After a public hearing at which seven of nine town residents spoke against the tax increase, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously to adopt a 2019-20 budget more than $600,000 out of balance and raise the town’s tax rate to $1.862 to cover the shortfall.
The majority of two dozen Erwin residents who attended the meeting were seniors who told the board the increase would be difficult on their own tight budgets.
Lois Shelton told the board, “I’m 90 years old. My income is not increasing but everything else is,” before asking how much the town money had invested in the Erwin Linear Trail.
Mayor Doris Hensley said much of the trail has been built with state and federal grant money, with a 20 percent match from the town. Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever said the trail contributed to the estimated $770,000 economic impact of tourism in Erwin over the past year.
In the coming year, Hensley said, the town will expand the trail through Fishery Park to Governor’s Bend and will not fund another one-mile extension to the town of Unicoi.
The mayor took exception to Erwin resident Mer Otis’ contention the board had spent the town’s money irresponsibly, and rejected Otis’ request that the board postpone its vote on the budget and go back and cut the expenditures.
Hensley said the town had hired a consultant to formulate a plan for future development of the town based on a public visioning session attended by 30 to 40 town residents.
“We didn’t put that plan on a shelf. We are putting that plan to work,” she said. “It’s either raise the tax this year or raise it next year. We agonized over this budget. We replaced road equipment. We replaced a fire truck. We replaced public safety vehicles. Are we spending money wisely? Yes, I think we are.”
Alderman Michael Baker countered Otis’ contention that the board was placing the burden of the budget shortfall on only land owners by noting that landlords will pass the increase on to renters, so that everyone who lives in Erwin will meet the cost.
Baker also said, “It’s not fair for the media to say we’ve run the town to $600,000 deficit. We didn’t. The $600,000 we’re having to come up with is for our projects that we want to do.”
Herschel Blankenship told the board, “I think most of the people here feel like I do. You pay your taxes and keep your mouth shut and we’ll do what we want to do.”
Erwin resident Jim Long spoke in support of the town’s expenditures and asked the board to compare the approximate $425,000 spent on the purchase and pad-ready development of the Morgan industrial site to what value the site may bring to the town.
“That site will be gold soon,” Hensley said.