Chairwoman Marie Rice addresses the Unicoi County Commission during Monday’s meeting. The panel voted 6-1 to approve the first reading of the 2017-18 fiscal year budget. The second reading is set for Aug. 28. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission on Monday lent its approval to the first reading of the county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, one that currently includes a balanced bottom line, no property tax increase, and a projected seven-figure fund balance to end the budget year.

The budget, as approved by commissioners during the brief special-called meeting on Aug. 7, reflects a total anticipated revenue of $7,349,995 against $7,349,834 in total projected expenditures. Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said assuming these figures hold throughout the 2017-18 fiscal year, the county would end the year “in the black” $161.

“It isn’t a big amount, but we’re balanced,” Rice said following the meeting, adding the county’s fund balance was not utilized in order to balance the budget.

Six of the seven county commissioners present for Monday’s meeting voted to approve the budget’s first reading, with Commissioner Loren Thomas casting the dissenting vote. Commissioners Glenn White and John Mosley were not present.

According to the budget, nearly $4.087 million of the projected revenue is expected to come from county property taxes. This includes more than $3.721 million from the collection of current property taxes and around $267,000 from prior year collections.

Local option taxes, which include the county’s hotel/motel tax, litigation tax, business tax, mixed drink tax and mineral severance tax, are projected to generate $189,500 in 2017-18. Revenue from licenses and permits is expected to come in at $21,000, and money generated from fines, forfeitures and penalties is projected to slightly exceed $95,600.

Fees received from various county offices makes up $923,000 of the projected revenue, and state revenues, which includes the local income tax, beer tax, grant funding and the housing of state inmate in the county’s jail facilities, is projected at more than $1.310 million.

The largest departmental expense for Unicoi County is the budget of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department. Departmental expenditures are expected to exceed $1.777 million in 2017-18.

But Thomas said it was funding not included in the UCSD’s proposed budget that led him to vote against the budget’s approval. When county departments were asked several months ago to submit their budgetary requests for 2017-18, the sheriff’s department had originally included within its requests $35,000 to be used toward the purchase of a new vehicle for the department.

The budget approved by the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, however, included no funding for a UCSD vehicle in 2017-18. The County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee began meeting in May to develop the county’s overall budget for 2017-18 and, during the committee’s July 12 meeting, commissioners present agreed to completely cut the $35,000 the UCSD had budgeted for new vehicles.

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley was not present for Monday’s meeting but, in a letter dated Aug. 4 and addressed to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and members of the County Commission, reiterated his department’s need for vehicle funding.

“I budgeted for one vehicle and it was cut to (zero),” Hensley wrote. “I absolutely needed at the time one vehicle but now, on 8/3/17 I have lost another vehicle due to an accident. It was a 2008 Crown Vic and was totaled in the accident. The other vehicle ran a stop sign and crashed into the patrol car. My department contributes a lot of revenue to the county. We are constantly looking for ways to bring in new revenue. The sale of surplus equipment since we started on GovDeals has exceeded $32,000.”

Thomas said the move to cut the entirety of the requested vehicle funding for the UCSD prompted his vote.

“They’re in dire need of at least two vehicles,” Thomas said following Monday’s meeting.

The county had budgeted around $35,000 in 2016-17 for UCSD vehicles.

In his letter, Hensley also voiced his concerns over other proposed funding cuts to his department. The UCSD had budgeted $8,000 for communication equipment, but the Budget & Finance Committee during its July 12 meeting agreed that this amount should be cut by $3,000.

“The county is need of an updated command center that can be set up anywhere in the county for emergency operations,” Hensley wrote. “We were in hope that there could be some type of federal funding or grant that could assist us on this. After research, we found there was not. I have acquired a 30-foot mobile trailer with compartments and utilities at no cost to the county. However, it will have to be equipped with communication equipment of radios, computers, and etc., should there be an evacuation incident at a location near our dispatch center. We, the county, need a mobile command center.

“I request you take serious consideration of replacing the $3,000 you cut from this.”

The UCSD is also responsible for the county’s two jail facilities. During its July 12 meeting, the Budget & Finance Committee agreed to cut $1,500 from travel expenses budgeted for the UCSD and the Unicoi County Jail. If unchanged, this would leave the UCSD with $4,000 for travel in 2017-18 and the jail with $2,000 for the same expense.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I operate on a very tight budget,” Hensley wrote. “At the last quarter, you will find several amendments moving money to pay necessary expenditures. Law enforcement changes on a routine basis, I absolutely have to send my officers as well as my jail administrators wherever this training is held. They, in return, return back to the department and hold training within the department to save the expense of travel and hotel lodging. I myself have to travel to the TN Sheriff’s Association for updates and training.”

