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Panel OKs 12.37-cent tax rate increase $2.5537 rate passes first reading on 8-1 vote; hike would cover employee raises

Unicoi County commissioners voted 8-1 on Tuesday afternoon to raise the county’s property tax rate by 12.37 cents, bringing last year’s rate of $2.43 per $100 of assessed property value up to $2.5537 this year.
Commissioner Kenneth Garland, who cast the lone “no” vote, stated that the proposed tax rate is “too d— high,” but other commissioners felt the panel’s time was running short.
“We certainly don’t all agree on what’s in here,” Commissioner Mickey Hatcher said of this year’s proposed county budget. “But I think we need to move forward, and I don’t think we can do much better without cutting services.”
The vote came after more than an hour of discussion during one last finance committee meeting, which preceded a special called session of the commission.
During the earlier meeting, commissioners discussed a variety of topics affecting this year’s county budget, and made last-minute decisions to either cut certain items that were placed into the budget this year, or to add items that were not originally there.
A motion to rescind a $2,500 salary raise for bookkeeper Phyllis Bennett, which was requested at the beginning of budget talks several weeks ago, passed with a 7-2 vote.
The motion also included a provision that salary raises for the county’s three longest-running employees remain intact. These raises are in addition to the 1.6-percent raise tentatively approved for all county employees last week.
“I’m not questioning her work,” Hatcher said. “It just opens the door.”
Hatcher said that if Bennett, who has worked as a bookkeeper for five years, receives a raise, other officeholders would feel justified in asking for raises for their employees as well.
“These other officeholders are telling me they want a fair shake,” Commissioner Bill Hensley added. “I thought we agreed to raise the salaries for the top three employees (in terms of longevity), but then this came up.”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch stated that he asked for the raise for Bennett because he feels the amount of work she handles is significant when compared to other employees at the courthouse.
“I feel like the job of a bookkeeper is a much different position than that of a clerk,” Lynch said last week.
“No matter where you work, there’s always going to be somebody who makes more than you,” Commissioner Sue Jean Wilson said, as other commissioners debated which employees needed to be raised due to years of service. “That’s the facts of life.”
Commissioners also voted 6-3 to raise the county’s portion of teacher salaries by 1.6 percent in order to be fair across the board.
“I think we need to send a message to our teachers that we treat all county employees fairly,” third-district commissioner Dwight Bennett said.
Licensed teachers already received a 1.6-percent raise from the state this year, with the school board also funding raises for support staff. The raise in the county’s portion will equate to about $2 per pay period for each teacher, Hatcher said.
Commissioner Sue Jean Wilson who, along with commissioners Hatcher and Garland, voted against the motion, said the additional raise to school system employees will cost the county another $10,578.
Garland said if school system employees needed more of a raise, the board of education should fund it because the system is about to spend $750,000 from its own fund balance for a new central office building.
However, at a recent school board meeting, school officials highlighted several key reasons justifying the purchase, including the fact that the current central office building is in disrepair and would require hundreds of thousands of dollars for updates.
In addition, to bring the current central office building up to par, the school system would have to invest more than $1 million in a building it does not own.
With the purchase of the 10,150-square-feet building at 101 Nolichucky Ave., the school board estimates it could save from $10,000 to $16,000 per year in utility bills, as well as cut back on maintenance expenditures, which could pay for the building in as little as 15 years.
Also at the meeting, Commissioner Loren Thomas moved on a request by Roads Superintendent Terry Haynes to add one more cent – about $29,000 – to the county’s highway budget in order to help the department receive more matching funds from the state. The measure narrowly passed, with a 5-4 vote.
Last week, commissioners agreed to push a half-cent to the highway department so Haynes could fund the same 1.6-percent raise for his employees that the rest of the county’s employees would see this year.
At that point, the county was looking at an 11.37-cent tax hike. With the extra cent added to Haynes’ budget, the total tax increase came to 12.37 cents.
Another motion by Commissioner Doug Bowman to cut $3,000 in donations to business associations in the towns of Erwin and Unicoi failed on a 4-5 vote.
Hensley stated he didn’t feel the commission should give the associations $1,500 each because their requests for funding came in after the non-profit request deadline. Also, Bowman said he recalled that the commission agreed not to accept any new non-profits this year.
In the special called meeting, commissioners also set the county’s budget on first reading. The budget and tax rate are not official until a second reading on the measures to approve them is passed at the commission’s regular meeting on Monday, Sept. 26, at 6 p.m.
Hensley said that although the commission has arrived at a tax rate and budget, the panel’s work is far from complete. In spite of this, he said he is remaining hopeful.
“We still have some daunting tasks in front of us,” Hensley said. “I do believe that in 2012, we are going to be much better off tax-wise. There’s going to be more (revenues) coming in.”