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Commissioners look at ways to cut shortfall

Unicoi County commissioners met for over two hours on Monday, July 13, to start chipping away at the $416,000-plus shortfall during another round of county budget talks in Erwin.
Monday’s meeting, which involved school board budget talks, cuts within the county court clerk’s office, the county’s Joint Economic Development Board and a reversal on a previous vote on health care plans, was the first of three scheduled this week. Commissioners met on Tuesday, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline, then expected to come together once again on July 15.
With each commissioner in attendance adamantly stating they are not in favor of any tax increase, the scissors were out to start cutting away at different line items once again for the 2015-16 fiscal year proposed budget.
Commissioners got an early start on Monday’s meeting by receiving a motion from Kenneth Garland, seconded by Walter Garland, to cut funding to the school system which projected a shave of $151,675 off the shortfall.
“They have $6 million in the reserve,” Kenneth Garland said. “If we cut it down, it won’t affect them that much. They have 96 less students than they had last year.”
Chairwoman Marie Rice also questioned different raises that were included in the school board’s budget for secretaries and school board members.
The recommendation to cut the school system’s budget ultimately failed, 5-2, with both Garlands voting for the measure while the rest of the commissioners voted against the cut. Chairwoman Marie Rice did not vote on the recommendation with the majority in favor of not going for the cut. Commissioner Glenn White was not in attendance during Monday’s meeting.
Later on in the meeting, the school board budget was revisited — looking at potential cuts within the sales tax. Rice said she would speak with Director of Schools John English later during the week to address the issue.
English previously met with the school board on Wednesday, July 8, and presented the school system’s $23,118,692 budget that was balanced.
During Wednesday’s meeting, English eluded to the fact that the school board has “continued to bring a dozen balanced budgets” to the county not requesting any additional funding and that the kids are his number one priority heading into the school year.
The director also said that the school system already ranks last within the region and is ranked last in students’ ACT scores as well as second to last in per pupil funding, to go along with an upcoming Basic Education Plan funding cut.
“Any further cuts will impact the students,” English said. “I respect what you all do, but this is my first year and I’m going to defend my office like everyone else.”
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, school board officials stated that the reserve fund for the school board is for the potential replacement of Love Chapel, which has been operating out of pods since the school’s closure due to a sink hole.
Behind a 5 to 3 vote, the commissioners voted a recommendation to cut the JEDB’s proposed $81,000 to $48,895, the amount paid by the county last year, that would save the county $32,000.
County Mayor Greg Lynch told the commissioners to vote how they feel but the measure would exclude the county from receiving Development Block Grants and that there could be loss of jobs for the area.
Another recommended cut addressed during the meeting was a reversal of the county’s vote from an earlier meeting on employee insurance premiums that could save the county $116,000.
The proposal made was to raise family insurance premiums to $510 a month with a $500 deductible and $873 without a high-deductible option.
Commissioners voted 5-3 on the measure, with Wilson, John Mosley and Loren Thomas voting against the measure.
“All we have done to our employees for the past four years is move them backwards,” Thomas said.”
Rice stated during the meeting that the current shortfall the county is operating with has increased due to employees enrolling into plans.
County Circuit Court Clerk Darren Shelton and his employees joined Monday’s meeting to ask for justification on the potential cut of $80,000 from his budget, the equivalent of two employees, after presenting the case load.
Shelton also addressed the issue of having his office compared to Johnson County, which showed a new case load of 1,700 to 8,000, compared to Unicoi County’s 6,700 to 13,700 cases last year.
“If anything, we need more employees,” Shelton said. The county clerk also added that if the cuts were to occur, he would risk having other employees walking out of the office.
“It has been mentioned,” Shelton said to the commissioners.
Shelton and Judge David Shults added that the increase in cases comes from spillover from surrounding counties.
Commissioner Gene Wilson asked Shelton about why the office has no additional revenue coming in. The clerk added the outstanding fines from individuals not being paid is a big issue.
“I can’t put people in jail for not paying fines,” Shelton said. “Nobody is making $50 payments anymore… It’s $5, $10, $15 dollars and we’re not getting that.”
Shelton stated that if everyone who owes fines to the county would pay at least $25 minimum that the county could net $250,000 a month.