By Brad Hicks
It is known that Unicoi County’s fund balance to begin the 2016-17 fiscal year is the best it has been in years. It is also known that there will be no property tax increase in the new fiscal year.
Still, there is an air of uncertainty with regards to the budget, as it is not yet known whether Sheriff Mike Hensley will pursue legal action against the county for failure to fund expenditures he previously referred to as “necessities” for his department.
The Unicoi County Commission on Monday, Aug. 22, approved the second and final reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The measure passed by a 6-2 vote among county commissioners present, with Loren Thomas and John Mosley casting the dissenting votes. Commissioner Glenn White was not present at Monday’s meeting.
The County Commission was made aware of potential legal action by the sheriff on Aug. 8, the same evening the panel approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. Prior to that evening’s meeting, county commissioners received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.
In the letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting the maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. Hensley also sought the funding to bring two part-time corrections officers at each of the county’s jail facilities to full-time status, the restoration of funding for a teaching position contained with the Unicoi County Jail budget, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.
“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” Hensley’s letter stated.
The budget was passed Monday as presented, and the requests Hensley spelled out in his letter were not discussed. Hensley did not speak during the course of Monday’s meeting and, following the meeting’s adjournment, left the Unicoi County Courthouse, declining comment to media.
In his letter, Hensley gave the commission the option of replacing the roof on the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located in downtown Erwin and providing funding to hire a certified mechanic or increasing his department’s funding for vehicle maintenance and repair.
During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s new budget, Hensley estimated the repair of the leaky roof would cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. In his letter, Hensley provided annual mechanic salary estimates ranging from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.
If the county did not wish to repair the roof and hire the mechanic, Hensley requested that $110,000 be provided in his budget for vehicle maintenance and repair. The UCSD originally sought $50,000 for this expenditure in the 2016-17 fiscal year, but the Budget and Finance Committee during its meetings proposed trimming this amount to $36,000.
Hensley previously said the Commission previously agreed to begin moving a few part-time corrections officers to full-time each year, but this was not included in his department’s proposed budget due to a letter he previously received from Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch’s office asking that positions, pay increases and capital expenses not be included in the submitted budgets since such expenditures would be discussed by the Budget and Finance Committee.
A memo from Lynch’s office dated March 10 and sent to all of the county’s officeholders asked officials not to include salary increases in their proposed budgets but to instead include these in a separate letter attached to the budget requests.
Also included in the original budget for the Unicoi County Jail was $25,000 for a teacher who leads the inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. During its sessions, the Budget and Finance Committee had proposed completely eliminating funding for the position but later opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.
In his letter, Hensley called for the full $25,256 for the position to be restored.
The sheriff also previously said the fencing project around the Jail Annex could be completed for around $24,000.
While Hensley declined comment following Monday’s meeting, Lynch and several commissioners did provide comments concerning the possibility of legal action.
“I just hope and pray for the taxpayers of Unicoi County we don’t have to face a lawsuit,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice, adding it would be up to the county to cover attorneys’ fees for both sides.
Rice said the new requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter represented expenditures totaling $175,000 to $200,000. She also said the county had already been working to address some of Hensley’s requests, including repairing the roof on the maintenance garage. On Monday, the Unicoi County Commission unanimously approved allowing Lynch to take quotes and/or bids on replacing the roof, as well as receive offers for surplus metal studs from jail facility renovations to help offset the roof repair cost.
“We just hope he sees we’re trying to work with him, and we always have,” Rice said.
Now that the budget has been approved on second reading, Hensley has 30 days to either sign a letter of agreement stipulating that he will work within the approved budget or file the lawsuit, Lynch said.
Following the Aug. 8 meeting, Hensley said he would refuse to sign the letter of agreement if his requests were not addressed.
“(Hensley) told me as early as yesterday that he ‘wasn’t blowing smoke,’” Lynch said. “I’m hoping that he’ll reconsider.”
Commissioner Kenneth Garland, who moved the budget be approved as presented, said while he hopes the situation does not result in a lawsuit, he is not overly concerned.
“I ain’t concerned,” Garland said. “I mean, if he does, he ain’t got a leg to stand on and he’s just hurting himself. Even threatening what he’s doing, people out here don’t like that. I’ve talked to a lot of people. They’re upset over it, just the threat of doing it makes them mad.”
During Monday’s meeting and before the vote was taken, Mosley asked fellow commissioners how the budget could be passed without addressing a request from Erwin Utilities to provide funding for fire hydrants located within the county and increased insurance costs to county employees. Rice responded that the raises employees received either covered or exceeded the insurance increase.
“That’s not what I’ve heard from the majority of employees,” Mosley said.
Thomas also voted against passage of the county’s budget on first reading after asking commissioners if they wished to discuss Hensley’s letter received that day.
The county’s overall 2016-17 budget reflects projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures. Unicoi County’s projected fund balance for the new fiscal year is approximately $569,000.
“I’d like to thank the officeholders that stayed within their budget,” Rice said during Monday’s meeting. “They also returned unused funds at the end of the year, and this year, with their help, we were able to balance our budget and build up our fund balance.”
Rice said this was accomplished even with officeholders, including Hensley, giving most of their employees raises. She also said the sheriff’s department received in the budget funding for the purchase of one new vehicle, with the Commission previously agreeing that the department could purchase additional vehicles with funds obtained from the sale of surplus equipment.
The county was also able to designate around 2 cents – or roughly $60,000 – of the county’s property tax rate to the Unicoi County Highway Department. This amount will be matched by the state. Rice added passage of the budget will allow the Unicoi County Schools system to receive state Basic Education Program (BEP) on schedule.
Rice further commended officeholders, most of whom received increased budgets from the prior fiscal year, for using reserve funding to help the county.
“I do appreciate all the commissioners working together to balance our budget,” Rice said.
Following Monday’s meeting, Rice said this marks the second consecutive year the county’s budget has been balanced. Previously, she said, the county began each fiscal year with a deficit.
“By doing that, it’s allowing our fund balance to grow,” Rice said. “Some of the officeholders, the money they didn’t spend comes back into the general fund, and you take that with a little bit of fund balance and it adds to it and it builds our fund balance.”
This also marks the fourth consecutive year with no increase to the property tax rate in Unicoi County. The Commission on Monday unanimously approved a measure to set the rate at $2.6838 per $100 of property value.
Lynch said the projected fund balance is the best he has seen in his 10 years in office. He said revenues came in high and, like Rice, commended the county’s officeholders who were able to turn money back into the county.
“That always bodes well because there’s always emergencies and, technically, you’re supposed to have enough fund balance to cover, like, two months of your budget, and we’ve never had that,” Lynch said. “So it feels good.”