Unicoi County commission votes down tax increase

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Aug 26, 2019 at 11:45 PM

ERWIN — With several of their number opposed to any increase in county land taxes, the Unicoi County Commission held the line Monday and voted instead to meet a $337,000 shortfall in the county’s 2019-20 budget by drawing down its fund balance.

After the failure of multiple motions to draw less from the fund balance and raise taxes in amounts varying from 3 to 10 cents and the failure of a prior motion to leave the tax rate as is, the commission appeared to be at an impasse on how to balance the budget.

Commissioner Marie Rice asked if the commission could go back and reconsider the budget. Commission Chairman Loren Thomas responded that the budget had already been approved.

County Attorney Doug Shults reminded the commissioners that a failure to submit a balanced budget would put the county at risk of a state mandate not to spend any money after Aug. 31.

And finally, Commissioner Stephen Hendrix broke the deadlock by rescinding his earlier vote in opposition to leaving the tax rate at the same level and balancing the budget by drawing down the fund balance.

Hendrix, who had pushed hard for step raises for county employees that will continue for the next several years, made a motion to reconsider that proposal. Commissioner Glenn White seconded the motion. And upon reconsideration, the motion passed by a vote of 6-3 with Commissioners Marie Rice, Jason Harris and John Mosley opposed.

“There will be no tax increase,” Commission Chairman Loren Thomas said immediately after the vote.

Commissioner Jason Harris responded, “Next year, you will either have to cut or you will have to raise taxes even more.”

In other business, the commission voted to enter a sublease with Christian Care of Unicoi County for a 3-bay garage and two residential suites adjacent to the former county hospital to serve as a new ambulance station for emergency medical services in Unicoi County.

The month-to-month lease requires $1 a month in rent and $912 a month for expenses, including utilities and upkeep on the property.

While Shults said parts of the lease were not in the county’s best interest, the commission voted to unanimously approve it with the understanding that future negotiations would be initiated in hopes of obtaining a better lease from the former hospital board.

The commission also entered a memorandum of understanding with the Unicoi County Board of Education through which the board will commit its current payments on a note on the construction of the high school to a $5.1 million capital outlay note for capital projects when the high school construction note matures in 2021.