ERWIN — By the time the Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee adjourned Tuesday evening, progress was made in the way of three items of interest, leaving open the possibility county residents will not see a property tax increase during the next fiscal year.
The group voted on providing money for nonprofits, providing bonuses for county employees, and, the most discussed item of the evening, they made a decision on giving partial raises to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Mike Hensley spoke about the hardships of his losing his officers to other agencies that can pay better and stressed an emphasis on ways to bring in new revenue to sway committee members.
“We need to get our officers’ pay up to what they deserve,” Hensley said. “Most are buying (houses) in Unicoi County and are willing to make it their home.”
The sheriff’s department has a two-year contract with deputies where they have to compensate the department if they leave early, Hensley said, citing cases of losing members of his department to East Tennessee State University’s Public Safety Department and to the Johnson City Police Department. He said it costs the county money in training time and experience every time they lose someone, and also said his department had donated nearly 1,600 hours of work to the county.
Committee Chair Loren Thomas kept the meeting in order, well aware of the time crunch situation at the sheriff’s office where Hensley needs to have his portion of the budget squared away. After a recent inspection, the sheriff said he is required have eight new employees, but had the inspectors agree to letting them operate with having six new part-time jailers working by the first week of September to maintain their certification.
The sheriff made a concession in agreeing to have his deputies receive half of their raises, with members of the board agreeing to try their best to complete the raises and give the m the balance next year. Several committee members reluctantly agreed, stating that they have no idea what’s in store for the county next year an d couldn’t be held accountable if a serious financial situation were to arise.
Hensley said he’s conservative when making promises, but sees the possibility for new paths for revenue from his department.
He gave examples of possibly opening a federal cell, which would bring more federal government dollars, and moving records to another location to open up more space for cells, which would add to overall revenue.
Contrary to the week before, the committee agreed to return nonprofit county groups to their levels of funding from the previous fiscal year.
Thomas stressed the necessity of penny-pinching, but was able to corral agreement in regard to increasing the budgets of the Southside, Limestone Cove and Unicoi fire departments by a collective $2,750, and also an increase of $1,500 for Unicoi Merchants Association.
Lastly, the committee saw their county employees worthy of holiday bonuses, which are set to be dispersed to employees in the last pay period of November, specifically before the holiday shopping season.
Per county bookkeeper Phyllis Bennett, 26 full-time employees will receive $500 bonuses, with six part-time workers getting $250 before taxes.
Another item of discussion was the $750,000 Mountain States Health Alliance will give to the county to develop its healthcare organization. The committee was reticent to push the money in any certain direction as County Attorney Doug Shults was looking into the requirements of how it is meant to spent.
“I don’t think the money can be used on reoccurring budgetary items,” Shults said.
The committee parted ways with Thomas, saying they were operating with $78,760 in the positive, with no property tax increase in sight. To solidify their agreements, they will have a meeting on Monday at 3:30 p.m.