By Richard Rourk

The Town of Erwin could be facing a 40-cent property tax increase.

The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen have been meeting for the past few weeks to work on the 2019-20 budget. During the workshops, it was discovered that the town is looking at an approximate $650,000 shortfall, which according to Mayor Doris Hensley, would result in the tax hike for city residents.

“It was very agonizing, but we are trying to focus on the long-term fixes – those improvements that are going to be here for the next 10-20 years,” Hensley said.

The 40-cent tax increase would bring the Town of Erwin’s tax rate up to $1.862 per every $100 of assessed property value. The current rate is $1.462.

According to the 2019-20 proposed budget, the Town of Erwin will have total expenditures of approximately $7.4 million, which is an increase from the 2018-19 budget expenditures of $6.3 million.

Without the 40-cent property tax increase, proposed revenues amounted to approximately $6.75 million, leading to the $650,000 shortfall. The tax increase will make up that difference, officials say.

Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff acknowledged that several necessary items led to the increased expenditures and budget shortfall.

“We have two new police officers with full benefits, a brand new police vehicle, brand new fire truck, rescue truck, new gear for our first responders, and the various infrastructure upgrades that are catching up to us,” Rosenoff said. “We had two officers that were added at the end of last year, but it’s a new fiscal year and you have the two new police officers that are receiving benefits and with gear, equipment and automobile you are looking at a ballpark figure of a couple of hundred thousand dollars upfront, with a recurring cost of $100,000 plus, yearly.” Rosenoff said that Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) suggested the hiring of two officers a few years ago.

The town also hired one full-time parks department employee that will assist with mowing and trails in the summer and street upkeep in the winter.

“This is a position that has remained vacant for four years,” Hensley said.

According to Rosenoff, funds are being used to bring businesses and jobs into the town.

“We are spending money, but everything is driven to promote economic development,” Rosenoff said. “We are hoping for new jobs. We are hoping for our citizens to take those new jobs.

“The infrastructure improvements include capital projects for Fishery Park, which will cost an estimated $14,660.65 for the 2019-20 budget year, and road repaving projects, Elm Street and others, that will cost an estimated $507,637 for the 2019-20 budget year,” Rosenoff added.

According to the proposed budget, the estimated costs for capital projects will be $2,033,555.76 for the 2019-20 budget year. That is a $763,080.76 increase from the 2018-19 capital projects budget of $1,270,275.

“In regards to Fishery Park, infrastructure there is not adequate, and we want our citizens to have a park that is a destination for them. We would love to have that park be a regional destination,” Rosenoff said. “Everything we do is to attract business and sales tax money, so we can create jobs, because they are very important to us and we want to keep these jobs here.”

This year’s budget presented the Town of Erwin with a dilemma, according to Rosenoff.

“We are slowly increasing local tax sales, but we do not have surpluses yet,” he said. “We are spending more money for economic development to market Erwin to attract retail recruitment. We are investing a whole lot in ourselves to improve the area.”

According to the proposed 2019-20 budget, the Town of Erwin is investing $25,000 into the Unicoi Joint Economic Development Board to utilize the services of the Buxton Group, a company that uses geo mapping information to recruit national businesses to the area.

“When you look at property taxes as the number one source of revenues, then you compare it to just staying with the times, police and fire alone exceeds the amount of property taxes we were receiving,” Rosenoff said.

According to Rosenoff, it is vital to the citizens for the Town of Erwin to have a strong police department and fire department.

“Our police department needs to be efficient, they need to be effective and they need to have the latest technology to be responsive and they are very responsive,” Rosenoff said. “We need to equip our fire department to fight fires, but also to give the town an excellent ISO rating to help relieve home insurance costs. These are things that potential businesses look for when relocating.”

Hensley agreed Rosenoff.

“We really had to prioritize our equipment – our fire truck our rescue truck – not only to protect the citizens and property here, but also to give us a better ISO rating,” Hensley said. “It just seems that we have ignored our equipment for so long, that it was costing us more to repair them rather than just replace them, so we knew it was time to replace them.”

According to Hensley, the town tries to keep vehicles for up to eight years.

According to Rosenoff, the town is focused on prioritizing infrastructure and equipment for the town in the future, as well as preparing for more economic growth.

“We are constantly working to improve infrastructure, everything physical above ground and everything physical below ground you don’t see, we are looking to improve,” Rosenoff said. “We can’t send someone to scout Erwin and expect them to bring a business to town if the infrastructure is poor.”

Rosenoff acknowledged that the Town of Erwin prides itself on taking care of its employees as well.

“We spend nearly $700,000 in benefits towards retirement and healthcare. The town contributes 100 percent to retirement for all employees and 93 percent of total healthcare for our employees,” Rosenoff said. “Taxpayers should know we try hard to retain our great employees that make the town so special.”

According to Hensley, paying for benefits for the employees is crucial in keeping the town functioning.

“It’s very important to keep the people we have. The employees we have are already trained and certified and they know the area. In the long run that saves the town time and money,” Hensley said. “We have a 3 percent salary increase for employees in this year’s proposed budget. We have hard-working employees, loyal employees and they are dedicated and passionate about their town, we definitely want to keep them.”

The Town of Erwin BMA is expected to vote on the first reading of the proposed 2019-20 budget at its Monday, Aug. 12, meeting. The meeting will be held at Erwin Town Hall and will begin at 5:30 p.m. The BMA will hold a second reading vote at a later date to finalize the budget.