ERWIN — Unicoi County’s budget development process is set to begin anew after the County Commission voted down the proposed 2013-14 fiscal year budget on Tuesday.
Mayor Greg Lynch said Wednesday that the commission’s Finance Committee is set to meet on Monday at 5 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse to again discuss the budget. He said the committee will hold several meetings between that time and Sept. 23, when the County Commission will likely consider the first reading of the budget ironed out in these latest committee sessions.
The commission’s approval of the final reading of the county’s 2013-14 budget failed Tuesday evening by a 4-5 vote. However, the commission, by a 7-2 vote, approved a measure to set the county’s 2013-14 property tax rate at $2.6838 per $100 on real property, the same rate as last year.
County Commission Vice Chairman Dwight Bennett, who voted in favor of the budget’s passage, said Wednesday that the commission was able to develop a budget that included a portion of the step raises the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department sought for its employees through a 10-year step raise system, a $500 bonus for county employees, and the county covering a larger portion of the employees’ health insurance costs, all without a property tax increase.
“It wasn’t a perfect budget,” Bennett said. “A lot of people didn’t get what they wanted but not everybody is going to get everything they want in a budget, but the biggest issue with me was we had no property tax increase and we helped every employee out.”
County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice was on the other side of the vote. She said she and several other commissioners felt the proposed budget was “unfair” to the county’s taxpayers, as well as courthouse employees since raises were not included for them.
“We just felt like the budget was unfair the way it is,” she said.
Rice said she has scheduled Finance Committee meetings for Monday through Thursday for the next two weeks to work on the budget.
Lynch said County Attorney Doug Shults is still looking into whether the approved tax rate can be altered since the budget was not approved, but Lynch said he understands the tax rate could change by the Sept. 23 meeting. The mayor said the tax rate needs to be decided by Oct. 1. The second and final reading of the budget would likely be considered by the commission on Oct. 7, Lynch said.
Sheriff Mike Hensley said he respects the County Commission’s decision, but the sheriff said its inability to pass the proposed budget on Tuesday has left his department facing some uncertainty.
“I’m still where I was at before they even voted,” Hensley said.
Hensley said he is now having to look at cutting several programs. He said his department’s proposed budget included funding to hire new officers to ensure that four officers were staffed per shift. To meet this personnel need, Hensley said he is now looking at the possibility of cutting the programs, including the three student resources officers budgeted by the sheriff’s department. Hensley said these officers would be taken out of the schools and put on “back on the roads” to respond to emergency calls.
“I seriously regret it,” Hensley said, “but it’s out of my hands.”
Another program Hensley said he is now looking at possibly cutting is the department’s mowing program. The sheriff said his department mows 46 sites throughout the county, including cemeteries, the Unicoi County Heritage Museum grounds and the area around the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center.
Six new part-time jailers needed to maintain certification of the county’s jail facilities budgeted by the sheriff’s department in 2013-14 will remain in place, Hensley said. However, Hensley said non-passage of the budget has hindered his department with regard to the new officers budgeted. He said these officers had already been scheduled to attend the required training academy, but this will now be delayed. He also said the department’s placement of two officers within the limits of the town of Unicoi has also been delayed.
Hensley said Monday that failure to pass the budget would result in him contacting the County Technical Advisory Service to contact an assessment of the sheriff’s department. Hensley said Wednesday evening that he has already been in contact with CTAS regarding this assessment.
The sheriff said he made a number of cuts during the original budget process, adding that he could make no further cuts.
“I’m going to stand firm on the budget I have proposed,” he said. “I’m not budging an inch.”