Unicoi County budget $337,133 out of balance with state deadline looming

Sue Guinn Legg • Aug 6, 2019 at 11:30 PM

ERWIN — The Unicoi County Commission will decide how to balance a $337,133 shortfall in the county’s 2019-20 budget on Aug. 26, four days ahead of the Aug. 30 state deadline to finalize the budget.

In a special called meeting on Tuesday, the commission rejected a motion to eliminate the shortfall, which could equate to an 11-cent property tax increase, by drawing $130,477 from the county’s general fund balance and eliminating $211,043 in expenditures, including step raises for county employees and three new jailers for the sheriff’s department.

The motion, made by Commissioner Todd Wilcox and seconded by Commissioner Jason Harris, failed by a vote of 4-5. Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and Commissioners John Mosley and Matthew Rice opposed and Commissioners Marie Rice and Glenn White joined Wilcox and Jason Harris in favor of the motion, which would have eliminated the shortfall without a tax increase.

Mosley then made a motion to balance the budget by imposing a 6.5-cent property tax increase and taking remaining shortfall from the county’s fund balance. He withdrew the motion after Thomas said consideration of a tax increase was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s special called meeting and would be decided at the commission’s next regular meeting on Aug. 26.

Mosley made a motion to balance the budget by drawing the entire deficit from the fund balance after Phyllis Bennett, the county’s former finance, director who is assisting the county through the budget process, advised the commissioners that without a tax increase the budget deficit would automatically be deducted from the fund balance.

Mosley amended his motion yet again to approve the proposed budget for publication without any reference to shortfall after Thomas again argued that balancing the budget was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

“At our next meeting, that’s when we figure out if it’s all going to come out of the fund balance or if we do a tax increase,” Thomas said. The motion passed by a vote of 6-3 with Wilcox, Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed.

Marie Rice resigned from her longtime position of chairman of the Committee Budget and Finance Committee immediately after the vote.

She had repeatedly urged the commission to make a decision on how to balance the budget, unsuccessfully arguing the Aug. 26 final vote on the budget is too close to Aug. 30 state deadline to finalize the budget and will make it very difficult for the county bookkeeping office to complete the necessary paperwork on time.

Bennett said, without a tax increase, the shortfall will bring the county’s current $1,096,288 fund balance down to $759,155, or more than $200,000 below the three months of operating expenses recommended by the state comptroller.

Jason Harris argued continuing expenses included in the new budget will reduce the fund balance further over time and told other commissioners, “We’ve worked hard for the past five years to have a general fund and now you’re going to break it.”

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