Unicoi Co. residents may face 12-cent property tax increase

Brad Hicks • Jul 31, 2013 at 7:01 PM

ERWIN — Although a few weeks of work lie ahead and the county’s budget has not yet been finalized, at this point Unicoi County citizens are facing an approximate property tax increase of 12 cents in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee met Tuesday to continue discussions of the county’s 2013-14 budget. When the meeting started, the county was facing a shortfall of $521,873.

During the course of Tuesday’s meeting, several cuts and increases to projected revenues were made to the projected Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department budget. Sheriff’s department officials had budgeted $600,000 in revenues for the housing of state inmates in county jail facilities during the fiscal year. This projection was increased slightly, to $660,000.

The sheriff’s department also recently reworked its contract for inmate phone services, and an additional $38,000 in revenue was projected because of this. At Tuesday’s meeting, UCSD Administrative Assistant Craig Masters said the department would also be willing to reduce its projected $88,000 in vehicle-related expenditures to $58,000 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Because the situation involving the Unicoi County Animal Shelter has not yet been resolved, $30,000 budgeted by the sheriff’s department for the salary of an animal control officer was removed. Per a proposal currently on the table, the sheriff’s department would absorb the costs of both of Unicoi County’s animal control officers, and these officers would fall under the department’s supervision.

These cuts, which total $158,000, brought the county’s projected shortfall to $363,873. A penny on the county’s property tax rate is equal to $30,296. The county’s current property tax rate, as approved for the 2012-13 fiscal year, is $2.6838 per $100 on real property.

The committee also opted to maintain the $27,000 budgeted for the services of Doug Shults, who has served as the county’s attorney for more than 20 years. Shults, who said he spends 20 to 30 hours each month working on county business, addressed an email that he said Unicoi County resident John Day sent to county officials in which Day stated that the county was paying Shults “$1,000 an hour” and that “any lawyer can do the job.”

“Several of the officeholders are here to at least tell you that I do more than just come to the meetings once a month, so when you send an email saying I worked an hour or two hours a month, I mean I think if you would have called me or called any officeholder, you could have found out that I spend at a minimum 20 to 30 hours a month doing county attorney business,” Shults said to Day, who was in attendance. “So, to be honest with you, I’m a little offended that you’d send out that email without checking with anybody beforehand.”

Day said the email was not a personal attack on Shults. Day also said that he has been unable to get any accounting of Shults’ time spent working on county business, as he said such records are not kept by the county.

“You need to get your feelings off your sleeve, Mr. county attorney, and business-like about this,” Day said. “I’m a businessman, and I’m all business.”

Several county officials in attendance, including Masters, Unicoi County Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes, said Shults’ experience in Unicoi County and knowledge of the area are assets.

“Doug’s always made himself available to my office,” said Unicoi County Clerk and Master Teresa Simerly. “I’ve been here 15 years, and he always gets back to me on the issue, and he doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear. He tells you what the law is ... he helps you make the right choices.”

The committee also discussed the topic of step raises. A proposed 10-year step raise system for county officers was introduced by the sheriff’s department at last week’s Finance Committee meeting. Unicoi County Commission Vice Chair Bill Hensley said around $153,000 of the sheriff’s department’s projected expenditures relate to the proposed step raises, but this figure would be offset by projected revenue increases.

County Commissioner and Finance Committee Chairman Loren Thomas said expenditures related to the step raises, which is being proposed by sheriff’s department officials in an effort to retain officers, would offset losses the county suffers when the county pays to train a new officer only to see him or her leave for another department soon thereafter.

Thomas also said he would like to see the county work toward developing a step raise system for all county employees. Lynch said he feels some more research into the matter should be done, as the county would not be able to implement such a system before passage of the 2013-14 budget. Lynch also said he would like to see the county bring in someone to analyze the value of each position.

“My frustration, mayor, is it’s every year,” Thomas said to Lynch. “It keeps getting put off and put off and, every year, all these officeholders come to us wanting raises for their employees, and we’re put into a situation where it’s unfair for us to give certain ones money and not other ones. We don’t have the money to start with, for one thing, but if we had a little bit and had some kind of a structured plan like (the sheriff’s department is) offering, it’d give us something to go by and something we could come up with some figures on.”

“By saying that the mayor was the one responsible for this, I just don’t think that’s a fair statement,” Lynch said. “I said ‘Guys, we can sit down with the policy committee,’ but I think we need some guidance. I think we need someone to guide us.”

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