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Unicoi County budget committee cuts deep

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Jul 20, 2018 at 4:02 PM

ERWIN — In three hours of budget deliberations on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget Committee erased more than $425,000 of a nearly $615,000 deficit, taking all county offices back to last year’s funding levels, increasing revenue projections wherever feasible and cutting nonprofit contributions to bare bones.

The committee wrapped this week’s work on the budget with plans for even more austere measures to erase the remaining $167,000 deficit and provide more personnel and line item funding to the sheriff's department in order to prevent the loss of $600,000 in state prisoner boarding fees the sheriff said will go away without it.

After learning of the across-the-board cuts made by the committee on Tuesday, Sheriff Mike Hensley came to Wednesday’s budget work session obviously disappointed.

Hensley, who with the committee members had spent the past several weeks working with the committee to reduce his initial request for $1.3 million in new funding for vehicles, officers, key personnel and other line items down to $300,000, sat quietly as the committee began Wednesday’s meeting still $195,000 in the red and looking for more expenditures to cut and revenue projections to bump up.

When Commission Loren Thomas suggested increasing the $600,000 in state prisoner boarding fees projected for next year Hensley spoke up.

“There’s no way I can operate on the same budget as last year,” he said. “I’ve had increases put on me. If you force me to, I’ll start making cuts and the cuts will be drastic, including sending back state prisoners. Food has gone up drastically.

“I don’t have food to feed them. Medical costs have gone up. I need more manpower and I need more overtime pay. I need cars … and I thought we had this worked out.”

The committee members assured the sheriff their previous commitment to provide his department with an additional $20,000 in overtime pay, one new patrol vehicle, one new investigator and one new deputy were not removed in Wednesday’s budget cuts.

Faced with risk of losing of $600,000 in state prisoner boarding fees, they began looking for other sources of revenue to meet his need for a second deputy and a second part-time nurse for the jails and to erase what at that point was $167,000 budget shortfall.

Conceding that they could not cut another $167,000 from the budget and attempting to avoid a 5.48 cent property tax increase required to eliminate the shortfall, the committee wrapped up Wednesday’s meeting with an agreement to pursue three new funding paths.

The plan includes working with the sheriff to free up money within his own budget by shifting funds within his line item expenditures, to dip into funds from the sale of the hospital to cover the anticipated $132,000 increase in the cost of the county’s new ambulance service contract and to discuss the possibility of using of restricted funds included in the county clerk and county court budgets with those officeholders.

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