Unicoi County budget committee deepens cuts, dips into restricted funds

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Jul 25, 2018 at 10:21 PM

ERWIN — Locked in a tug of war with the Sheriff’s Department and struggling to meet a $165,000 deficit, the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget Committee spent five hours on Tuesday and Wednesday deepening cuts to courthouse offices, dipping into restricted funds and running through funding scenarios to balance the books, avoid a tax increase and appease a dissatisfied sheriff.

Still $145,000 in the red the end of the day on Wednesday, the committee ended its deliberations resolved to risk an audit finding by dipping into the county’s $935,000 fund balance to meet the shortfall and a small portion of the approximately $100,000 in new funding requested by the sheriff.

The plan includes meeting an anticipated $160,000 minimum increase in the cost of a new ambulance service with funds from the sale of Unicioi County Memorial Hospital when the new contract comes due in April — a scenario that could restore the fund balance to the level recommended by the state comptroller and leave approximately $70,000 to meet a portion of sheriff’s department requests for additional personnel and provide one-time bonuses to all county employees.

With several commissioners in favor of reserving as much of the $333,000 remaining hospital sale funds as possible for construction of an ambulance station, the possibility of taking $30,500, or the equivalent of one cent of the county tax rate, away from the county’s Road Department is also on the table.

Road Superintendent Terry Haynes, whose department has received an additional $61,000, or two cents of the tax rate since 2016 in order to secure matching funding from the state, told the committee he could forfeit one cent, or half of the total, if the state agrees to fund the replacement of two bridges that have been condemned.

If not, Haynes said, the bridges that provide the only access into two mountainous communities will have to be rebuilt out of this year’s budget.

When a committee member noted the $30,500 cut in county funding for the road department would also result in the loss of $30,500 in state matching funds for the department, Haynes lamented that the cut was being made to provide additional funding for other needs. “It’s sad that one organization works and saves and has to make up for others,” he said.

Jamie Harris, who will take a seat on the commission in September, told the committee he had met with the sheriff for about three hours on Wednesday and received a short list of funding requirements without which the sheriff indicated he will not sign this year’s budget.

The list was led by funding for 2 1/2 deputy positions, an investigator and a part-time nurse for the jails.

Harris said the sheriff also advised he needs the commission’s commitment to begin work to bring the fence at the county jail annex up to corrections standards, to replace the camera surveillance systems at both jails and to replace the repeaters on the county’s communication tower.

“Number one is don’t mess with his line items,” Harris said in reference to the committee’s request last week that the sheriff to look through his budget line items for any funds that can be freed up for his unfunded budget requests.

When the sheriff failed to meet that request, committee members went through his budget on Tuesday and identified about $27,000 in what appeared to be overfunded line items that could be moved to other areas of his budget that they said were underfunded.

Commissioner Loren Thomas said he had also met with the sheriff and would continue to negotiate an agreement on his budget requests.

As is, Thomas said at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, the new budget includes funding for one new sheriff’s department investigator, $20,000 of the sheriff’s request for $60,000 in overtime pay, one deputy and three new cars.

“We need to use money out of reserves for a part-time (jail) nurse. He needs it,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the commission is also committed to the work on the fence, surveillance cameras and communications tower.

<p><em>Email Sue Guinn Legg at <a href="mailto:[email protected]" target="_blank">[email protected]</a>. Follow her on&nbsp;<a href="http://www.twitter.com/sueleggjcpress" target="_blank">Twitter @sueleggjcpress</a>. Like her on Facebook at <a href="/facebook.com/sueleggjcpress" target="_blank">facebook.com/sueleggjcpress</a>.</em></p>


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