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Commission passes budget

The Unicoi County Commission voted to pass the county’s budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year during a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 13. No property tax increase was included in the budget. Also not included was funding to county employees’ family health insurance plans.
The budget passed by a 7-2 vote with all commissioners in attendance. Voting in favor of the budget were Bridget Peters, Jason Harris, Kenneth Garland, Chairwoman Marie Rice, Gene Wilson, Glenn White and Walter Garland. The two “no” votes came from commissioners John Mosley and Loren Thomas.
A packed house inside the Unicoi County Courthouse saw numerous citizens plead for a change in the budget to support the family coverage for health insurance.
The changes in the newly implemented budget include a reversal by the Commission in July from the decision in June to fund family insurance plans. This reversal increased the cost of family premiums to $873 a month for one plan or $510 for a high deductible plan. This change was estimated to save $115,000.
“People in this room made life-altering decisions based on their economic future then,” said Frank Rogers, chief deputy with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, about the Commission’s June decision to fund insurance as it was the previous fiscal year. “Then you come back in July and change it. It is dishonest. It’s not too late to fail this budget and do what you said you would do.
“We’ve already suffered the damages in the county. I’m not here to talk about anybody, I just want to say … you said you would. I’m asking you as an employee, as a citizen … fund the insurance for these families,” Rogers continued.
The Commissioners implemented 100-percent coverage of family insurance premiums for county employees as part of the 2013-2014 budget as a raise for employees.
Sheriff Mike Hensley addressed the board and said he received notice from nine employees that they would leave the department if the increased premiums where to go into effect. Hensley said the nine employees have more than 100 years of experience between them.
Jonathan Farnor, a resident in the county who works in Washington County, addressed the board by citing concerns from Hensley’s comments about the potential loss of officers.
“I have a wife and three kids, two of which go to school here in Unicoi County, and their safety could be in jeopardy for the reasons the sheriff talked about,” Farnor said. “We have a lot of people this will impact – not just the sheriff’s department. I don’t see how, in good conscience, you can completely defund this and cause the stress on these families.
“… I work in Washington County and I can say you’ll have a hard time finding people to come here for that rate of pay,” Farnor continued. “If you did this to me, I’d look for another job, too. I know it is hard for the county. I understand that and I applaud you guys for taking up the challenge, but I don’t feel this is the way to do it. What price are we going to put on the safety for our county?”
Kenneth Garland responded to Farnor by saying the county is paying for individual insurances, but that family insurances are a different thing and he wasn’t aware of any companies that pay fully for family coverage and that the county has paid $13,000 a year for each family.
Garland added that he didn’t believe that taxpayers who potentially don’t have insurance would like to see the county pay insurance for people who make over $80,000 a year.
“I don’t believe that’s the case with the people impacted by this,” Farner said about the employees.
Wilson also added that the commission trimmed over $400,000 in cuts and that no employee lost their job.
“I don’t know where else we can cut. Things are tight in this county and we’ve looked at everything the past three months,” he said.
Farnor followed up by saying that he didn’t know about anybody else, but he’d rather pay $25 more on his land taxes to fund the premiums, which was met with applause from the crowd.
Unicoi County resident John Day also addressed the Commission, stating he contacted the state four years ago to look into prices and policies for county employees to potentially join the state health insurance pool, which could save money on premiums.
“You need to protect these people right here,” Day said motioning to the crowd. “We have people here working for other county agencies with their family coverage paid 100-percent.”
Day also recommend the commissioners form a committee to start pricing insurance policies to project how much the county could save on insurance by choosing between the state or private policy.
Resident Jerry Hughes followed up Day’s sentiments by asking the board if they had looked into the state’s policy. County Mayor Greg Lynch stated they looked into just the quoted rates.
“We need to talk to some more people at the state,” Hughes said. “When I worked with (Walter) Junior Garland, we didn’t have a lot and I appreciate the opportunity he gave me. But we have other avenues we can look at, I love Unicoi County. There’s got to be a way we can work this out. When we lose these people, we can’t get them back.”
Resident Bobby Hensley questioned how the Commission could cut funding for premiums but spend over $100,000 for a water line for Rocky Fork State Park. Hensley was quickly told that the funding for the project was to be taken out of the funds from the purchase of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital by Mountain States Health Alliance.
Commissioner Glenn White spoke out at the end of the meeting and stated he was going to recommend a four-cent tax increase, but it was quickly shot down by Walter Garland who mentioned the failed vote on tax increases in a previous meeting.
White said he would vote in favor of the budget to have it passed, citing potential damages to the county from state interference for not having a budget in place before the state’s deadline.
Mosley made a final attempt to rescind the budget by making a motion, which was seconded by Thomas, but the motion failed by a 7-2 margin.
Before the start of the vote on the budget, Thomas stated that all but one citizen that addressed the board wanted to support the funding for premiums.
“Every person that has contacted me asked that I do what I could do to support the family insurance,” Thomas said. “If you don’t work for the taxpayers, go work for someone else,” Thomas said in reference to the commissioners voting against the courtroom crowd.
Kenneth Garland mentioned he had been elected by taxpayers five times.
“You all remember this when it comes time to vote,” Mosley added.
A majority of citizens filed out of the courthouse following the decision with a female in attendance loudly jeering the commission.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Rice addressed those in attendance, thanking individuals for coming out and commending the commissioners on their work during the budget process.