Unicoi citizens, officials discuss tax hikes, possible hospital sale

Brad Hicks • Sep 21, 2012 at 9:59 AM

UNICOI — Taxes of all types were up for discussion at a town hall meeting held Thursday evening at Unicoi County Elementary School.

The main topics of the meeting, which was organized by Unicoi County Commissioner Dwight Bennett and attended by around 15 citizens and most of the County Commission, were the 22-cent property tax increase the county is facing in its 2012-13 fiscal year budget and the impact a county wheel tax could have if passed.

Bennett said the county receives little revenue from sales taxes, which places the obligation to fund services on property owners through the property tax. Commissioner Loren Thomas said county officeholders managed to cut around $250,000 overall from their proposed 2012-13 departmental budgets, but the county is still facing a property tax increase.

The proposed tax hike would mark the fourth consecutive year that county property taxes have increased. This year, Bennett said the county is faced with approximately $631,000 in new expenses, the majority of which commissioners agree are non-recurring.

“Like others have said, things just keep happening that are not planned, no way you can plan for them because they’re unforeseen,” Commissioner Mickey Hatcher said.

Commissioner Gene Wilson said the fact more than 50 percent of the county is federally owned also burdens its taxpayers.

When asked by one citizen in attendance what the county does to recruit new businesses and industries to increase the tax base and alleviate some burden from property owners, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the recreational tourism opportunities the federal property presents could prove to be an asset.

“It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t start 10 years ago making a move toward this,” Lynch said.

He said the county’s interstate exits are also prime locations for retail business development.

“I think we can look forward to more sales tax,” Lynch said.

Another significant item for Unicoi County’s future is the fate of its hospital, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, Lynch said. He urged those in attendance to pay attention to the matter.

“Now, there’s an argument about the Unicoi County hospital,” Lynch said. “There’s talks that the hospital is in trouble financially ... there’s groups maybe looking at us at this point. They need a competitive hospital that’ll come in here and complete with other hospitals in the area and not take all of our hospital out and give us an emergency room with a helicopter pad.”

While the property tax dominated most of the conversation Thursday, some time was spent on the discussion of the wheel tax and what its impact could be on the county. Recently, the County Commission approved a resolution to place a referendum for the implementation of a $25 wheel tax per registered vehicle in the county on the November ballot.

Thomas said if a $25 wheel tax were to be collected on 90 percent of the 20,202 vehicles registered in the county last year, it would generate approximately $450,000, which is the equivalent of 15 cents of the county’s property tax rate.

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