Sheriff Mike Hensley makes a case for additional officers to the Unicoi County Budget Committee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Budget Committee moved one step closer to finalizing the 2019-20 budget on Monday, July 29. The move comes as the county is running out of time to submit the 2019-20 budget to the state. According to Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, the county’s  deadline for submitting the budget is Aug. 31.

The committee ended Monday’s meeting with a $314,932 shortfall that could cause a 10.1 cent property tax hike.

According to Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, the total revenues for the proposed 2019-20 budget are roughly $7.3 million and the total expenditures were roughly $7.6 million.

On Monday, the committee voted 6-2 to present the 2019-20 budget as is, with a $314,932 shortfall to the full commission during a special called meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 6. Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to send the 2019-20 budget to the full commission and Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley seconded the motion. During roll call, Thomas, White, and Mosley were joined by Unicoi County commissioners Jamie Harris, Matthew Rice, and Stephen Hendrix in approving the motion. Unicoi County Commissioners Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed the move. Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox was absent from the meeting.

Marie Rice immediately inquired into how the commission would pay for the $314,932 shortfall. “We need to figure out how we will pay for this before the Aug. 6 meeting,” Marie Rice said.

Thomas argued that the commission will have to vote to approve the budget through the first reading and then the commission will vote on how to pay for the shortfall at the second reading. “We vote tonight to send the proposed 2019-20 budget before the full commission, and if the budget passes on the first reading, the commission will decide on setting the tax rate during the second reading,” Thomas said.

Also on Monday, the committee voted 7-1 to cancel all future budget meetings except for one on Monday, Aug. 5, at 11 a.m. The motion to cancel the future meetings was made by Mosley and White seconded the motion. Thomas, Mosley, White, Jamie Harris, Matthew Rice, Hendrix and Marie Rice voted to cancel the future meetings while Jason Harris voted to keep the meetings.

“I feel we still have a lot to iron out,” Jason Harris said.

• • •

Early in Monday’s meeting, Hendrix made a motion to approve a proposed three year step raise that would cost the commission $84,626 for the first year. Jamie Harris seconded the motion. This plan, which would establish a base salary increase along with a $50 longevity bonus for Unicoi County employees with a cap of $300, was originally presented at the June 6 Unicoi County Policies, Procedures, Salary, Benefits and Communications Committee meeting.

The plan calls for $20,969 to be spent the first year to cover base salaries with the Unicoi County courthouse employees and $63,657 for the first year for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.

The committee voted 6-2 to approve the request to add the $84,626 to the budget and start a step raise scale for county employees. Thomas, Mosley, White, Jamie Harris, Matthew Rice and Hendrix voted to approve the step raise while Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed.  “My concern is that we are locking into a series of raises for the next three years,” Marie Rice said.

Jamie Harris had a different vision for what the step raise would provide.

“I hope we are locking in loyal employees,” Jamie Harris said.

Hendrix agreed with Jamie Harris.

“We are really taking care of the employees that serve this county, and that is very important,” Hendrix said.

Following the step raise approval, the committee voted 6-2 to give the penny on the tax rate back to the Unicoi County Highway Department. The penny on the tax rate comes out to $198,279, and that is the amount promised to the highway department budget from the Unicoi County tax base. Unicoi County Highway Department Superintendent Terry Haynes was on hand to address the committee.

“I’m only asking to get that one penny back that was promised, and I will return it,” Haynes said. “I want you to stand by what you promise. I don’t want our citizens’ taxes to be raised on our account.”

Mosley made the motion to return the penny to Haynes without requiring him to return it.

“We need to give him what we promised him,” Mosley said.

According to Mosley, the commission promised to give the highway department the penny during last year’s budget. Jamie Harris seconded Mosley’s motion to return the penny to the highway department. Mosley and Jamie Harris were joined by Thomas, White, Matthew Rice and Hendrix in voting to approve the return of the penny to the highway department. Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed.

• • •

The committee heard a request on Monday from Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. Hensley previously mentioned during the July 24 budget committee meeting that the UCSD would need to bring three part-time officers up to full time, and hire three new part-time officers at each jail facility to become compliant by TCI standards.

During the July 24 meeting, Hensley agreed to the hiring of three part-time officers as long as the commission would bring any part-time officers that have been with UCSD for a year or more up to full time in the future. Hensley also stated during the July 24 meeting that the sheriff’s department needed to move the part-time nurses at the jails to full time.

During the July 29 meeting, Hensley explained that he is concerned about the taxpayers.

“I am very conservative, but I have to do what the law says,” Hensley said.

Thomas proposed moving $83,000 from the sheriff’s gas line to the UCSD employee salary line and Hensley could sell surplus equipment to replace the $83,000. According to Thomas, by moving the funds the sheriff would be able to move two nurses from part time to full time and would add three part-time corrections officers at no cost to the county this budget year.

Thomas made a motion to move the $83,000 from the sheriff’s gas line and allow the sheriff to sell surplus equipment to make up the $83,000 in the gas line over the budget year. White seconded the motion. The motion passed by a 6-2 vote. Thomas, Mosley, White, Jamie Harris, Jason Harris, and Hendrix voted to approve the motion while Matthew Rice and Marie Rice opposed.

The full commission is scheduled to vote on the first reading for the proposed 2019-20 budget during a special called meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 6, at 6 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse.