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Commission continues to look for cuts in 2016-17 budget

By Brad Hicks

Budgetary cuts proposed by the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee have trimmed the deficit with which the county was initially projected to begin the 2016-17 fiscal year by approximately two-thirds.

The committee met on July 5 to continue its work to prepare the county’s 2016-17 budget for the full County Commission’s consideration. The panel also met on June 29, at which time it proposed expenditure cuts to several departments totaling more than $86,000.

Following the July 5 meeting, total cuts proposed thus far by the committee are in the $214,000 range.

If these cuts stand, it would reduce the $320,052 deficit the county was projected to begin the new fiscal year with down to around $106,000. As a member of the committee learned at the June 29 meeting, the value of a penny on the county’s property rate will be equal to $30,342 in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Other meetings are scheduled and further cuts likely to be proposed, but if the cuts proposed thus far stand and no additional cuts are made, a property tax increase of roughly 3.5 cents would be needed to clear the projected deficit and balance the budget.

At its July 5 meeting, the committee proposed returning some previously-cut funding to one Unicoi County department.

During its June 29 meeting, the Budget and Finance Committee proposed nearly $47,500 in cuts to the proposed 2016-17 fiscal year budget for Unicoi County Assessor of Property. The committee proposed removing $28,025 included in the budget for a new full-time position, proposed cutting $8,000 from the $10,000 the department was seeking to fund part-time staffing, and other cuts, including cuts to projected costs for travel, postage, office equipment and maintenance and repair.

But, as interim Assessor of Property Teresa Kinsler pointed out at the committee’s July 5 meeting, 2017 is a reappraisal year in Unicoi County. This means extra help will be needed in the office and the additional full-time position would be needed to keep up with the additional workload.

The additional full-time position would also return the office’s staffing back to what it was prior to the February death of Wayne Peterson, who had been appointed by the County Commission in April 2015 to serve as assessor of property following the retirement of previous assessor Patsy Bennett.

Kinsler was appointed by the County Commission in March to fill the post on an interim basis until the August General Election. Kinsler is seeking the office in the upcoming election.

In response to a proposal by Commissioner Gene Wilson, Kinsler said two part-time employees would not make up for the loss of the full-time position.

“You guys want us to capture everything that we can out there, and there’s no possible way that, without having that employee, we can do that,” Kinsler said.

After hearing from Kinsler, other commissioners present felt at least some of the funding for the full-time position sought should be restored.

“I think she should have what the other assessors had to give her an opportunity to do her job,” said Commissioner Glenn White.

In response to a question from Commissioner Loren Thomas, Kinsler said the vacant full-time position would not have to be filled until after the August election. Thomas said if the position is filled after Oct. 1, $21,000 could be budgeted. This represents around three-fourths of the $28,025 originally sought for a whole year’s salary.

The restoration of $21,000 for the position also represents a $7,025 cut to that line item rather than the entire $28,025 proposed by the committee in late June.

Some of the part-time funding sought for the office was also restored, which would provide $5,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. Kinsler said this part-time help would only be needed during the reappraisal year, and could be cut in 2017-18 as long as the vacant full-time position is funded.

The committee also agreed to restore the full $5,000 sought for postal charges, as Kinsler said notices will need to be sent to all property owners during the reappraisal year.

Measure’s discussed at the July 5 meeting would reduce proposed 2016-17 budgetary cuts to the Assessor of Property’s office from the approximately $47,500 proposed in late June to around $21,000.

The committee also proposed cuts that would shave a total of $139,500 from the bottom line of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department’s proposed budget. The department is seeking more than $1.9 million for 2016-17, not including the funding needed to operate the Unicoi County Jail and the Jail Annex.

To arrive at this total, the committee, among other cuts, proposed reducing the $20,000 sought for overtime to $5,000. County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said this past year, the county was reimbursed more than $17,000 in law enforcement overtime through grants and funding from other agencies. Rice said the reimbursement amount would not need to be budgeted into the line item, adding deputies are supposed to be utilizing comp time rather than overtime.

