ERWIN — As it stands today, Unicoi County is facing a shortfall of more than $360,000 and the county’s residents could again be facing a double-digit property tax rate increase in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
“I’m not going to sit here and be the one who says ‘Yeah, there’s going to be a tax increase,’ but it’s looking pretty bleak at this point,” Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said. “We’ll see if they can pull a rabbit out of the hat.”
In early July, the County Commission’s Finance Committee began work on the 2013-14 budget. Since that time, the committee has met with various county officeholders to discuss and attempt to pare down the projected expenditures of each county office. The committee has not yet discussed the proposed budgets of local nonprofit organizations to which the county contributes, the county school system, or the county Highway Department.
Officials are currently projecting $7,710,965 in expenditures for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which is more than $1.3 million higher than the actual 2012-13 county expenditures of $6,376,697.
Nearly each department in the county has budgeted more to cover employee insurance in the new fiscal year. The county is facing around $144,000 in increased medical insurance costs for county employees in the 2013-14 fiscal year. In June, the commission voted to have the county contribute up to $520 toward the monthly cost of an individual plan through the Humana Gold Plan, which costs around $540. The commission also voted to have the county contribute up to $1,111 toward a family insurance plan, which costs around $1,411.
“We were pretty lucky, I think, on insurance this year,” Lynch said.
Expenditures related to the Sheriff’s Department and costs related to operations of the county’s two jail facilities — the jail in downtown Erwin and the jail annex — make up the largest percentage of the projected 2013-14 expenditures among the county’s offices. The department is requesting a total of $2,262,331 for departmental costs, which includes officer and employee salaries, travel and fuel, training, equipment and vehicle costs.
The sheriff’s department is seeking nearly $1.3 million for expenditures relating to both of the jail facilities. The $3,560,645 sought by the sheriff’s department in the 2013-14 fiscal year is a little more than $1 million higher than the department’s actual 2013-13 fiscal year expenditures.
As is the case with other offices, the sheriff’s department saw significant increases in employee medical insurance costs. But the department has also budgeted approximately $447,000 more than last year’s budget for departmental salaries. Sheriff Mike Hensley previously said this is due, in part, to six part-time jailers and other jail positions the sheriff’s department has been mandated to hire in the 2013-14 fiscal year to maintain certification of the jail facilities.
“Any sheriff will tell you you have to have certification from the state,” Hensley said.
The requested increase for salaries is also due to the sheriff’s department budgeting 10-year step raises for its officers. Through the department’s proposed system, deputies would receive a raise for around $1,000 a year, or a little more than $80 per month, at which time the raises would stop. Higher-ranking departmental officials would receive raises of $500 per year over that 10-year period.
Hensley reiterated previous statements that the step-raise system is needed to prevent the department from becoming a “training ground” in which deputies remain on long enough to get some experience only to leave not long after their hire for better pay at another law enforcement agency. Hensley feels the system will save the county money in the long run, as it will cut down on training costs through officer retention, and will enhance safety in the county by keeping seasoned, veteran officers onboard.
“When I make a decision, I absolutely consider the taxpayers of Unicoi County,” Hensley said. “But they’re getting a good service.”
Hensley said the department also expects increased revenues in 2013-14, which will offset the higher costs. He said the department has reworked its contract for inmate phone services, which should lead to increased revenues of approximately $40,000 in 2013-14. The department also doubled the projected revenue it will earn from housing state inmates over what was projected to begin the 2012-13 fiscal year. The department is anticipating state inmates’ revenues of $660,000 in the 2013-14 fiscal year.
For the most part, the projected expenditures of other county officeholders have adhered closely with the 2012-13 budget.
“In some instances, it’s not been that difficult,” Lynch said of the budgetary process thus far. “A lot of offices stayed, kind of, within what they had to do.”
The county is currently projecting around $3.5 million in revenues to be taken in from property taxes, excluding other tax revenues such as trustee’s and Circuit Court collections. A total of $227,000 is projected from local option taxes. More than $870,000 in revenues are expected from fees collected by county offices.
In all, the county is projecting $6,908,910 in revenues in the 2013-14 fiscal year. This is against $7,710,965 in expenditures currently projected. When the county’s $438,182 is added to the $802,055 difference, it leaves the county with a current shortfall of $363,873.
The county is now looking at a 12-cent property tax increase, as a penny on the property tax rate equates to around $30,000. An increase this year would mark the fifth consecutive year the county’s property tax rate has increased. Last year, the rate went up 13 cents over the 2011-12 rate, and the property tax rate currently sits at $2.6838 per $100 on real property.
“It’s going to be hard to close that 12-cent gap on what’s left, as far as the departments that are left, and pay the sums of the people that they’ve already agreed to,” Lynch said.
Lynch said he does expect the county’s Finance Committee, which meets again Tuesday, to revisit some of the budget requests it has already addressed. The county is currently operating under a continuing resolution using figures from the 2012-13 budget until the new budget is passed.
Lynch said officials had hoped to pass the 2013-14 budget at the commission’s regular meeting Aug. 26. However, he said this is unlikely as officials will likely revisit some requests. He said the county’s proposed budget can change up until the night the commission approves its final reading.
“I think it’s been pretty smooth thus far in the whole process, but I think the waters are going to get a little choppy right at the end,” Lynch said. “It would be nice to get the budget nailed down that night, but historically, that doesn’t happen.”