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Unicoi County facing 17-cent property tax increase

By Richard Rourk

After weeks of meetings, the Unicoi County Commission held its first vote on the 2020-21 fiscal year budget on Monday, June 8.

It took less than 10 minutes for the special called meeting to be finished and when it was complete, the budget was showing a shortfall of $502,481.

The commission voted 6-3 to approve the 2020-21 budget that projects $7,524,728 in revenues and $8,027,209 in expenditures leaving the county a shortfall of $502,481 dollars to make up. Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas and Unicoi County commissioners Glenn White, Matthew Rice, John Mosley, Todd Wilcox and Stephen Hendrix voted to approve the budget. Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and commissioner Marie Rice and Jason Harris voted against the budget.

According to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, the commission will meet again on June 22, at 6 p.m. to decide how to fund the $502,481 shortfall.

Thomas acknowledged that the shortfall could cause roughly a 17 cent property tax increase. “We very well could be facing a tax increase of 17 cents,” Thomas said. “We always try to avoid a tax increase. This is the first time we are facing a tax increase since 2012.”

According to Thomas, the commission has done all it could to prevent a shortfall.

“The budget process, under the chairmanship of Stephen Hendrix, and a significant amount of work put in by Mayor Evely, was the most streamlined and efficient process that I can remember,” Thomas said. “Last year’s shortfall of over $300,000 was mostly wiped away by hard work from Sheriff (Mike) Hensley with him increasing the state inmate population. That brought in well over $100,000 more than we projected last year. But as we near the end of this year’s budget negotiations, we still have a portion of last year’s shortfall that continues to snowball. We haven’t raised taxes since 2012 and I am very proud of the fact that we have gone this long without an increase, but we have reached a point of what appears to be the end of that run.”

Thomas acknowledged that the commission could dip back into the general fund to combat the shortfall, but that move would be shot down by the comptroller.

“We could certainly balance our budget with money from our general fund, but we would be taking that fund so low that the state comptroller would not approve our budget, not to mention that we would have to borrow money just to pay our bills,” Thomas said. “We have some really great commissioners who have worked really hard on this budget and there just doesn’t seem to be any other options but a tax increase.”

According to Thomas, the possible 17 cent tax increase could possibly be lower depending on discussions at the June 22 meeting.

“If the commission moves forward at our next meeting with passing the budget for the second reading and followed by a tax increase, the amount of that increase is certainly up in the air at this point,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, each commissioner is a taxpayer just like everyone else and none of us want to raise taxes. We are and will continue to do everything we can to keep it at a minimum if that’s what it comes down to.”

Thomas acknowledged that the lack of sales tax opportunities in the county and COVID-19 have 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 who is housed in a Unicoi County jail. These funds are paid by the State of Tennessee Department of Corrections.

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet again on Monday, June 22, at 6 p.m.