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Commission set to vote on budget Aug. 8

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee first convened more than a month ago to begin the process of reviewing – and proposing cuts to – the 2016-17 fiscal year budgets presented by Unicoi County’s department heads and elected officeholders.

Since its first meeting, the panel has met regularly to continue its preparation of the county’s overall budget for the new fiscal year and, the end of the process is now in sight.

The full Unicoi County Commission is set to consider the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 budget on Aug. 8, with consideration of the second and final reading set for Aug. 22.

The budget does not include a property tax increase. Unicoi County’s current property tax rate is $2.6838 per $100 of property value.

Most recently, the Budget and Finance Committee met on July 26 to further discuss the proposed budget of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, met on July 27 to take care of some loose ends, and gathered on Monday, Aug. 1, to give its work one last look before the budget is considered by the full county commission.

As it currently stands, the county’s 2016-17 budget reflects overall projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in anticipated expenditures.

The county is set to enter the new fiscal year with a projected fund balance of around $628,500, but County Budget Director Phyllis Bennett said Monday that a subsequent audit adjustment would likely reduce this to around $600,000.

Some commissioners remarked on how the projected fund balance to enter 2016-17 is the county’s best starting point in years.

“Since I’ve been on the County Commission, each year I’ve tried to help increase the fund balance,” County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said following Monday’s meeting. “When I first came on the County Commission they were having to borrow funds to finish out the year. Late in the year, we’d just run out of funding. And most other entities – the town of Erwin, the town of Unicoi – their fund balance is well over $1 million.

“We’re trying to increase it each year, and that’s my hope and plan that we can continue to increase that fund balance until we can be financially stable, and each year, the auditors, that’s one of their complaints is that we have a low fund balance. Sometimes, we would be concerned about the Comptroller’s Office even passing the budget, so this year with what we had we should be well on our way and hope that we can continue to inch that up each year and kind of get our books in order.”

The committee picked up where it left off with its July 26 meeting, as items contained within the  proposed budgets overseen by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department – in particular a teacher position included in the presented budget for the Unicoi County Jail – dominated the discussion.

Eventually the committee would reach what several commissioners referred to as a “compromise” to extend at least some of the funding for this position.

Originally contained within the proposed 2016-17 budget for the county’s jail was a $25,000 line item for a teacher. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley previously said this position is held by Lyle Wilcox, who not only leads inmate GED programs but also oversees drug rehabilitation programs.

Throughout its budget-preparation process, the Budget and Finance Committee has proposed cuts to the bottom line totals proposed in the departmental budgets, using individual line items contained within these budgets as guides. At its July 12 meeting, the committee proposed reducing the total jail budget by nearly $43,500, agreeing that $25,000 of this could come from the complete defunding of the teacher position.

Hensley was present at the committee’s July 20 meeting to discuss the need to maintain the position, and Unicoi County Greg Lynch urged county commissioners to meet with Wilcox prior to making a final decision. However, commissioners learned that day the position is not mandated by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.

The sheriff was again in attendance for the committee’s July 26 meeting to advocate for the position, and he was not alone. Several local ministers and Dale Clements with East Tennessee State University’s Educational Opportunity Center were on hand to voice support for keeping Wilcox’s position.

“I honestly believe that the GED program can help these people in the jails have a better life once they finish,” Clements said.

David Crutchfield, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, said the majority of inmates who go through the local HiSet course pass their final exam and the majority of those, as well as the majority of inmates completing the 12-step program, do not return to jail.

“What we are here to support is that this position remain a paid position to have a quality, qualified person to fill that position,” Crutchfield said, “and if you have to cut that position and pay some, I believe we’d understand that, but I would say it’s at the top priority for the good of our county that this position remain.”

Lynch also provided commissioners present with a copy of a letter from officials with the town of Unicoi written in support of Wilcox’s position.

“It has been shown that inmates reentering society with higher levels of education stand a significantly greater chance of successful rehabilitation,” the letter stated in part. “The opportunities afforded to inmates with greater levels of education serves to better increase their likelihood of finding employment, for providing for their families, and contributing to society. Likewise, the impact that these factors have on their self-esteem is immeasurable.”

Hensley added his department is short-staffed and that Wilcox completes tasks that deputies would otherwise have to do, such as taking inmates to visitations should a family member pass away.

But some commissioners remained staunch in their stance that the position be cut. Commissioner Gene Wilson said he opposed funding $25,000, especially since the jail teacher also drives a county vehicle and has his own fuel card. Wilson also pointed out that the loss of the $90,000 the town of Unicoi previously paid to the sheriff’s department has led to the need for a tighter budget.

“We voted against that $25,000,” Commissioner Kenneth Garland said. “Let’s leave it that way.”

Commissioner Jason Harris suggested that $35,000 in funding for a new vehicle contained within the sheriff’s department’s general budget could be cut to allow the salary for the jail teacher to be restored. The sheriff’s department was originally seeking $70,000 in the 2016-17 fiscal year to purchase two vehicles, but the Budget and Finance Committee previously proposed cutting this amount in half to have the county provide one vehicle and allowing the department to use revenues from the sale of surplus equipment to purchase a second vehicle.

