Tag Archives: fees

Legislature raises fees for county audits, sets up historic preservation funds

Legislation raising fees that counties pay for audits by the comptroller’s office and diverting new revenue from the state’s real estate transfer tax to historic preservation funds has won almost unanimous approval by the Legislature.

State law requires annual audits of county governments and In 89 of the state’s 95 counties, the comptroller does the auditing. Under current law, those counties pay a fee based on population — 30 cents per resident.

Under SB2654, the fee will be increase to 36 cents per resident starting next year with the comptroller granted authority to raise the cost another 3 cents per resident in each of the following years. The Republican sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville and House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent of Franklin, said the extra money is needed to cover increased costs — and if the future increases are not necessary, they won’t be implemented.

The Fiscal Review Committee estimated the cost to the counties would be about $230,000 next year. Six of the state’s most populous counties, including Knox, hired their own auditors and do not rely on the comptroller.

Another provision of the bill creates two new uses for money collected from the state’s real estate transfer tax —— purchase of Civil War sites and purchase of historic properties. The Fiscal Review staff estimates that the two funds will split about $1 million next year as a result of the bill’s enactment.

Currently, funds from the tax are earmarked for four other funds — one for wetlands acquisition, one for state park land acquisition, one for local park acquisition and the Agricultural Resources Conservation Fund. Under the bill, those accounts will be frozen at their current levels of annual funding and all growth money will go to the new funds.

The bill passed the Senate 31-1 and was approved 92-1 in the House. The no votes came from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.

Bill boosting electric vehicle fees flops

A bill adding $150 to the cost of licensing an electric vehicle in Tennessee, which legislative staff estimated would add $2 million annual to revenue for the state’s highway fund, has died quietly in a Senate committee.

No member of the Senate Transportation Committee would make the required motion for passage of SB1451 when sponsor Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, brought it before the panel. There was no debate beyond Green’s explanation of the measure, which he said would end the “free ride” now enjoyed by electricity-powered cars that avoid paying the state’s gas tax.
Continue reading

Judge voids lower court’s forced fee practice

A Campbell County judge this week struck down a lower court judge’s practice of forcing poor people whose charges were dropped to pay for legal services they did not use, reports the News Sentinel.

In the first appeal of General Sessions Judge Amanda Sammons’ controversial practice, Criminal Court Judge Shayne Sexton this week ordered the refund of a $200 fee Justin Lee Linkes was forced to pay for a public defender he did not use.

Sammons ordered Linkes in November to pay an administrative fee for a court-appointed attorney before she would dismiss charges against him. Clinton attorney Jeff Coller said Tuesday that Linkes never used the services of the 8th Judicial District Public Defender’s Office, instead hiring him.

Coller, in turn, won dismissal of the aggravated burglary and domestic violence charges Linkes faced. But Sammons refused to formally drop the case until Linkes paid the fee.

Linkes paid the fee and then appealed to Sexton, who ruled Monday that Sammons was wrong.

…In at least four cases reviewed by the News Sentinel in December, Sammons refused to dismiss misdemeanor charges against defendants — even when wrongfully accused — who qualified because of poverty for court-appointed attorneys but whose families hired private attorneys instead.

She has continued the practice since then, refusing to dismiss cases even when prosecutors agree the defendant was wrongfully accused, court records show.

Columnist questions hunting/fishing fee increase after ammo tax windfall

Start of Frank Cagle’s column this week:

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency gets a dime for every box of ammunition sold in Tennessee. You may have heard that since Barack Obama has been president ammo makers have added third shifts to meet the demand as many gun owners have stockpiled the stuff and store shelves are often bare. This has meant a $9.5 million windfall for the TWRA, the agency that regulates hunting, fishing and wildlife management. That’s almost $10 million more than had been budgeted for this year, for a total of $31 million from the feds.

But that hasn’t prevented the agency from increasing the cost of buying a hunting license by almost 20 percent, from $27 to $33. That raises an additional $6 million for TWRA coffers. The extra $9.5 million windfall in ammo sales is half again more than the $6 million fee increase. And somebody needs to find out why they are getting only .09 percent interest on millions of dollars in trust funds.

The appointed commissioners who govern the agency can set license fees at will. They can be vetoed by the Government Operations Committees of the House and Senate, but it requires both committees to agree. The commissioners approved the increase in January, the first in 10 years, but it wasn’t until last week that the issue came before legislative committees. The House committee quickly rubber-stamped it, 7-1.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, a first-term Republican, raised some interesting questions on the Senate side. The federal ammo windfall and the millions of dollars in the TWRA reserve funds made him question why hunters were being asked to pay more. Unfortunately, when the House caved, the Senate vote became moot.

