Commissioners reject budget in Unicoi County

Brad Hicks • Sep 11, 2013 at 9:45 AM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch has consistently used one word when discussing the county’s 2013-14 fiscal year budget process — contentious.

This contention did not end Tuesday, when the Unicoi County Commission failed, by a 4-5 vote, to pass the county’s budget for the new fiscal year. Commissioners voting against passage were Mickey Hatcher, Sue Jean Wilson, Marie Rice, Kenneth Garland and Gene Wilson.

The majority of commissioners present at the called meeting voiced their stance on the proposed budget and why they either favored or opposed its passage. Hatcher said he felt that, overall, the budget had been “ramrodded.”

“I’m not convinced this is the best route to go,” Hatcher said prior to the vote. “However, we are at the 11th hour and have to move forward. We have to have some kind of budget tonight, but I don’t feel like the one we’ve got is the right one.”

The Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee began meeting in early July to start work on the budget. The proposal considered Tuesday, which passed its first reading last month by a 7-2 vote, includes one-time $500 bonuses for most county employees and a portion of the raises the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department sought for its employees through a 10-year step raise system proposed by the department.

During the course of budget talks, the issue of county employee raises has been a major topic of discussion, with some officeholders voicing dissatisfaction that their employees would not be receiving salary raises in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Rice, who was appointed to the County Commission in early August and was elected to serve as the panel’s chairwoman at Tuesday’s meeting, said she feels the requests of several commissioners were not heard during the budget process. Rice also said she feels commissioners were “misled” during the budget preparation process and did not have “true facts and figures.”

“I feel like this budget has been unfair from the beginning, since I’ve come onboard,” she said. “I want to apologize to the taxpayers, to the county employees. I feel like, as a commission, we have not done our due diligence in doing what’s fair for the taxpayers. I’ve only been on this commission for a short period of time. I wasn’t able to participate in the complete budget process. I wish I could have. But, I just don’t feel like it’s a fair budget for everyone involved. I feel like, as a commission, we need to be looking out for the entire county. We can’t look out for one group of people or a certain office over the other offices.”

Garland said he took issue with $180,000 of the $750,000 contribution the county is set to receive from Mountain States Health Alliance when its acquisition of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital closes being budgeted as a revenue. This transaction is being reviewed by the state attorney general’s office, which previously expressed concerns that have delayed MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH.

It was proposed by the Finance Committee that the $180,000 be used to pay toward the county’s annual ambulance service subsidy in order to eliminate a shortfall of approximately the same amount.

“I can’t vote for something you’ve got in the budget that you don’t know whether you’re going to have the money to pay for it or not,” Garland said, adding that the proposed budget is the largest he has seen in two decades.

Commissioner Loren Thomas, who voted for the budget, said the commission had the opportunity to pass a budget that, for the first time in five years, did not include a property tax increase. He also said when the budget process began a little more than two months ago, the county was facing a double-digit property tax increase, but the Finance Committee was able to trim the budget while including funding for jail certification mandates, more student resource officers, county employee bonuses and the county paying a larger portion of county employee health insurance costs.

Thomas also said he was “offended” by Rice’s comments.

“I think a lot of hard work has been put into this budget by some on this commission,” Thomas said.

Prior its consideration of the budget, the commission voted 7-2 to approve setting the county’s property tax rate at $2.6838 per $100 on real property, the same rate as the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Following the meeting, Lynch said the commission’s failure to pass the budget came as a surprise. He said he will meet with County Attorney Doug Shults today to discuss the next steps, but another meeting in the near future is expected.

“There’s a possibility we may have to stay with the tax rate and reset the budget,” Lynch said.

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