“To me, it’s either that car or that salary,” Harris said.

“I know I can probably speak for all my fellow commissioners – we’re just trying to balance the budget,” Commissioner Glenn White said to Hensley and others present. “It’s not that we’re against any of this, but you all tell us how we can balance the budget if we don’t cut. So you look at the least important of the priorities when you cut. And, yeah, this is a great program, but right now we’re $7,000 in the black and we don’t even know what our fund balance is.”

Hensley left the July 26 meeting before an agreement regarding the teacher position and other items contained within his proposed budgets could be reached.

“You all have my budget. Thank you,” the sheriff said to commissioners as he exited the meeting.

The committee on July 26 held off on a proposal presented by Commissioner Loren Thomas to restore the teacher’s salary in the jail budget and add $25,000 to the income projected from the housing of state inmates in Unicoi County’s jails.

However, the panel did restore $2,000 back to the sheriff’s department’s general budget. Hensley had originally requested $50,000 for vehicle maintenance and repair in the new fiscal year, an amount the committee previously proposed scaling back to $34,000. But because the sheriff’s department spent approximately $35,400 on this item on 2015-16, the committee agreed to provide $36,000 in the new year.

This move left the county’s 2016-17 finances around $5,000 in the black.

The funding for the teacher at the jail was again a primary topic of conversation at the committee’s July 27 meeting. To help maintain the much-discussed position, the committee returned to a solution presented since the cut was first proposed.

The committee agreed with a proposal made by Rice to increase projected state inmate revenue by $15,000 and increasing the jail budget by the same amount. Commissioners said this would help fund the teacher position if the sheriff chooses to put the money toward that expense.

Harris was the only commissioner present to oppose this move, as it would leave the county’s 2016-17 contribution toward sheriff’s department vehicles at $35,000.

Although Commissioner John Mosley favored Rice’s proposal, he called it a “gamble.” The county projected around $650,000 in state inmate revenue for the 2015-16 fiscal year, but it appears the actual revenue realized may be in the $800,000 range. Based off this, the county originally projected $750,000 in state inmate revenue for the new fiscal year. With Rice’s proposal, that projection would increase to $765,000.

Other budgetary action was also recommended by the committee during its July 27 meeting, including granting some employees raises, providing funding for a veterans’ service program, and extending county funding to the Unicoi County Highway Department.

To fund the veterans’ service program and the employee raises, the committee agreed to increase “other state revenues” by $10,000. The panel agreed that $7,000 of this could be put toward the program, a move that left the county around $8,000 in the black. The town of Erwin is providing office space for the officer, and the committee also suggested that additional funding for the officer be sought from the town of Unicoi.

A total of $5,000 were provided to six employees who were set to receive either small or no pay raises. This include $1,000 each provided to four employees and $500 to two others.

The committee also agreed to extend an additional $1,500 in funding to the Unicoi County Little League to provide a total of $2,000 in 2016-17.

These moves left the county around $2,400 in the positive with revenues exceeding expenditures.

The committee further agreed to designate 2 cents of the county’s property tax rate, or approximately $60,000, to the Highway Department. The state will provide the same amount, as it matches county highway funding.

“That gives (Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes) $60,000 more in his budget from the state, and then that money comes back to us next year. We just felt like that was an investment,” Rice said following Monday’s meeting.

The committee also recommended at its July 26 meeting that the 2016-17 fiscal year budget for Unicoi County Schools be approved as presented. The school system’s balanced budget reflects $23,804,277 in both revenues and expenditures.

The school system’s general purpose budget for the new fiscal year contains additional funding totaling $2,191,390. Unicoi County Director of Schools John English said this amount includes $315,000 for the purchase of iPads. The system previously leased the tablets, and English said about $30,000 could be saved through their purchase. The additional funding also includes nearly $1.3 million for renovations to Temple Hill Elementary School and work to prepare the new Love Chapel Elementary School, $447,000 to cover a 6.1 percent insurance increase and to provide 2 percent raises to all the system’s employees, and a little less than $150,000 for the UC Advance program, a blended learning program established to reengage local students lost to online schools and due to dropouts. 

On Monday, Lynch again brought up a prior request to fund a part-time position within his office. The mayor was seeking $15,000 in funding for the employ, which would be cross-trained to complete various duties within his office. The committee agreed to utilize the $2,400 remaining to put a new line item in the county mayor’s budget for the position, a move that will allow the position to be added later should the Commission opt to do so.

If the proposed 2016-17 budget passes as presented, it would mark another year without a property tax increase in Unicoi County. Rice said this was of the utmost importance to the Unicoi County Commission.

“I am proud of the fact that we have not raised taxes in the last four years now, I think it has been,” Rice said Monday. “This year, especially, with the CSX layoffs and all that’s happened in this county, we just felt like as a Commission that we could not afford to pass that on to the people who have already suffered the losses that they have.”