By Richard Rourk
The Unicoi County Commission approved the county’s 2020-21 fiscal year budget on Monday, June 22, and officially enacted a 17-cent property tax increase.
The commission voted 6-3 to approve the budget that projects $7,524,728 in revenues and $8,027,209 in expenditures leaving the county a shortfall of $502,481 to make up.
According to Commissioner Stephen Hendrix, of the $502,481 shortfall, $174,100 is related to the startup funding of Unicoi County EMS and will be paid for from the hospital restricted fund, leaving a shortfall balance of $328,381. The hospital restricted fund is the payment that Unicoi County received when Unicoi County Hospital was sold to Mountain States Health Alliance, which is now Ballad Health.
Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas and Unicoi County commissioners Glenn White, Matthew Rice, John Mosley, Todd Wilcox and Hendrix voted to approve the budget. Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and commissioners Marie Rice and Jason Harris voted against the budget.
Following the vote to approve the budget, the commission voted on a tax increase to cover the shortfall. The panel voted 6-3 to approve a 17-cent tax rate increase following a motion by Hendrix.
“We had a very tough year. There is no easy solution,” Hendrix said. “What I propose is a 17-cent tax increase going forward,” Hendrix said.
Thomas, White, Matthew Rice, Mosley, Wilcox and Hendrix voted to approve the tax increase to cover the shortfall. Jamie Harris, Marie Rice and Jason Harris voted against the 17-cent tax increase.
Jamie Harris said he opposed raising taxes this year.
“I propose we use our general funding this year, understanding that there would be a tax increase next year,” Jamie Harris said. “It would give us another year to prepare the citizens for it.”
According to Hendrix, if the tax increase doesn’t take effect, the county would be in the same boat, or possibly worse, next year.
“I wouldn’t be opposed to waiting until next year if there was something that was going to change next year, but we cannot keep putting it off,” Hendrix said.
Marie Rice, who opposed the budget and the tax increase acknowledged that the increase will be difficult for the citizens of Unicoi County.
“I hate it for the taxpayers of the county,” Marie Rice said.
The 17-cent tax rate, which takes the current tax rate from $2.6838 to $2.8538 per $100 of property value, will take effect on Oct. 1.
“In short, for every $100,000 in property, the annual increase on the tax bill will be $42.50,” Hendrix explained.
Thomas acknowledged the hard work of the commission to keep the tax rate so low the past several years.
“We have gone seven straight years without a tax increase,” Thomas said. “I think it’s been commendable what the commission has been doing over the years on a fixed budget. We have managed for several years. None of us want to raise taxes, but I’m not sure how you avoid it when everything goes up every year.”
According to Thomas, the lack of sales tax opportunities in the county and the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on revenues.
“We really hurt for sales tax revenue. Most of our sales tax revenue comes from the south end of the county from businesses on Jackson Love Highway,” Thomas said. “Aside from a few businesses, there really isn’t much to receive sales tax from in the county. We also lost a lot of inmate revenue from COVID-19. With those restrictions in place we were not receiving any additional inmates.”
Unicoi County receives roughly $39 per day per state inmate that is housed in a Unicoi County jail, according to Thomas. These funds are paid by the State of Tennessee Department of Corrections.
Moving on, the county commission voted unanimously to accept John Cooper’s $800 a month bid to run the Unicoi convenience center. The commission also approved Bryan Frost’s $900 a month bid to run the Hoover convenience center and Loretta Beam’s $810 a month contract for the Higgins Creek convenience center.
Also on Monday, the commission reappointed Lee Bennett to the Unicoi County Planning Commission for three years and reappointed Tony Parsley and Ted Hopson to the Industrial Development Board. The commission also reappointed Dan Buchannan, Richard Millenbach and Ted Hopson to the Unicoi County Economic Development Board for one year.
In closing, the commission heard from USA Raft CEO Matt Moses, who is seeking a beer license for a new restaurant that is being proposed to be located at USA Raft.
“I am hoping to get this done as soon as possible. We have no desire to become a nuisance. I’m just looking to bring in more tax money for the county,” Moses said.
Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely acknowledged that there would need to be a public notice put in the paper before the next Unicoi County Beverage Board meeting.
“We would need to get the notice out and the whole commission would have to vote on the matter, so that is the next step,” Thomas said.
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, no Unicoi County Beverage Board meeting has been set.