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Unicoi County officials working to avoid 58-cent tax increase

Unicoi County officials discuss numbers for the proposed 2018-19 budget. Unicoi County Mayor Lynch is pictured, far right, explaining the need for a part-time worker in the mayor’s office. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee met on Wednesday, May 30, to discuss the $1.6 million increase in requests received from office holders for the proposed 2018-19 budget.

“Our penny is going to bring in less this year,” said Marie Rice, Unicoi County Commission chairwoman, about the county’s property tax revenues. “Plus we still have other things – that doesn’t even cover any kind of salary increase for employees.”

Of the increase in requests, $1.3 million came from the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department for seven new officers, a new secretarial position and transitioning part-time employees to full-time positions. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said all of these additions are absolutely necessary.

In order to fully fund all of the requests the Unicoi County Commission would most likely have to vote to increase property taxes by 58 cents.

“Are we in favor of raising property taxes 58 cents?” Rice asked the committee on Wednesday.

The general consensus among the commissioners was to avoid any tax increase and Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said, if anything, he wanted to give 10 cents back to the taxpayers.

“The sheriff’s requests are ridiculous,” Garland said. “I couldn’t believe what he’s asking for. We don’t need a tax raise, we need to cut some stuff.”

Rice said that there were many areas, such as personnel costs, where their hands were tied; however, commissioners could deal with new department and non-profit requests as they went along.

During their meeting on Wednesday, the committee briefly discussed a few departments including the mayor’s budget, which currently totals $289,789. There is a $57,331 increase for the mayor’s budget, $40,000 of which was requested by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch for part-time personnel.

“You probably will need to put some of that in there because we’re still in between where Phyllis (Bennett, bookkeeper for the mayor’s office) went to the Highway Department,” Lynch told the committee, referencing the transition to centralized accounting.

“The $40,000 was to put someone in that office and eventually start training with Phyllis,” Lynch said. “The bookkeeper is almost more important than the mayor.”

Lynch pointed out that the mayor’s office has functioned with only three employees for the last two decades, while other offices have grown in size and personnel.

However, Garland said he wanted to “mark it out” and not fund the $40,000 for additional personnel. At a minimum, Lynch suggested $20,000 be left as a safety net for the transitional period.

“It would be up to whoever wins the August election to see what happens with the $40,000,” Lynch said. “I care at this point what happens to this office and I am trying to look out for whoever comes in here.”

Garland made a motion to take the $40,000 increase out of the budget and his motion was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas. The motion passed with Rice, Thomas and Garland voting in favor. Unicoi County Commissioners Gene Wilson and Jason Harris voted in opposition.

The Unicoi County Commission budget is currently set at $55,281 and will most likely increase due to training and travel costs for the new commissioners joining the panel later this year.

The Unicoi County Budget & Finance Committee will continue discussing the 2018-19 budget during their next scheduled meeting on Wednesday, June 6, at noon in the Unicoi County Courthouse conference room.