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Property owners call on county officials to offset tax burden

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch offered tourism and economic development as prospective solutions to the tax burden facing property owners in Unicoi County during a question-and-answer forum held at Unicoi Elementary on Thursday.
The question-and-answer forum was initiated to raise public awareness and understanding of the county’s tax situation. The event attracted about 15 citizens who were interested in discussing the then-pending 22-cent tax increase for 2012-2013, and were given details regarding the November wheel tax referendum.
In conjunction with other reasons for the proposed property tax increase, Commissioner Gene Wilson said, the amount of federally owned land in the county continues to be a factor.
Eva Dewolf, a county resident, asked Lynch to explain what is being done to bring in businesses to offset the property tax burden.
“The bottom line is obviously the county needs more money,” Dewolf said. “Obviously, the general feeling is a lot of people are tired of it being saddled on the back of the homeowners paying the taxes on their property.”
Lynch explained how the county looks to overcome obstacles through partnerships with federal entities to promote tourism and improve response time for business’ requests for proposals through the county Economic Development Board.
“A lot of land belongs to the federal government, but not only that, a lot of the land is sloped and it’s no good for industry,” Lynch said. “One thing we do have because of these mountains and that federal land is hopefully being able to cash in on recreational tourism.”
Lynch also brought up a topic regarding the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital’s rumored partnership or sale.
“Now there’s an argument about the hospital, the Unicoi County hospital,” Lynch said. “It’s my understanding that there’s talks because the hospital is in trouble financially.”
Lynch said the argument is based on rumors that health systems are looking into locating in Unicoi County and how competitive it would be with other area hospitals.
“They need a competitive hospital that will come in here and compete with other area hospitals, not take all of our hospital out and give us an emergency room with a helicopter pad,” Lynch said.
Economic development opportunities, Lynch said, are the future of Unicoi County.
Lower sales tax revenue is one factor causing increases in property tax for the past four years, said Commissioner Dwight Bennett.
Projected county revenues for last year were $200,000 short, said Commissioner Doug Bowman.
Commissioner Bill Hensley said he compared sales tax revenue between both towns and the county to find about a $1 million difference between the amount of sales tax generated by the towns compared to the county’s revenue of about $340,000. Hensley’s figures were based on data from a previous fiscal year.
“The only source of revenue that we have is the tax,” Hensley said. “We don’t have the sales tax coming in to offset our budgets like those two cities do.”
Unicoi County resident Charles Farnor asked the commission about whether they have considered consolidating city and county governments, but was unsure how effective it would be.
“You’re saying to go metro government and have one government in Unicoi County,” Commissioner Gene Wilson clarified. “I’d vote for it tomorrow, but it will never happen.”
Bennett said about $631,000 of “unavoidable” and nonrecurring expenses is the main reason for a proposed tax increase for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
“Each year we make a budget and we project our best guess of what money is going to come in,” Bowman said. “We balance that with what we’re going to spend. If the spending is larger than what we anticipate coming in, we have to have a tax increase.”
Bowman went over some of the county’s expenses, which include: $131,000 for the 911 dispatcher overtime compensation lawsuit, at least four trials for former sheriff Kent Harris estimated at $10,000 each, $77,000 for school resource officer funding, county employee worker’s compensation and health insurance increases, county property insurance increases and upcoming elections. Other factors include a general fund balance increase and debt services payment.
“These are things we have no control over,” said Hensley.
Bowman reiterated that the county would have to cut services if the budget is cut any further. “We are at the point now that we have to cut services if we cut any more out,” Bowman said. “I’d just like some suggestions on what we would cut out. Would we cut out the senior citizens benefits? Would we cut out the fire department or cut out the ambulance service? How do you pick what you cut?”
County resident J.D. Shook told the commission that he felt his money was unjustly being spent on school resource officers and asked for an explanation.
Commissioner Loren Thomas explained to Shook why the county must pick up the tab, after Bennett noted that children’s safety was the main reason to continue funding the SRO positions.
“I’ll tell you this about that,” Thomas said. “The state cut out the funding for the SRO officers $77,000. The school system of this county decided not to pay for those SRO officers. Your new sheriff decided to pick up that tab in his budget and even though he did, still cut his budget by [about $30,000] when it was all said and done.”
The Unicoi County Commission will host another question-and-answer session regarding the same topics on Sept. 27 in the Limestone Cove Community Center at 7 p.m.

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
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