Hensley’s letter was not addressed during Monday’s meeting but, following adjournment, Rice said she spoke with the sheriff prior to the meeting to hash out his concerns.

“We were going to buy one car last year, and he was supposed to buy one (this year) out of his surplus equipment or drug fund, and so, basically, that’s what he’s going to do now,” Rice said. “I don’t see a problem with that. He was asking for more in his communications line, but we had a discussion and there’s another avenue that he can do that, that he can find those funds, so we’re going to go that route.” 

Other expenditures included in the county’s 2017-18 budget include $52,236 for costs associated with the Unicoi County Commission, $272,458 for the operation of the county mayor’s office, and $27,000 to pay the county attorney for his services.

Approximately $185,700 has been budgeted for the Unicoi County Election Commission in 2017-18, around $194,900 for the Register of Deeds, more than $130,300 for county buildings, nearly $256,000 for the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s office, and around $188,500 for the Unicoi County Trustee’s office.

A little more than $266,700 has been budget for the office of Unicoi County Clerk in the new fiscal year. Expenditures for Unicoi County Circuit Court are projected at more than $470,300, costs for the county’s General Sessions Court are budgeted at around $119,500, Chancery Court expenses are projected at around $159,900, and costs related to the county’s Juvenile Court are projected at around $52,600.

Along with the approximately $1,777,400 budgeted for the UCSD in 2017-18, around $783,200 has been budgeted for the operation of the Unicoi County Jail, and around $521,400 has been budgeted for the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

The budget also includes more than $64,000 for civil defense, more than $39,900 for the county’s coroner/medical examiner, around $81,700 for the local health center, around $158,600 for rabies and animal control, and $132,000 to pay the county’s annual subsidy to MedicOne Medical Response, the county’s current ambulance services provider.

Other projected expenditures include county funding provided to local nonprofit agencies and organizations.

Also included in the budget are bonuses that will be paid to county employees during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Full-time employees will receive a bonus of $800, while the county’s part-time employees will receive a $250 bonus. These bonus payments account for more than $60,000 in expenditures.

The county’s projected fund balance to end the 2017-18 fiscal year stands at a little more than $1.1 million. While this is slightly below the approximately $1.5 million Rice said the state has recommended that Unicoi County maintain, it is the largest fund balance county officials can recall. It is nearly double the $569,000 fund balance projected for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“So we’re pretty close. We’re pleased with that,” Rice said of the projected fund balance in comparison to the state’s recommendation. “If we can just hold around $1 million, I would be happy just to have that to fall to.”

With Monday’s approval, the county’s proposed 2017-18 budget will now be published in this newspaper. The Unicoi County Commission will consider the second and final reading of the budget during its regular meeting on Aug. 28, and the Commission will set county’s 2017-18 property tax rate at that time. A public hearing on the budget will be held that evening.

The consensus among commissioners present for the Budget & Finance Committee’s July 12 meeting was that the county’s property tax for 2017-18 should remain at $2.6838 per $100 of assessed value, the rate the county has maintained since 2012.

Each penny on the county’s property tax rate is expected to generate $31,106 in revenue in the new fiscal year, which is up from the $30,342 each penny generated in 2016-17. Total property tax billing in Unicoi County is set to exceed $8 million in 2017-18.

The county’s current property tax rate, and the rate commissioners wish to maintain, exceeds the $2.6282 certified tax rate provided by the state as part of the 2017 reappraisal. The certified tax rate, provided after reappraisal cycles and based upon updated property values, is essentially the property tax rate needed to bring in the same about of property tax revenue a government bought in the prior year.

During its July 24 meeting, the Unicoi County Commission voted to accept the 2017 certified tax rate. While governing bodies are required to consider acceptance of the certified tax rate, these entities are not bound to the provided figure when setting the jurisdiction’s actual property tax rate. During the same meeting, the commission voted to authorize the publication of a notice in the local newspaper announcing the county’s intent to exceed the certified tax rate with the actual property tax rate.

A public hearing must be held if a government intends to exceed the certified tax rate, and this hearing will also be held during the Unicoi County Commission’s Aug. 28 meeting.