund? If there is an estimated $1.3 million revenue line item for the EMS (ambulance service), why doesn’t fire/EMS department get to use that number to help offset their operating budget? It is the same with court costs and fines for the police department, as well as concessions and Parks and Rec revenue estimated at $85,000 and $70,000. If League teams are sponsored and parents pay the City to sign their kids up for Rec-League sports, why does it still cost $52,000 for “League Operations?”
- The Police Department has to budget a little more than $172,000 for school resource officers, yet there is a reimbursement line of $200,000 for SROs in the Revenue listings for the General Fund. Again, do departments get to use that money to offset their expenses?
- There were four departments with a Miscellaneous line item (#799 in the city’s budget) under expenses. They range from $7,500 to $35,000. The first proposed budget shows a little more than $67,500 in Miscellaneous expenses. Have those been cut out of the most-recent proposal and what is that money for?
- What are the Dues and Subscriptions that cost the Community Development and Administrative departments an estimated $11,000 and $15,000?
- What are planning services in the estimated amount of $12,000 in the city’s Administrative department?
- What is considered “Other Operating Supplies” of $4,500 in the Administrative budget?
- Why is there an estimated ongoing $14,000 allocation for “Computer Equipment” in the Library Budget? Do we add more computers each year since the building has been in operation?
- Why is there more money allocated in Office Supplies ($11,000 in the first proposed budget) than Educational Supplies ($8,000) in the Library budget?
- One question that I learned the answer to last night involves interest rates on loans/capital outlay projects that are paid for through notes. In one budget listed, the City is paying for 21 projects, some dating back to 2013. The mayor did say some of the notes have variable interest rates. Maybe in the future, the City can start locking in interest rates for projects.
- In the originally-proposed budget, there were six city personnel who were slated to receive a pay raise higher than three percent, some at 7 percent. It was reported the initial budget would’ve given all city employees a three-percent raise. With a proposed property tax rate that is only 10 cents lower than the original rate, how are there not raises included in the newest budget proposal? If those who were slated to receive a higher than three-percent raise only see that boost instead of 5-7 percent, why is there no money budgeted for a raise for all employees?
These are a handful of questions I have. Several have expressed the need for answers for more. The mayor and community development do have vehicles paid for b y the city. The mayor and aldermen have seen the same pay rate for the last several years. The city is also looking at an increase of nearly $135,000 in group insurance rates. A project to pave University Street from downtown to Walmart is slated to begin soon, although it was budgeted last year. The new proposed budget would set the property tax rate at $1.65 per $100 of assessed value, yet employees cannot have a raise this year. The Board noted there wouldn’t be any layoffs of employees under the new proposal.
If you want answers, I recommend going straight to your elected representatives. City Hall has mailboxes set up for them and I recommend filling those mailboxes up with questions. Time is running out to get those answers as the Board plans to meet at 5:15 p.m. on July 31 in the Police Department Courtroom for its final vote for the newest budget proposal. While there is a state law that requires a public-comment period during government meetings, it does not mandate that board members have to answer questions. City of Martin aldermen are Danny Nanney, Scott Robbins, David Belote, Randy Edwards, Marvin Flatt and Terry Hankins. There will be a public hearing prior to the vote.