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Community quizzes commissioner on taxes

No tax topic was safe from public scrutiny on Thursday night during the second question-and-answer forum organized by County Commissioner Dwight Bennett. Bennett faced a crowd of 31 people interested in answers regarding a fourth consecutive tax increase by the county government, as well as reasons for the wheel tax referendum.
Residents’ questions included speculation about next year’s county finances, now that the 2012-2013 budget and tax increase were approved on Monday, Sept. 24, by the county commission.
Bennett opened the meeting by listing all the unanticipated costs associated with the 2012-2013 budget, which he said amount to about $632,000. He also explained that the county receives limited sales tax revenue.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley joined Bennett on the panel; no other commissioners were present.
County resident Jack Gouge said he was disappointed in the attendance of the county commission.
“I’m sorry that the other folks couldn’t see the way clear to get here,” Gouge said. “They should have been here. We should be doing this twice a year. We should get together with the commission and talk about our problems.”
During an interview Friday, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he regrets that more commissioners were not present at the meeting. “I think the actual holding of the community meetings is a good thing,” Lynch said. “I hate that no more people were there than were that night. I had prior commitments and obviously some of the others did, too.”
Lynch said he wished the meetings had been held earlier in the year.
“A lot of people were able to get things off their chest,” Lynch said. “Of course, you can’t please everybody, but having public forum meetings is always a good thing.”
Topics discussed included but were not limited to the 911 lawsuit, school resource officers, the county clerk drive-thru, waste management enforcement and tax breaks for the elderly.
County resident Steve Simerly said the county needs to move away from expenses that are luxuries.
“We are going to have to get out of convenience and get into the real issues of what we can afford in Unicoi County, not what we would like to have,” Simerly said. “It’s just like me, if I can’t afford to go to Johnson City today, I don’t go.”
Citizens also brought up topics regarding future expenses or benefits from a possible arrangement between the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital and Mountain States Health Alliance and pending Unicoi County jail repairs.
Ray Wilson, another county citizen, said he would like to see the county commission be more proactive about preparing its next few budgets.
“In the future, I would like to see the county commission schedule a day that all office holders should have their budget in; let’s say Jan. 1 of each year,” Wilson said. “Now, that will give you six months to work on it. I know it’ll be hard to forecast the situation ahead of time before the end of the fiscal budget year, but that will give you guys a chance to mull it over, look it over, see what we can do. Then you as a commission wouldn’t be down to the last wire saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to raise property tax.’ ”
Bennett addressed concerns for any potential future tax increases.
“[Taxes] should drop,” Bennett said. “If there’s any way possible, that’s what we will do. If we don’t have any major things happen, I see them dropping.”
After an hour discussion on property taxes, Bennett changed the topic to address the wheel tax referendum recently placed on the November ballot.
Many in attendance were resistant to the wheel tax and one citizen noted that the public has voted the wheel referendum down in the past.
Bennett encouraged each citizen to actively learn more about the details involved in the wheel tax.
“Even though you or maybe everyone in here or most of you are against the wheel tax, some people are for it and asked us why there isn’t a wheel tax,” Bennett said. “I represent everybody and a lot of people wanted us to put it on the ballot.”
Bennett also explained that putting the wheel tax on the ballot during this election year costs the county less than if they were to wait for a future election.
“We thought this was a good opportunity to put it back on the ballot and let the people decide,” Bennett said. “The commission could have passed the [wheel tax referendum] if we wanted to.”

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
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