40-cent property tax increase passes first hurdle in Erwin

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Aug 12, 2019 at 10:04 PM

ERWIN — Erwin residents moved a step closer to having their property taxes increased by 40 cents with a unanimous vote by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday to approved the 2019-20 town budget on first reading.

The proposed budget had a $650,000 shortfall, necessitating the vote to increase the property tax rate to $1.862 tax rate bring it into balance.

The vote came in spite of objections from several Erwin residents who spoke against the increase and the burden it will place on the town property owners and on fixed-income retirees in particular.

Mickey Hatcher, a former Unicoi County commissioner, presented the board with a summary of the town’s property tax increases dating back to 2007 that he said had increased the tax rate by roughly 70 cents in the past three years alone.

“I don’t see how citizens can stand it,” Hatcher said. “I submit, please don’t do this. Go back and take a look at what you’re doing.”

Another town resident told the board that of the 60 homes located in a two-block radius of his home, 32 were owned by retirees on fixed income. “That’s more than 50 percent and indicative of Erwin as a whole.

“We talk about wanting retirees to come here. This is not the way to do that. You need to relook at this,” he said.

Ames Shook of the Rock Creek community told the board the 40-cent increase was “not right.”

“You’re spending too extravagantly and I think it’s wasteful,” he said, referring to the new Linear Trail tunnel, downtown street improvements and last year’s purchase of a number of police and fire department vehicles that he said should have been better maintained.

“I think you should attend to business. But I don’t think you should put the whole burden on the property owners,” Shook said.

Mayor Doris Hensley agreed with Shook on the need for better maintenance, but said the board members were trying “to protect the town as best we can.

Hensley said last year’s budget for new police and fire department vehicles was due to everything wearing out at once and a $1 million capital outlay for replacements for which the debt service was deferred until this budget year.

The new budget includes $645,364 in debt service on a total debt of approximately $3 million that includes the remaining balance on the downtown improvement project that Hensley said was initially done for flood control.

She told Shook the Linear Trail tunnel was tied to a health initiative and paid for in large part through grant funding that was money well spent.

Hensley said the board had spent months agonizing over the budget and how to pay for capital expenditures that were aimed at making Erwin “a place that our children and grandchildren can come back to.”

When a town resident interjected that all there is in Erwin for future generations to come back to is a pretty Main Street with too many vacant buildings, Vice Mayor Mark Lafever disagreed.

“To update things we need to spend money,” he said, referring to the town’s investment in property and property improvements for new industry. “We’re looking at ways to better our town.”

Prior to the vote, Hensley noted the budget will come up for second and final reading at the board next meeting Aug. 26.

She invited those who attended Monday’s board to come back and give their input not only on the budget but on town business conducted throughout the year.“We meet 26 times a year and at 20 of those meetings the only people here are the media,” she said.