Unicoi County set to adopt budget without tax increase

Sue Guinn Legg • Jul 30, 2018 at 9:39 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission’s Budget Committee met in two sessions Monday to gauge support for a proposal to balance the budget without a tax increase by pulling nearly $149,000 from its undesignated fund balance and money reserved from the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

By 6 p.m., it appeared the majority of the commission was in agreement on the lean, $7.4-million budget that cuts most county offices back to less than last year’s funding levels and includes one-time bonuses for all county employees.

The $550 bonuses for all full-time employees and $250 bonuses for all part-timers will be funded in large part through a reduction in funding for the county road department.

Road Superintendent Terry Haynes told the committee that the Tennessee Department of Transportation has agreed to fund 100 percent of his department’s cost of the replacement of the condemned Tumbling Creek bridge, and with that, he had agreed to return to the county general fund one cent of the property tax rate, or $30,500, allocated to his department in 2015.

If the Tumbling Creek bridge replacement goes well, Haynes said TDOT will also fund his department’s replacement of a second bridge in Chandler Cove designated in poor condition by the state.

Both bridges provide the only way in and out of the mountainous communities and Haynes department has temporarily shored up the condemned Tumbling Creek bridge to prevent its closure by the state. Haynes told the County Commission last month he can replace the Tumbling Creek bridge with one 16-hour, overnight shutdown.

In other good news from Nashville, Haynes told committee the state has also agreed to transfer to the county one acre of property located inside Erwin and within a mile of an Interstate 26 exit. The county has been looking for land to purchase in that area for construction of a centrally located ambulance station to save on the annual cost of contracting medical response services or to house a county operated ambulance service that would be funded in part from the approximately $340,000 remaining from the sale of the county hospital.

The new budget proposal will draw $74,434 from the remaining hospital funds to meet health-related expenditures, including an anticipated increase the new ambulance service contract that will come due in April and reduce the hospital fund balance to approximately $265,000

The new budget also draws $74,434 from the county’s undesignated fund balance, which combined with the equal amount drawn from the hospital fund will meet a $148,868 budget shortfall reached last week after the committee’s second round of departmental cuts and the Court Clerk and Property Assessor offices’ agreement to return to the county a combined $45,000 in reserve funding from their office budgets.

To meet what was originally a more than $300,000 budget shortfall, Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said the budget committee took all county offices back to last year’s funding, went back and cut them again and also ask the officeholders to look for reserve funding that could be returned to the county budget.

For the Sheriff’s Department, Rice said the committee budgeted “only $18,000 less” than last year, not including five new vehicles and one-time bonuses that went to all county employees last year.

This year, the sheriff initially requested approximately $1.3 million in new funding, including seven new officers, seven new vehicles, an administrative secretary, a jail nurse, $60,000 in overtime pay, new camera surveillance systems for both jails, repairs to the jail annex fence and repairs and a repeater for the communication tower.

Rice said the new budget includes funding for one new sheriff’s department investigator, $20,000 in overtime pay and one new vehicle with the agreement that sheriff’ will buy a second new vehicle with funds generated from the sale of surplus equipment and apply for grant funding for a third vehicle. She said the county has also agreed to find grants or other funding for the jail annex fence, surveillance cameras and communications tower improvements.

After learning of the budget cuts earlier this month, Sheriff Mike Hensley told the budget committee he would not sue the county for more funding, but indicated that without it, he could not afford to continue boarding state prisoners, which generate several hundred thousand dollars for the county annually.

Jamie Rice, who will take a seat on the commission in September, said the sheriff told him last week he will not sign the new budget if his line items are adjusted and if he does not receive funding for a part-time jail nurse, two and half new deputy positions and the county’s commitment to fix the fence, surveillance cameras and communications tower.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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