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County Commission passes first reading of budget with $337K shortfall

Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice resigned as the chair of the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The first reading of the 2019-20 Unicoi County budget passed by a vote of 6-3. The budget, which stands at $7.7 million, includes a $337,133 shortfall and a fund balance of $1.1 million.

During a special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission on Tuesday, Aug. 6, Commissioner Marie Rice questioned how the county would pay for the $337,133 shortfall.

“How are we going to fund this?” Rice asked. “We need to decide.”

Commission Chairman Loren Thomas then said that this meeting was only to set the budget.

“We are just voting on the budget tonight,” Thomas said. “At the next commission meeting, we will vote to set the tax rate.”

If the committee refuses to take any funds from the fund balance during the Aug. 26 meeting to cover the $337,133 shortfall, Unicoi County property taxes could increase by 11 cents.

According to Thomas, the commission can choose to take funds from the fund balance and alleviate some of the burden from the shortfall. Thomas acknowledged that pending the commission’s decision at the Aug. 26, meeting, the county could be facing no tax increase at best or an 11 cent tax increase at worst.

Unicoi County commissioners John Mosley, Jamie Harris, Glenn White, Matthew Rice, Stephen Hendrix and Thomas voted to pass the $7.7 million budget, while commissioners Marie Rice, Jason Harris and Todd Wilcox opposed the passing of the first reading of the 2019-20 budget.

Following the Aug. 6 meeting, Marie Rice resigned as Unicoi County Budget Committee Chairwoman.

“Mr. Chairman, I’d like to hand in my letter of resignation as budget committee chair,” Rice said as she handed Thomas an envelope and exited the Unicoi County Courthouse.

Hendrix was named as Marie Rice’s successor as the new Unicoi County Budget Committee chairman.

“Since I have been on the County Commission we have had a balanced budget,” Marie Rice told The Erwin Record. “By the time we had our first reading we had most of the details worked out and knew how we were going to fund the budget in order to balance it. We had a complete balanced budget by the final reading and it was ready to go to the state comptroller’s office.

“This year we do not know how the increased recurring expenditures are going to be funded and I made several requests for a decision on how it was going to be funded. Each time I asked the commission how we were going to pay for the recurring expenses, we were denied an opportunity to make that decision.

“The budget contains approx. $80,000 in a ‘new’ step raise plan with some employees raises being over $3,000-4,000. The commission also added new corrections officers and a nurse which amounts to an additional $80,000 (approximately) in recurrent expenditures. With the officials’ raises being over $20,000, plus other miscellaneous increases that put the recurrent expenditures at over $180,000 which still hasn’t been funded. We will be forced to make that decision on Aug. 26 with only four days for the mayor’s office and the finance department to submit the budget to the state. In the past, we have made the decision on funding weeks before the state’s deadline for our budget.”

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet on Monday, Aug. 26, to vote on the second and final reading of the 2019-20 budget. The property tax rate will be set at that time.

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Prior to the voting of the budget during the Aug. 6 meeting, Wilcox made a motion to remove $84,626 from the budget. The $84,626 is designated for step raises for the county employees and sheriff’s department employees. The step raise plan, which would establish a base salary increase along with a $50 longevity bonus for Unicoi County employees with a cap of $300, was originally presented at the June 6 Unicoi County Policies, Procedures, Salary, Benefits and Communications Committee meeting.

The plan calls for $20,969 to be spent the first year to cover base salaries with the Unicoi County courthouse employees and $63,657 for the first year for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.

“It’s my hope that we can revisit these raises when we start receiving internet sales tax,” Wilcox said.

According to Wilcox, the county should start seeing revenue from sales tax on items purchased online by citizens of Unicoi County later this year.

Hendrix disagreed with putting the raises off for another year.

“It’s frustrating that our employees could possibly not get anything in raises,” Hendrix said. “I understand being fiscally responsible with every dollar that comes in, I just don’t understand how we can go year after year and not take care of our greatest asset in this county, our employees.”

Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Administrative Chief Craig Masters addressed the commission on Aug. 6.

“If we don’t take care of these officers they will leave,” Masters said. “It will cost us more to replace employees and train new employees, than it will be to give them a raise.”

Wilcox’s motion failed following a 5-4 vote. Wilcox, White, Marie Rice and Jason Harris voted to remove the step raises, while Hendrix, Thomas, Mosley, Jamie Harris and Matthew Rice voted to keep the step raise in the budget.

• • •

In other business, the board tabled a vote to sign a contract with the current property owner that houses Washington County/Johnson City EMS in Erwin. Washington County/Johnson City EMS is currently sharing a space at the Erwin Police Department at Erwin Town Hall due to a bed bug infestation.

According to Washington County/Johnson City EMS Director Lt. Adam Copas, exterminators are treating the house at 1501 North Main Avenue and the staff must remain out of the house at least 10 days.

“We inherited a bug infestation at our current location,” Copas said.

Thomas acknowledged that the board will need to weigh all options before voting on the month-to-month option with the new housing contract at 1501 North Main Ave. location. Thomas also asked Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely if he could expedite a meeting with the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Health Inc. Board.

During a meeting of the Unicoi County Building and Grounds Committee on July 19, the committee unanimously voted to schedule a meeting with the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Health Inc. Board in order to discuss leasing two suites and the stand-alone garage located at the back of Unicoi County Christian Care Center to house the ambulance service.