By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Commission has avoided a tax increase for the 2019-20 budget year.

After a lively discussion and an initial 5-4 failed vote to leave the property tax rate the same, the commission finally reached an agreement not to raise property taxes.

The first proposal for a zero-percent tax increase was supported by Unicoi County commissioners Jamie Harris, Glenn White, Todd Wilcox and Chairman Loren Thomas. Unicoi County commissioners Stephen Hendrix, Jason Harris, Marie Rice, Matthew Rice and John Mosley opposed the initial request.

The commission finally voted to set a zero-percent tax increase for the 2019-20 budget year, during the Monday, Aug. 26, Unicoi County Commission meeting after Hendrix flipped his vote from no to yes.

“For discussion purposes to get this done I will rescind my no vote, and move to reconsider,” Hendrix said.

During the discussion, Marie Rice pointed out that the step raise plan that is included in the budget calls for a pay raise of more than $3,000 for a few employees. Hendrix agreed, but stated that the amount is $3,000 because the employees are that far behind in pay.

“It’s that amount because they are that far behind. We have people that have worked here 21 years, still making the same as someone who just starts out,” Hendrix said. “Are you suggesting they make less, where is the premise in that?”

Following the exchange Hendrix changed his vote.

During their final vote on the tax rate, the commissioners voted to keep the current rate of $2.6838 per $100 of property value, following a motion by Jamie Harris and a second by White. The final vote was 6-3 to avoid a tax increase. Jamie Harris, White, Hendrix, Matthew Rice, Wilcox and Thomas voted to approve the zero-percent tax increase. Marie Rice, Jason Harris and Mosley opposed.

The commission chose to pay for the full $337,133 shortfall out of the $1.1 million fund balance. This brings the county’s general fund down to $762,867 and allowed the commission to avoid a tax hike.

“We are taking all of this out of the fund balance with all of this debt being a recurring event,” Marie Rice said.

White countered by acknowledging that there is nothing concrete in the budget.

“It is all based on projections,” White said. “I support taking the shortfall out of the fund balance and keeping the tax rate the same”

The commission also voted on Monday 6-3 to approve the budget of $7.7 million for the 2019-20 budget year. A motion was made to vote the budget in as is by Mosley and was seconded by Matthew Rice. Joining Mosley and Matthew Rice in approving the budget were Jamie Harris, White, Hendrix and Thomas. Wilcox, Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed the budget. This was the second and final reading of the 2029-20 budget.

During a special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission on Aug. 6, the first reading of the 2019-20 Unicoi County budget passed by a vote of 6-3. During that meeting, Mosley, Jamie Harris, White, Matthew Rice, Hendrix and Thomas voted to pass the $7.7 million budget. Marie Rice, Jason Harris and Wilcox opposed the passing of the first reading of the 2019-20 budget.

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In other business, the commission voted unanimously to sign a sublease with Christian Care Center of Unicoi County to rent two suites and a three-bay garage at the back of the center’s Erwin location.

“Hopefully we will sign the contract in the morning and Washington County/Johnson City EMS can begin moving in later in the evening,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said. The sublease is a $1 per month lease with $912 monthly for expenses and upkeep. The contract is month to month.

During the Unicoi County Building and Grounds Committee meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 21, the committee agreed to recommend to the full commission that the county enter into a six-month lease with a monthly option to renew with a set rate.

Washington County/Johnson City EMS has been stationed at Erwin Town Hall, sharing space with Erwin Police Department, due to a bed bug infestation at its previous location on North Main Avenue.

Christian Care Center, the Unicoi County Commission and Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Health Inc. Board began talks during a Unicoi County Building and Grounds Committee held on July 19. During that meeting, the committee voted unanimously to seek out terms for a possible sublease with Christian Care Center of Erwin for two suites and a three-bay garage.

Following last week’s committee meeting County Attorney Doug Shults negotiated the deal with Christian Care Center.

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In a final order of business, the commission agreed to enter a memorandum of understanding with the Unicoi County Board of Education for capital outlay note of $5.1 million for capital projects.

“I’m proud of this commission and I’m glad that we were able to make the following improvements this past year, all without a tax increase,” Thomas said. “We’ve been able to secure $5.1 million for Unicoi County Schools for several large scale renovations, we’ve purchased six new police vehicles, locked up a contract for ambulance service, cleaned up the solid waste sites, among many other projects on the horizon.”