Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee members have put their heads together in several meetings during the last two weeks in an attempt to create a more balanced budget for fiscal year 2018-19 and avoid a property tax increase. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After several weeks of meetings and crunching numbers, the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee was able to eliminate their shortfall and still provide employee bonuses without raising taxes.

Before ending with a $146,000 shortfall last week, the committee once again visited the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department budget last week and proceeded to move around $40,000 in what they expected to be overfunded line items and transferred them into areas they believed were underfunded, such as medical expenses at the two jails.   

“Within the sheriff’s budget, I think there are things we can move around,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said. “The medical last year was astronomical.”

Over the last several weeks Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and the committee have been locked in a back and forth battle over which of his departmental requests can be funded this year. In a meeting between Hensley and Jamie Harris, who will take his seat on the county commission this September, Hensley stated. “Don’t move any of my stuff out of my line items.”

Harris said Hensley’s budget requests that he absolutely needed and would not negotiate on included two-and-a-half deputies funded by the county, an investigator, $60,000 in overtime pay, a part-time nurse for the two jails, and a commitment to bringing the fence at the jailhouse annex up to standards, as well as installing repeaters on the county’s communication towers and two new camera systems for the jails.

“We don’t have it,” County Commissioner Loren Thomas said about the $60,000 in overtime pay. “I don’t see how we can fund two-and-a-half more deputies. … I do feel like we ought to help fund the nurse.”

The committee agreed to fund $20,000 in overtime pay, one investigator, one deputy, and three vehicles out of the general fund.

The committee left off last week with suggestions to utilize close to $45,000 from the county and court clerk’s office, dip into the Mountain States Health Alliance funds and take back $30,500 of the two-cent tax rate they have previously given to the Unicoi County Highway Department. However, Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes said that if the state did not provide funding to replace two condemned bridges, his department would need the funds.

“I know money’s tight and things are short … but it’s come to the point now where we do need to keep it,” Haynes said.

Haynes informed the commission that he would report back on whether or not he is able to receive more than $100,000 in funding from the state, which will determine whether or not he can forfeit any of the tax rate.

• • •

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Rice reported that the county was now at a $148,868 shortfall due to adjustments with the health department and a general fund balance of $932,430.

She asked the committee to share their thoughts on balancing the budget and working towards their Monday, Aug. 6, deadline for the first public reading during a called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission meeting.

“Where are the funds going to come from?” Rice asked.

Thomas suggested using the Mountain States Health Alliance funds to cover the $132,000 ambulance service subsidy. However, Rice expressed concerns with explicitly using the Mountain States Health Alliance funds for a recurring expense, which she said it is not intended for. 

“If the comptroller really wanted to scrutinize us, they could say we’re doing it just to balance the budget,” she said.

As an alternative, Rice suggested taking half of the $148,868 shortfall out of the hospital funds, and the other half out of the general fund.

“Either way, they’re not going to like it,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox about the comptroller’s office.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to accept Rice’s suggestion to split the shortfall between the hospital funds and the general fund. His motion was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson before the committee went into discussion.

Phyllis Bennett, Unicoi County bookkeeper, informed the committee that they technically did not have to move the funds over to the ambulance subsidy line item until April when it will be due.

“Still … the $148,000 shortfall, you’re going to have to face next year,” she said.

Unicoi County mayoral candidate Johnny Day mentioned rising inflation rates and questioned whether a 2.3 percent tax increase, which would amount to $75,000, was worth considering.

“A tax increase … that ain’t going to happen,” Harris said, whose feelings were echoed by several other commissioners.

Day said it was inevitable to avoid a tax increase forever if inflation continues to rise unless significant cuts are made to people’s services.

“What are you going to do … cut people’s services or raise taxes to meet inflation?” Day asked.

Wilcox agreed that the commission does need to “prepare for a tax increase” in the next year or two.

“We’re already taxed to death,” Rice said. “Most people aren’t in the same position we’re in.”

Rice’s motion to split the shortfall between the general fund and hospital money passed with all commissioners present – Wilcox, Wilson, Thomas, Jason Harris, Jamie Harris and Rice – voting in favor.

“After the budget is amended and the $45,000 comes in from the reserves and all that, it will help our bottom line,” Rice said. “It would be nice to be balanced, but we can’t always be perfect, but I think we’re closer than we’ve been in years.”

• • •

Haynes later reported back that the state would be offering funds to cover the bridge replacement, freeing up one cent of the tax rate, or approximately $30,000 the committee could use to fund based on the current number of county employees, for a $550 bonus for full-time employees and a $250 bonus for part-time employees, the cost would amount to $46,880.

The committee ended the meeting in agreement to utilize the $30,000 from the highway department to offset a portion of the cost for bonuses and retrieve the remainder from the general fund.

“You all done a great job,” Wilson said. “I’m proud of you all. No tax raise.”