A total of $14,000 was cut from a line item for other salaries and wages to reduce this amount to $53,695, per the committee’s proposal. It was also proposed that equipment maintenance and repair costs be reduced by $1,500, vehicle maintenance and repair costs be reduced by $16,000, travel be reduced by $500, other contracted services be reduced by $2,000, gasoline costs be reduced by $30,000 from the $125,000 sought to provide $9,500, and office supplies costs be reduced by $500.

The committee also proposed reducing the $10,000 sought for uniforms to $6,000, reducing workman’s comp expenses from $110,000 to $95,000, reducing presented communications equipment costs by $4,000, and reducing law enforcement equipment costs by $2,000.

There was also some discussion about the amount the sheriff’s department was seeking for vehicles in the 2016-17 fiscal year. The sheriff’s department had presented a budget in which $70,000 was sought to purchase two vehicles for the department but, by the end of the committee’s discussion, it was proposed that this allocation be cut in half.

Several members of the committee initially proposed that the expenditure be removed in its entirety. The sheriff’s department received $127,200 for vehicles in 2015-16, which allowed the department to replace four vehicles. But Thomas said he disagreed that the funding should be completely cut in 2016-17.

“There’s several that needs replaced,” Thomas said, adding some vehicles would need to be purchased in the upcoming year to keep their replacement on a more cost-effective rotational basis.

Rice proposed having the sheriff’s department cover vehicle expenditures in 2016-17 out of its drug fund and surplus equipment revenues. She said from 2011 to 2016, the county has provided the sheriff’s department with $514,000 for vehicles, and from 2013 to 2016 has purchased 12 vehicles for the department.

Commissioner John Mosley proposed providing funding for one vehicle, with others on the committee agreed. This led to $35,000 be included in the sheriff’s department’s budget for one vehicle. Rice proposed that if the sheriff’s department is able to build its surplus fund through sales and wishes to put it toward another vehicle, the budget could be amended to include this additional funding.

These proposed cuts would reduce the sheriff’s department’s 2016-17 budget to a little less than $1.8 million.

The committee has not yet discussed the proposed budgets for the Unicoi County Jail and the Jail Annex.

The committee also proposed a total of $3,900 in cuts to the presented budget of the Unicoi County Clerk’s office. The office is seeking a total of $265,526 in the new fiscal year, according to its submitted budget.

It was proposed by the committee that the office’s presented travel expenses be reduced from $1,200 to $600, its proposed maintenance and repair costs be reduced from $18,000 to $15,000, and office supplies costs be reduced from $1,500 to $1,200. Around $18,000 in office reserves will also help lower the department’s bottom line, county officials said.

A total of $6,100 in cuts was proposed for Unicoi County Circuit Court, which was seeking around $455,000 in 2016-17. The committee discussed cutting jury and witness expenses from $9,000 to $6,000. It also proposed cutting the department’s communications costs by $500, data processing costs by $500, evaluation and testing expenses by $500, dues and membership expenses by $100, and maintenance and repair costs by $1,500.

These cuts, if unchanged, would put the office’s funding at around $3,000 less than the approximately $452,000 it received in 2015-16.

A total of $5,300 in cuts was proposed to the presented 2016-17 budget for Unicoi County Chancery Court. The committee proposed reducing presented part-time personnel costs from $11,000 to $8,000. Other proposed cuts included reducing communications costs by $100, legal notices costs by $700, maintenance and repair costs by $500, travel by $500, and data processing by $500.

Unicoi County Chancery Court was seeking just a little less than $156,000 for 2016-17.

The committee proposed cutting the presented budget for the office of Unicoi County Juvenile Court by $1,100. Proposed reductions for this office were cutting the $39,000 in costs budgeted for contracts with other agencies to $38,000 and cutting budgeted travel expenses by $100.

Unicoi County Juvenile Court was seeking around $51,400 in funding for the new fiscal year.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch also provided a possible timeline for the County Commission’s passage of the 2016-17 budget. He said the County Commission could meet in a special-called session on Aug. 8 to consider the first reading of the budget. After that, the budget would be printed in The Erwin Record. The second and final reading of the budget could be considered by the County Commission at its Aug. 22 meeting.

The Budget and Finance Committee also met on July 12 to continue preparation of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. For information on this meeting, see the July 20 edition of The Erwin Record.