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Unicoi County Commission OKs budget without tax increase

By Brad Hicks

The streak continues as 2017-18 marks the sixth consecutive fiscal year Unicoi County has maintained the same property tax rate.

This was made official on Monday, Aug. 28, when the Unicoi County Commission approved the county’s operating budget and fixture of the county’s property tax rate for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Both items were approved by a 7-2 vote, with Commissioners Loren Thomas and John Mosley voting against both measures.

Unicoi County’s property tax rate for 2017-18 is $2.6838 per $100 of assessed value, the amount the rate has remained at since the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“We’ve gotten quite  a lot done in that time, building a jail and different things like that, so I think it’s been due to the fact that officeholders manage well and the County Commission has pretty well worked together to make this happen, and I think everybody has been good stewards,” Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said following Monday’s meeting.

The property tax rate does represent an increase over the $2.6282 state-certified tax rate provided to the county by the state as part of the 2017 reappraisal. The certified tax rate, provided after reappraisal cycles and based upon updated property values, is described as the property tax rate needed to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue a government brought in the prior year.

Governments are required to consider acceptance of the certified tax rate, which the Unicoi Commission did during its July 24 meeting, but governing bodies are not bound to the provided amount when setting a jurisdiction’s actual property tax rate. During that July 24 meeting, the Commission also voted to authorize the publication of a notice announcing the county’s intent to exceed the certified tax rate with the fixture of the actual property tax rate.

The certified tax rate was discussed during the July 12 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee, which began meeting in May to develop the county’s overall budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The consensus among commissioners present for that July meeting was that the county’s 2017-18 property tax rate should remain at $2.6838.

The move to maintain the current property tax rate rather than fixing the amount at the state-certified rate will generate more property tax revenue for Unicoi County. Each penny on the county’s property tax rate is expected to generate $31,106 in revenue in 2017-18, and increase over the $30,342 each property tax penny generated in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

State law requires that a public hearing be held if a government intends to exceed the certified tax rate. This hearing was held during Monday’s meeting of the Unicoi County Commission and, while no members of the public spoke during the hearing, Thomas made his feelings known on the county’s proposed 2017-18 tax rate.

Thomas said because the state provided a certified tax rate of $2.6282, a move to keep the rate at $2.6838 would amount to a roughly 5.5-cent property tax increase for 2017-18.

“If we leave it the same, we’re basically raising taxes on everybody in the county because of the reappraisal,” Thomas said.

This would especially impact those living within Erwin’s limits, Thomas said, as Erwin’s municipal property tax will increase from a rate of $1.41 in 2016-17 to $1.447 in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Thomas said the reappraisal resulted in higher property values for at least one person with whom he spoke. He said this citizen saw her value increase from $68,000 during the last cycle to $79,000 in the latest reappraisal, meaning this constituent would be paying more property taxes.

Mosley said he spoke with 16 families about their property values. He said 14 of those saw their properties values increase in the most recent reappraisal, meaning they will be seeing higher property tax bills under the county’s current rate.

Commissioner Kenneth Garland, however, argued that exceeding the state-certified tax rate would not be the equivalent of a property tax increase since the rate would be the same as the prior fiscal year.

“We’re not raising taxes,” Garland said. “The state is raising it on some people.”

Commissioner Todd Wilcox pointed out that setting the county’s property tax rate at the state-certified rate would require the budget to be readjusted, as such as move would result in the loss of around $173,000 in projected property tax revenue since the budget was based on the $2.6838 rate.

The Tennessee Comptroller has asked local governments across the state to pass their budget’s prior to Sept. 1. Unicoi County Finance Director Phyllis Bennett said if the County Commission failed to pass the budget during Monday’s meeting, Unicoi County would be at a “standstill,” as the county no longer operates on a continuing budget.

“So it would have to shut down,” Bennett said.

A move by Thomas to set the county’s 2017-18 property tax rate at the state-certified rate of $2.6282 failed with only Thomas and Mosley voting in favor. Garland’s motion to set the rate at $2.6838, which was seconded by Commissioner Jason Harris, was approved 7-2.

After the county’s property tax rate was approved, the Commission approved the county’s 2017-18 budget.

The county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, which was approved upon second and final reading during Monday’s meeting, reflects total anticipated revenue of $7,349,995 against $7,349834 in total projected expenditures. If these figures hold throughout the year, Unicoi County would end the year with a $161 surplus.

