ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee met Tuesday to discuss the proposed 2011-12 fiscal year budgets for two county departments, lending its approval to one and splitting its vote on the other.
The committee, made up of the entire commission, voted 6-0 to approve the school system’s budget. Commissioners Bill Hensley and Dwight Bennett were not present and Mickey Hatcher, who serves as the special projects supervisor for the school system, abstained from the vote.
Director of Schools Denise Brown said the ystem’s total budget is $21,472,456, the same amount as the 2010-11 budget. The bulk of the system’s expenses are personnel salaries, which is around $12 million in total not including benefits and, in all, represents roughly 75 percent of the system’s expenses.
On the revenues side, 64 percent of the system’s budget comes from the state, 21 percent from local taxes and 15 percent from federal funds, Brown said.
This marks the ninth consecutive year the school system has presented a balanced budget.
Also included in the budget was a 1.6 percent pay increase on the state portion for the school system’s licensed employees, which is mandated by the state. Garland Evely, chairman of the Unicoi County Board of Education’s Finance Committee, said the school system itself had previously instituted a step raise system and told commissioners a 1.6 pay increase on a local level has been budgeted for all employees in the coming year. Salaries for system employees are based on a number of components, he said.
“All employees receive the 1.6 percent pay raise, teachers based on the state portion of their salary, the other employees based on their salary,” Evely said. “Not only that, but we have step increases ... we have a salary schedule that’s built in with step increases for each year of service that an employee has with the school system. So even in a year where there may not be a pay raise passed or that we include a pay raise, that employee would still receive a step increase up to 25 years of service.”
Prior to the vote, Commissioners Gene Wilson and Doug Bowman complimented school officials on the budget, but Commissioner Kenneth Garland voiced concern the county’s tax rate is likely to increase due to the construction of the new Unicoi County Middle School.
The committee also discussed the Unicoi County Highway Department’s proposed budget. The committee vote tied 3-3 on approving the budget, with Bowman, Garland and Sue Jean Wilson voting against. Hatcher left the meeting prior to this vote.
Road Superintendent Terry Haynes was seeking 3 cents from the property tax rate, or roughly $86,000, in addition to his department’s regular operating budget to bring up the department’s five-year average in appropriations from the county.
From 1998 to 2010, the department has missed out on $246,086 in revenue due to not meeting the five-year average, Haynes said. For each penny the county gives the department on the tax rate, the state will match that amount, Haynes said. A penny on the county’s tax rate represents approximately $29,000.
Haynes later said a 1.5-cent allocation in additional to the standard operating budget would likely suffice in attempting to meet the five-year average. The department’s overall budget is reduced $72,000 from the previous year, but several commissioners expressed concern the department was having to dip into its reserve account annually for operating expenses.
Hatcher said the 1.5-cent increase would not catch the department up, as it would still be expending more from its reserve fund than is generated in revenues.
Commissioner James Howell proposed granting the department an additional 2.5 cents rather than the 3 cents initially proposed to help limit the use of reserve funds.
Sue Jean Wilson, however, said the county is already looking at a 12-cent tax increase for the construction of the new jail workhouse and middle school and to pay the county’s EMS service. This amount, she said, does not include raises for county employees and budgetary requests from other departments.
Prior to the vote, Bowman said he would like to look further at the county’s revenues before proceeding with any tax increases.
Decisions made by the Finance Committee are tentative, as the county’s final budget must be approved by the full commission.