Unicoi County Commission likely to OK budget with no tax hike

Brad Hicks • Sep 9, 2013 at 3:45 PM

ERWIN — Just a little more than a month ago, Unicoi County’s citizens were facing a double-digit property tax increase for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which would have represented the fifth consecutive year property taxes had risen.

But on Tuesday, the Unicoi County Commission will look to approve the second and final reading of a balanced budget for the new fiscal year that does not include a property tax increase. The rate last year was $2.6838 per $100 on real property. The county commission’s Finance Committee began meeting in early July to begin work on the budget and has met weekly since.

County Commissioner and Finance Committee Chairman Loren Thomas said the commission has been faced with several challenges in preparing the budget, including state mandates, health insurance for county employees and budgetary cuts.

“We’ve come a long way since we started the budget negotiations process,” Thomas said.

A recurring topic of discussion over the course of the Finance Committee’s meeting was raises for county employees. The committee opted to grant a portion of the raises for Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department employees from a 10-year step raise system proposed by sheriff’s department officials.

While a couple of county employees are set to see salary increases in the 2013-14 fiscal year, most are set to receive a $500 bonus in the new fiscal year. Both the sheriff’s department’s raises and county employee bonuses were approved as part of the commission’s approval of the first reading of the budget late last month.

Some county officeholders have voiced dissatisfaction that county courthouse employees are not set to receive raises in the new fiscal year. Thomas said officeholders can propose pay raises for their employees in their respective budgets, but the county’s bottom line is ultimately up to the commission, and the commission must decide what is fair as far as salary increases.

“It kind of puts us in a hard spot when you’ve got some county employees making more than others doing a similar job,” Thomas said.

To close the gap between employees and bring fairness to county employee pay, Thomas said county officials need to begin looking at a step raise system for all county employees for the 2014-15 fiscal year soon after this year’s budget is passed.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get that to where everybody will agreed to it,” Thomas said.

To provide the county with a fund balance for 2013-14, $180,000 in revenue has been projected to come from a contribution by Mountain States Health Alliance once its acquisition of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital closes. The commission has proposed using this $180,000 toward the annual subsidy of the county’s ambulance service provider, MedicOne Medical Repsonse. The state attorney general’s office is still reviewing MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH.

Some officials, such as commission Chairman Mickey Hatcher, have expressed reservations about using funding from this contribution since the acquisition is still under review. Thomas said while he understands this position, he said he is confident the transaction’s closing will take place during the 2013-14 fiscal year, as the UCMH Board of Control, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the commission all voted unanimously to approve the sale of UCMH to MSHA.

“I think that sends a clear-cut message to the attorney general that Mountain States is the hospital of choice for Unicoi County, and the second time around, the hospital board did everything the attorney general wanted them to do,” Thomas said.

If this funding does not come through, county officials will have to hold budget meetings to determine the county’s next steps, Thomas said.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said there are several issues with the proposed budget. He said some revenues have been projected on the high side. Lynch said if budgeted revenues — such as the $180,000 budgeted to come from the Mountain States Health Alliance contribution for acquiring Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, and approximately $150,000 projected for fees collected through Sessions Court — do not pan out, it could affect the county when the budget is audited and could have an adverse effect on the county’s credit rating.

“It would be perfect if we could pass the budget and not have a tax increase, but I think we’re treading on thin ice by having revenues up so high,” Lynch said.

The mayor also said while he feels sheriff’s department deputies do deserve a raise and some new positions budgeted by the department — including six new jailers — are warranted and will be offset by projected revenues, he feels the key to ironing out the county employee raise issue may lie with the sheriff’s department’s projected budget.

Lynch said the sheriff’s department has budgeted a new administrative position. Lynch said he would like to see the sheriff’s department not fill the position, but instead use this budgeting funding, along with another $8,000 to $10,000 in cuts, to be put toward raises for all county employees. Lynch said this, along with the amount already budget for the $500 bonuses, could be used to bring courthouse employees up to the “parity level” salary of $28,122 while providing a $1,000 bonus for most full-time courthouse employees.

“That would put the county officeholders and the county commission in a better position to discuss step raises for all non-sheriff’s department employees and discuss entry-level salaries based on education, experience, etc., and also discuss maximum pay for certain positions,” Lynch said.

Lynch said he has not completely ruled out a mayoral veto of the budget if it is approved by the commission without changes, but he said doing so would delay the budgetary process. He said if the county’s budget is not submitted to the state comptroller’s office by early October, it could delay the school system’s receipt of state Basic Education Program funds.

“I hope we can work this thing out that night and get things moving in the right direction,” Lynch said.

The first reading of the budget passed by a 7-2 vote. Like Lynch, Thomas said he hopes the county can quickly move forward with the budget.

“I’m hoping everybody, even though the budget was not exactly what everybody wanted, will recognize the effort that’s been put into it and we’ll be able to get it passed,” he said.

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