“Our county is in pretty sound financial shape without having to increase the tax rate,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice.

The county’s fund balance was not utilized in order to balance its 2017-18 budget, and Unicoi County is projected to end the fiscal year with a fund balance of a little more than $1.1 million. This is below the approximately $1.5 million fund balance the state has recommended that Unicoi County maintain, but Rice previously said it is the largest fund balance county officials can recall. It is nearly double the $569,000 fund balance projected for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

“I’d like to thank the officeholders for managing their budgets well,” Rice said. “I thank also the mayor’s staff, especially our bookkeeper Phyllis Bennett for her countless hours making our budget work and putting all this together. Last year, we received a clean audit from the Comptroller’s office for the first time in years. We should all be proud of that accomplishment.”

Per the budget, approximately $4.087 million of the projected revenue is anticipated to come from county property taxes. This includes more than $3.721 million from the collection of current property taxes and around $267,000 from prior year collections.

Local option taxes, which include the county’s hotel/motel tax, litigation tax, business tax, mixed drink tax and mineral severance tax, are projected to generate $189,500 in 2017-18. Revenue from licenses and permits is expected to come in at $21,000, and money generated from fines, forfeitures and penalties is projected to slightly exceed $95,600.

Fees received from various county offices makes up $923,000 of the projected revenue, and state revenues, which includes the local income tax, beer tax, grant funding and the housing of state inmate in the county’s jail facilities, is projected at more than $1.31 million.

On the expenditures side, costs associated with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department are expected to exceed $1.777 million in 2017-18. This does not include costs associated with the operation of the county’s two jail facilities.

Not included within the UCSD’s budget is $35,000 the department had previously requested for a new vehicle. During the Budget & Finance Committee’s July 12 meeting, commissioners present agreed to cut the $35,000 from the sheriff’s department’s budget.

This matter was not discussed as the County Commission on Monday voted to approve the tax rate and 2017-18 budget, but the topic was broached when the Commission considered several budget amendment requests. Among those requests was one from the UCSD to move around $29,300 out of the general fund for the purchase of a vehicle.

The UCSD was able to place this money into the general fund through the sale of surplus equipment it previously acquired at no cost. However, Garland said picking up the equipment and bringing it back to Unicoi County still came at a cost to taxpayers.

Rice, however, said the UCSD is in “dire need” of a vehicle and allowing the department access to the funding it placed in the general fund through the surplus equipment sales would help the sheriff’s department meet this need.

The budget amendments were approved by an 8-1 vote with Garland casting the dissenting vote.

Expenditures associated with the Unicoi County Jail are projected at approximately $783,200 for 2017-18. Costs related to the Unicoi County Jail Annex are projected at around $521,400.

Other 2017-18 county expenditures include $52,236 for costs associated with the Unicoi County Commission, $272,458 for the operation of the county mayor’s office, and $27,000 to pay the county attorney for his services.

Around $185,700 has been budgeted for the Unicoi County Election Commission in 2017-18, around $194,900 for the Register of Deeds, more than $130,300 for county buildings, nearly $256,000 for the Unicoi County Property Assessor’s office, and around $188,500 for the Unicoi County Trustee’s office.

Approximately $266,700 has been budgeted for the office of Unicoi County Clerk in the new fiscal year. Expenditures for Unicoi County Circuit Court are projected at more than $470,300, costs for the county’s General Sessions Court are budgeted at around $119,500, Chancery Court expenses are projected at around $159,900, and costs related to the county’s Juvenile Court are projected at around $52,600.

The budget also includes more than $64,000 for civil defense, more than $39,900 for the county’s coroner/medical examiner, around $81,700 for the local health center, around $158,600 for rabies and animal control, and $132,000 to pay the county’s annual subsidy to MedicOne Medical Response, the county’s current ambulance services provider.

Along with funding provided to local nonprofit agencies and organizations, the county’s 2017-18 budget also includes bonuses that will be paid to county employees during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Full-time employees will receive a bonus of $800, while the county’s part-time employees will receive a $250 bonus. These bonus payments account for more than $60,000 in expenditures.

“This year, we were able to give our full-time employees an $800 bonus. We also had some employees that received salary increases. Our insurance premium costs for the employees also were lowered this year,” Rice said, also commending the Unicoi County Board of Education for balancing the local schools system’s more than $21 million 2017-18 fiscal year budget.

The Unicoi County Commission approved the first reading of the budget during a special-called meeting held Aug. 7.