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Political debate dominates Unicoi BMA meeting

Property taxes, in particular town officials pledging not to enact them, was the topic of a brief exchange of Monday’s meeting of the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
Property taxes, in particular town officials pledging not to enact them, was the topic of a brief exchange of Monday’s meeting of the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi Town Hall was once again packed for Monday’s meeting of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen and, once again, politics took center stage.

A particular highlight of Monday’s meeting was a brief but heated exchange during the citizen comments portion of the meeting that focused on property taxes and the town’s pledge not to enact such a tax.

Although Unicoi resident Bob Sahli referenced property taxes in his comments, what ignited Monday’s discussion was the question former alderman Mark Ramsey posed to the board. Ramsey asked for the Town of Unicoi’s current fund balance. That figure is now at approximately $774,000, which Town Recorder Mike Housewright said would allow the town to operate with no revenue for around six months.

“When we talk about no property tax in this town, I think that’s a real easy term to throw out there,” Ramsey said. “I remember some of the county commissioners the last election coming to me and saying, ‘I’ll never vote for a property tax in the county.’ I said, ‘Well, don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that, you should not make that promise’ because the county has zero fund balance.”

Ramsey, who at one point said he “hated” the animosity currently pervading the town, said candidates should not promise that they will not enact a property tax.

“This crap seems to rear its ugly head every election, and to make a statement about property tax, you should never make that statement because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said.

In August, the board approved a resolution in which its members pledged not to entertain the prospect of a property tax while in office. The board had approved a similar resolution in 2012 and made a similar pledge four years prior to that.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen, who is running against current Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch for the office of Unicoi mayor in November and whose campaign materials state that she will not support a municipal property tax, pointed out Lynch had the board pass the no-property-tax pledge.

“To get out and make that promise is actually foolish because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ramsey said.

Bullen responded that no one on of the board favors a property tax and town officials have not said there will be one. Ramsey then asked why property taxes have become an issue.

“It came from right here,” Bullen said while pointing at Lynch. “It came from right here. A resolution in the town came from right here.”

Ramsey said the property tax resolution has stood for eight years and was passed to quell statements being made during that election season. 

“Eight years ago, people ran around this community during the election saying, ‘They’re going to bankrupt the town. They’re going to have property tax. They’re going to have a police department. They’re going to have trash pickup and they can’t afford it and we’re going to have property tax,’” Ramsey said.

Lynch said because the town has a strong fund balance, if it were to get in a financial bind it could relinquish some of its properties and then make spending cuts. He said the combination of a solid fund balance and the value of the town’s assets allow its officials to make statements related to not enacting a property tax.

In other business, the board approved the first reading of an ordinance pertaining to auxiliary structures for churches and cemeteries. Such structures can be located in the rear of cemeteries and the sides and rears of churches and can be no closer than 12 feet to the lot line, per the ordinance.

The board also approved a resolution supporting the Rocky Fork State Park project.

Housewright also provided the board with an update on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. Housewright said he issued a building permit for the kitchen a couple of weeks ago and construction is expected to start “any day now.”

In September, the board approved a bid from Armstrong Construction Company to complete the second and final phase of the community kitchen project. Town officials hope to have the kitchen online and welcoming users in the early part of 2017.