…Bailey pointed out that the TWRA has a reserve fund balance of $33 million in hunting and wildlife and $12.4 million for its boating programs. This money is available for agency operations. There is an additional $43 million in trust funds, and TWRA can use the interest from these funds — about $38,000 last year At less than 1 percent, that return is ridiculously low. That money ought to handled by the state treasurer, who is currently getting returns of over 6 percent. A decent return on the trust funds would be $2.5 million to $3 million in additional revenue, making half of the fee increase unnecessary.

It’s a problem when you have an agency essentially outside the state budget process that is allowed to keep millions in a piggy bank rather than responsibly invested.

Move to block higher hunting and fishing fees fails

An effort to block a 20 percent increase in the cost of state hunting and fishing licenses failed in a legislative committee last week, meaning the higher fees will take effect July 1, as approved earlier by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission.

But members of the Joint Government Operations Committee left open the possibility of revisiting funding for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency operations in future meetings or during next year’s legislative session.

State Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, made the motion to “stay” or block the fee increase, contending TWRA has $103 million in reserve funds and will be getting more money from the federal government than anticipated in the coming year.

Chris Richardson, legislative liaison for TWRA, said only two of the six reserve funds referenced can be used for agency general operations, the others earmarked by state law for specific purposes such as wetlands acquisition or boating safety programs.

The agency had to use $5 million from its operating reserves to balance last year’s budget, leaving about $32 million, and will have to use a similar amount this year, leaving about $27 million when the state fiscal year starts July 1, Richardson said. Almost $10 million will be needed to upgrade TWRA’s communications system and other equipment, leaving around $18 million, he said.

In effect, Richardson said TWRA is operating at a deficit, despite budget cuts, and needs the revenue from higher license fees to maintain the status quo.
Continue reading

DiPietro eyes UT changes to make money, cut expenses

In an interview with the News Sentinel, University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro has outlined some ideas for fixing what he calls a broken system for keeping the institution financially viable.

Expanding out-of-state enrollment, consolidating academic programs and charging businesses that benefit from university services are all on the table.

DiPietro first warned UT trustees in June the school could not sustain itself by continuing to pass cost increases on to students. He repeated that sentiment to Gov. Bill Haslam during a budget hearing in early December.

If the state does not invest any new money into higher education, UT officials estimate the system could face a $155 million funding gap over the next decade — if the university caps tuition increases at 3 percent and if the inflation rate remains at 3 percent.

Solving that problem is a top priority for DiPietro’s “second term,” as he likes to call it. After completing his first four-year contract and receiving a renewal from trustees, DiPietro said he’s thinking about his legacy and how he wants to leave the university.

During his first four years as president, DiPietro politely urged lawmakers to make funding higher education a top priority. He’s since accepted that given the state’s limited revenue streams and rising healthcare costs, getting more money from the state is unlikely.

…While the university continues to aggressively tackle the problem on its own, DiPietro said he isn’t giving up on help from the legislature. He’s already outlined priorities for this budget cycle, including a handful of new buildings and supporting the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s recommendation for fully funding colleges across the state.

Last month, DiPietro joined Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and Higher Education Commission Executive Director Richard Rhoda in presenting a united front in favor of a $71.4 million requested increase in state funding for higher education, including $29.4 million for more need-based student financial aid and $25.7 million in operating increases for the universities, community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

If state funding at that level eventually wins legislative approval, the higher education leaders said tuition increases for the 2015-16 academic year could be held to zero to 4 percent — and for the bulk of students, on the lower end of that range.

TWRA proposing 22 percent increase in hunting, fishing license fees

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is proposing increases in the cost of hunting and fishing licenses and related fees, averaging about 22 percent. The proposal comes up for a vote at a Jan. 15-16 meeting of the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission at Union City.

The basic annual resident hunting and fishing combination license would increase from $28 to $34 under the proposal. The annual resident “sportsman’s license” – which covers all permits otherwise needed at different fees for activities ranging from big game hunting, trout fishing, duck hunting, wildlife management area admission, archery hunting and the like – would increase from $136 to $166.

In a news release (HERE) TWRA notes the increase is the first since 2005 (when there was a 35 percent increase) and the second in 25 years. It’s needed because the agency’s costs have increased even though it has been reducing staff and taking other economy measures.

Excerpt from the release:

“The reality is that managing our wildlife and fisheries has never been more expensive than it is today,” said TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter. “Our objective with this proposal is to spread the cost of these programs across more user groups who utilize Tennessee’s public lands and waters.”

