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Commission continues budget discussions

By Brad Hicks

Commissioners look over department budgets while deciding best route for upcoming fiscal year. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Commissioners look over department budgets while deciding best route for upcoming fiscal year. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Although the anticipated starting deficit is better than it has been in years past, much work lies ahead before the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee is ready to present the county’s 2016-17 budget for the full County Commission’s consideration.

The committee’s work continued last Wednesday, as cuts were proposed to various departmental budgets during the panel’s meeting in an effort to reduce the projected $320,052 starting deficit.

Projected revenues to begin 2016-17 are $7,171,805 against $7,492,307 in overall anticipated expenditures. Committee members learned last week that a penny on the county’s property tax rate will be equal to $30,342 in the 2016-17 fiscal year. This means that, if no adjustments to the proposed budget were made, a property tax increase of roughly 10.5 cents would be needed to clear the projected deficit.

The value of a penny on the property tax rate in 2016-17 is $7 more than what it was in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

“So we don’t have a lot of additional funds to work with,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice.

But County Commissioners present for last Wednesday’s meeting did propose expenditure cuts to several departments, with these proposed cuts totaling more than $86,000.

The Unicoi County Election Commission and the county’s Property Assessor’s office were the two departments discussed Wednesday that saw the largest amount of proposed cuts.

Members of the Budget and Finance Committee have proposed $18,400 in spending cuts to the Election Commission’s proposed 2016-17 budget.

The Unicoi County Election Commission was seeking more than $209,000 in funding in 2016-17, an election year. This is up from the approximately $183,500 originally budgeted for the department in 2015-16 but, due to this year’s presidential election, the Election Commission would receive a $21,000 reimbursement from the state.

Proposed cuts included a $1,000 reduction in clerical personnel costs, bringing the total of this line item to $10,000. A $3,000 cut was proposed for projected election workers costs, reducing this expense from $19,000 to $16,000.

Other proposed reductions included $500 for voting machine mechanics, bringing the 2016-17 total to $1,000, a $2,000 reduction in data processing costs, dropping the 2016-17 total to $13,000, reducing legal notices costs from the $9,000 being sought to $7,000, a $400 reduction in proposed postage costs to bring 2016-17’s allocation to $100, a $1,500 cut in proposed travel expenses to bring the line item to $5,000, a $1,000 reduction in other contracted services costs, a $4,500 cut to projected expenses for office supplies and office equipment, and reducing projected electricity expenses from $3,000 to $2,500.

If the proposed cuts stand, it would bring the Election Commission’s 2016-17 budget total to $190,844.

Nearly $47,500 in cuts were proposed for the Property Assessor’s proposed 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

A total of $270,857 in funding has been sought for the office in the upcoming fiscal year.

Included in the proposed Property Assessor’s budget is $28,025 to fund a new full-time position. The committee last Wednesday proposed removing this expense entirely from the department’s proposed budget. The panel also agreed that $8,000 could be cut from the $10,000 the department is seeking for other salaries and wages, which would fund part-time help.

Because 2017 is a reappraisal year in Unicoi County, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch urged the committee to reconsider its proposal to reduce funding for the additional position, adding the Property Assessor’s office is the generator of tax revenues and additional staffing will be needed.

“Just for the record, I’d like to say you’re making a mistake by cutting that salary out,” he said.

Rice said while the committee is looking for cuts in individual line items, its true aim is to propose a bottom line total that could be trimmed from each department’s submitted budget.

Other cuts proposed for the Property Assessor’s 2016-17 budget included $2,000 for audit services, $3,000 for maintenance and repair costs, $1,700 for travel expenses, and $1,115 for office equipment.

The committee also proposed $9,500 in cuts to the county buildings budget. It was proposed that maintenance and repair services costs be reduced from $35,000 to $30,000. Other proposed reductions in this area of the budget included a $500 reduction for custodial supplies, a $1,000 cut for natural gas funding, a $2,000 cut to utilities funding, and a $1,000 cut for building and contents insurance costs.

A total of $2,000 in cuts was proposed for other general administration portion of the 2016-17 General Government budget. The committee proposed $1,000 in cuts to the proposed budget of the County Mayor’s office, and $2,000 in cuts were proposed to the overall Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department budget, which is made up of the budgets for the sheriff’s department itself, the jail and the jail workhouse.

Proposed costs for the county’s Board of Equalization were trimmed by $420.

The committee also proposed $3,200 in cuts to the submitted Register of Deeds budget. This amount was arrived at through proposed cuts to the department’s requested funding for communications, travel, part-time personnel, data processing and office supplies.

Rice said Unicoi County Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle has indicated she may cover some of the department’s expenses through reserve funding the department has built up. This led to some discussion of whether departments that have reserve funding, such as the Register of Deeds and County Clerk, should carryover the funding or return the amount built during a fiscal year to the county’s general fund.

Reserve funding for departments across Unicoi County totaled approximately $265,000. This does not include the funding the county received from Mountain States Health Alliance’s acquisition of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

Lynch suggested officials should complete the budget process before delving further into the reserve funding discussion.

Unicoi County Finance Director Phyllis Bennett said some of the county’s property tax rate may again need to be designated for sanitation in 2016-17. Last year, county officials decided to put the 2 cents of the tax rate previously designated for sanitation to the general fund after they moved to prohibit construction materials from being disposed of in the county’s convenience centers.

If the $86,193 in cuts proposed last Wednesday by the Budget and Finance Committee remain unchanged, it would reduce the projected deficit to begin the 2016-17 fiscal year to $234,309.

Other than Lynch and the County Commissioners present, no county officeholders or department heads attended last Wednesday’s meeting. Rice said the Budget and Finance Committee will continue to propose cuts to the county’s various departmental budgets and, once it has completed this, will meet with individual officeholders and department heads to discuss their presented 2016-17 budgets and the proposed cuts.

The Budget and Finance Committee also met on Tuesday to continue preparation of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. For more information on this meeting, see the July 13 edition of The Erwin Record.