Unicoi County Commission OKs budget with no property tax increase

Brad Hicks • Sep 24, 2013 at 12:09 PM

ERWIN — What Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice described as a lengthy and difficult process came to an end Monday.

The Unicoi County Commission, by an 8-1 vote, approved the passage of the county’s 2013-14 fiscal year budget, which does not include a property tax increase in the new fiscal year. The property tax rate will remain $2.6838 per $100 on real property.

The budget approved Monday includes 3 percent salary raises for full-time county courthouse and Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department employees. It also include the portion the county previously agreed to pay toward county employees’ health insurance, as well as funding for the hiring of several new deputies and the salaries of six part-time jailers needed to by the county to maintain certification of its jail facilities. The budget leaves the county with a fund balance of $113,960 in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Monday marked the second time final approval of the county’s proposed budget had been up for the commission’s consideration. In early July, the commission’s finance committee began the budget preparation process and developed a budget that included one-time $500 bonuses for most county courthouse employees and a portion of the raises the sheriff’s department sought for its employees through a 10-year step-raise system. The originally proposed budget also included a projected $180,000 in revenue that was a portion 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.

Late last month, the commission approved the first reading of the originally proposed budget, but at a Sept. 10 called meeting, the second and final reading of the budget failed by a 4-5 vote.

On Sept. 16, the Finance Committee began meeting to rework the budget. That evening, the committee opted to remove the $180,000 in revenue from the MSHA contribution and $150,000 in revenue projected from fees collected by the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. On Sept. 17, the committee reviewed several options to address the county employee raise issue, and the panel opted to grant full-time employees a 3 percent raise in the new fiscal year.

Commissioner Mickey Hatcher said Monday that while the county’s 2013-14 fund balance is “a little thin,” he said it does not include a property tax increase. He also said the 3 percent raises does not address the county’s part-time employees. He said he would like to see the county take a look at this later, possibly passing a budget amendment to grant part-time employees retroactive pay raises.

Following the commission’s vote, Rice thanked her fellow commissioners for the time they spent working on the budget.

“I know it’s been a long, hard budget process, but I think everyone was able to come to a compromise to put Unicoi County first,” she said.

After the meeting, Commissioner Loren Thomas, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he felt like the originally proposed budget was stronger than the one approved Monday.

“I just felt like we had a better budget package put together a couple of weeks ago, and we were trying to get the sheriff’s department at least half of their step raises they had requested,” he said. “This budget doesn’t include that. It does include a raise, but it’s not getting the sheriff’s department employees up to where I feel they need to be. This fund balance is about half of what it should be. I firmly believe the hospital money will come in ... and that we should have projected that as a revenue.”

Thomas also said more participation from the commission was needed during the budget-development process.

“There was a lot of effort on some commissioners’ part, and it just didn’t work out,” he said.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said if the county receives the $750,000 MSHA contribution during the 2013-14 fiscal year, the money will be move into an undesignated fund. He said the county could then approve a budget amendment to use the $180,000 and move part of this funding toward the amount remaining on the county’s ambulance service subsidy for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The difference, Lynch said, would be put toward the county’s fund balance.

“We finally got through this thing, but the fund balance is pretty low,” Lynch said. “It’s not the lowest I’ve ever seen, but it’s low.”

Finance Committee meetings scheduled today through Thursday have been canceled as a result of the budget’s passage.

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