Imbalanced budget up for vote in Unicoi County

Sue Guinn Legg • Aug 4, 2019 at 6:29 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission will cast its first vote Tuesday on a proposed 2019-20 budget with a more than $300,000 shortfall and a fund balance nearly $200,000 below the approximate $1 million level recommended by the state comptroller.

While the red ink could equate to 10.1-cent increase in the county’s property tax rate, the commission’s Budget and Finance Committee voted early last week to send the unbalanced budget proposal to the full commission without a recommendation on how to meet the deficits.

Committee Chairman Marie Rice, who along with Commissioner Jason Harris voted against the recommendation, argued the commission has never in her years in office taken its first vote on the budget without a consensus on to how its projected expenditures and revenues will be balanced.

Commission Chairman Loren Thomas countered that Tuesday night’s vote is only to approve the budget for publication and that the second and final vote on the budget set for Monday, Aug. 26, is the deadline for the commission to decide whether the shortfall will be met by a tax increase or a deeper dip into the fund balance.

Rice cautioned the Aug. 26 commission meeting is just a few days short of the Aug. 31 deadline after which the state will not allow county to spend money without a finalized budget.

“Every year we go to the final meeting knowing what we are doing and now we don’t,” Rice said. “If we don’t have a signed budget, we’ll get down to the point we’re not able to fund the schools and so forth.”

The budget committee began its July 29 meeting with a shortfall of $279,130 and wrapped up the meeting nearly $36,000 deeper in the red with a shortfall of $314,932.

The increased expenditures were the result of consecutive split votes to implement a three-year “longevity pay plan” with step raises for all county employees and to return one cent of county’s current $2.68 property tax rate, or $31,176, to the county road department.

While Road Superintended Terry Haynes said the funding increase for his department was promised in last year’s budget negotiations, Rice countered the commission earmarked two cents of the tax rate for roads as a temporary measure two years ago and only cent of the tax rate had been transferred back to the general fund since then.

An approximate $80,000 increase in Sheriff’s Department funding approved in July 29 budget meeting in order to provide additional jail staff was met by a increase in projected state inmate revenues, up from $468,000 to $548,000. Rice and Harris opposed the increase in the inmate revenue projection with Harris saying he thought the committee’s original $468,000 projection was “pushing it,” and Rice saying, “I think we’ve over projected. I hope it comes in.”

The committee concluded the meeting after its vote to send the unbalanced budget to the full commission without a proposed resolution for the shortfall and the cancellation of three additional budget workshop meetings previously scheduled for last week.

A final budget committee meeting will be held today, Monday, Aug. 5, prior to the special called meeting of the full commission on Tuesday, Aug. 6.