…If approved, the new fee structure would go into effect on July 1, 2015. Tennessee hunting and fishing licenses expire on Feb. 28, and new licenses will be on sale at the current prices from mid-February through the end of June.

Highlights include: incremental increases for resident hunting and fishing licenses; elimination of certain short-term non-resident licenses; a new fee for professional hunting and fishing guides; new senior citizen license options; and fees related to the use of TWRA firing ranges, as well as for horseback, off-highway vehicle and mountain bike riders whose activities have a maintenance impact on state Wildlife Management Areas.

A full list of the existing old fees and the new proposed fees is HERE.

Your phone bill will change Jan. 1 under new, uniform fee for 911 service

Under legislation approved by the General Assembly back in April, charges for 911 serves on Tennessee phone bills will change Thursday to a uniform $1.16 per month statewide.

From the Johnson City Press:

On Jan. 1 throughout Tennessee, 911 rates will be increased or reduced — depending on the type of phone used to call — to $1.16 in accordance with the 911 Funding Modernization and IP (Internet Protocol) Transition Act of 2014.

After passing through the state House — and receiving unanimous support in the state Senate — the act was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam on April 25 on the idea of creating a flat rate for 911 service. Additionally, the act also restructured funding for 911 districts and required them to begin implementation of an IP-based system, known as Next Generation 911, which would facilitate a caller’s transmission of digital information like text messages, photos and video.

“The 911 Funding Modernization and IP Transition Act of 2014 will provide the resources necessary to ensure that the citizens of Tennessee receive the best 911 service available,” said Curtis Sutton, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Executive Director, in a press release.

The rate changes, from the Tennessean:

The new and old 911 surcharges are:

•Residential landline: New charge, $1.16; old charge, 65 cents.

•Business landline: New charge, $1.16; old charge, $2.

•Cellular surcharge: New charge, $1.16, old charge, $1.

Thanks to license plates, TN public funding of arts avoids big cuts

In Tennessee, specialty license plate sales account for almost two-thirds of public funding for the arts handed out year year by the Tennessee Arts Commission, according to The Tennessean. And there’s now a new who won a statewide competition.

Using plate revenue is just one way that states fund the arts, and Tennessee has done it better than all the others, bringing in about twice as much money in recent years as second-place California. Sales of specialty plates have brought in more than $4.5 million for the arts commission in each of the past four years. That money created 900 grants in 85 counties last year, for everything from school programs to performance troupes to public art projects.

…When Haines realized the role of the tags, she had good reason to shamelessly promote her own design.

“I even printed out my own little business cards, with the plate on it, where I could hand them out,” she said.

Arts commission leaders like it, too. They’re banking on the design to inject new energy into the plate program to make up for declining income from other sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts.

…Although the plate funding model has been in place since the 1980s, the government funding climate has made tag revenue as important as ever.

The debut of Haines’ design this year marks the first new arts plate in more than a decade. The three earlier arts plates, featuring a fish, a cat and a rainbow, will continue to be available.

But the arts plates aren’t the only ones that benefit creative types in Tennessee.
For an extra $35, almost 100 specialty plates are available. The arts plates send 90 percent of that $35 to the arts commission. A smaller portion of sales from dozens of other plates — 40 percent — also benefit the arts.

UT Raises Tuition, Student Fees, Staff Salaries

The University of Tennessee board of trustees ended its two-day summer meeting by approving the system’s nearly $2 billion budget that includes a 6 percent tuition increase, some new student fees, and pay raises for faculty and staff, reports the News Sentinel.
But not without a lot of discussion and even some debate — especially about the proposed tuition increase.
Trustee Crawford Gallimore said he hopes the system is able to demonstrate to taxpayers that “raising tuition is the last resort … and not as just a matter of course that we do every year.”
Student trustee Shalin Shah said he believed students would pay the increase if they understood the reasons for it.
“We have to make the message simple and we have to put it out there,”‘ Shah said. “We’re the Twitter generation, we have to keep it to 42 words or less otherwise we’re not going to get it. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Trustee Doug Horne proposed a 3 percent tuition increase, saying the trustees should try to show that they “deserve” additional funds from the state.
“I personally feel like we should show a little bit more initiative here and not raise tuition this much,” he said. “I’ve expressed this to the president. I think we show the students first and the Legislature second that we’re putting our best foot forward to making a monumental effort to not raise tuition this much. I’d personally like to raise it none.”
But other board members said they had already agreed to the figure.
“The 6 percent is somewhat of a studied, evaluated and compromised number,” said Don Stansberry, the board’s vice chairman. “It was worked out in cooperation with the governor, Legislature, administration and university officials. It does weigh the interests of the students and it weighs the interests of the institutions.”