Hatcher shares railroad memories as event honoree

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, right, presents Erwin Nine member and longtime Clinchfield Railroad employee George Hatcher with the key to the town of Erwin during Saturday’s “George Hatcher Day” event. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, right, presents Erwin Nine member and longtime Clinchfield Railroad employee George Hatcher with the key to the town of Erwin during Saturday’s “George Hatcher Day” event. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Erwin Nine member George Hatcher has recounted his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II on numerous occasions.

But on Saturday, Oct. 15, during an event held in his honor, Hatcher took the opportunity to talk about his experience as a longtime employee of the Clinchfield Railroad, in particular his time spent working on the famed No. 1 steam engine.

“I spent 42 years in engine service on the Clinchfield Railroad,” Hatcher said, “and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

“George Hatcher Day” was held Saturday at Erwin Town Hall, one day after the man at the center of attention turned 96 years of age. The event was held as a fundraiser for the Clinchfield Railroad Museum, which Hatcher himself referred to as “a very worthy cause.”

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley issued a proclamation declaring Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, “George Hatcher Day” in the town of Erwin. Hatcher was also presented with the key to the town of Erwin before taking the podium to recount his experiences on the railroad to the numerous friends and family members in attendance.

“George is one of those special people that if you know George, you love George,” Hensley said.

Following his graduation from high school in 1940, Hatcher landed a job working part-time at Unaka Stores. But the young Hatcher had his sights set on something else – working for the Clinchfield Railroad.

For Hatcher, railroad work ran in the family. His father worked as a train conductor who, during the Great Depression, relocated his family to Virginia when local work slowed. Hatcher said his family returned to Erwin following the Depression.

After much persistence, Hatcher got a job working for the Clinchfield Railroad on Dec. 7, 1941. As Hatcher pointed out, this was the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“An easy day to remember, and a day the world will never forget,” Hatcher said.

Following his graduation, Hatcher also traveled to Knoxville where he signed up to join the U.S. Army Air Force. The Army contacted Hatcher on Jan. 9, 1942, and, after training as a radio operator, Hatcher was stationed in England with the Eighth Air Force Heavy Bomber Group, which was responsible for carrying out bombing missions in Germany.

On May 27, 1944, Hatcher and his fellow crewman were on a mission when their B-17 bomber was shot down by German fighter planes. After bailing out of the damaged plane, Hatcher and others in his crew were captured.

The captives were eventually transported to the Stalag Luft IV prison camp, where Hatcher would spend his next eight months. It was also there that Hatcher would come to know of the other members of the Erwin Nine, a group of nine Erwin natives who joined the Air Corps and were all assigned to different planes, yet ended up in the same German prison camp.

Hatcher, along with other prisoners, was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945. On Oct. 20 of that year, Hatcher received several awards, including six Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

“I came back home and went back to work two days later,” Hatcher said. “I was anxious to have something to keep my mind on. I had a lot of memories that was bugging me.”

Some time later, Clinchfield Railroad General Manager Thomas Moore was touring the railroad’s shops in Erwin when came across a nearly 70-year-old steam engine. Moore asked that this steam engine, the Clinchfield No. 1, be restored and put back into service. Hatcher would eventually find himself working abroad the excursion train.

The No. 1 was built in Indiana in the early 1880s and later found its way to the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad in 1908. The engine was later sent over the Black Mountain Railroad in Yancey County, N.C., where it ran until 1955.

The engine was purchased by the town of Erwin in late 1955. The town’s plans to put the No. 1 on display never came to fruition, and the engine was housed for years in one of the local Clinchfield shops before Moore stumbled across it. The newly-restored No. 1 made its first run in late 1968.

Hatcher was asked if he would fire the engine on the rebuilt Clinchfield No. 1.

“I asked who was going to run it, and they said, ‘Your big brother, Ed Hatcher,’” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll fire it for Ed Hatcher but nobody else.’”

Hatcher said he and his brother made many a trip aboard the No. 1, adding the engine was used by Sen. Howard Baker as he traveled throughout the state during his senate runs in 1968 and 1972.

“We made 26 stops,” Hatcher said. “The only problem was when the senator was speaking from the rear of the train, all the people was up front looking at a 100-year-old steam engine.”

While he started out as a fireman on the No. 1, Hatcher later became engineer of the steam engine.

The Clinchfield No. 1 was again retired in 1979, the same year Ed Hatcher passed away. The steam engine is now on display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Md.

Hatcher retired from the Clinchfield Railroad after 42 years of service. After sharing his railroad stories, he recognized some of his family and friends in attendance and expressed his appreciation for those who came out for “George Hatcher Day.”

“I’m so proud to be here and I’m so glad the good Lord has given me all these years,” he said.

Apple Festival crowd not hindered by rain

By Brad Hicks

Crowds began to fill the streets of downtown Erwin early on Friday, Oct. 7, during the 39th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival. Part of the crowd is shown in this photo taken from the roof of the Unicoi County Courthouse. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Crowds began to fill the streets of downtown Erwin early on Friday, Oct. 7, during the 39th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival. Part of the crowd is shown in this photo taken from the roof of the Unicoi County Courthouse. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The streets of downtown Erwin began to fill early Friday morning for the 39th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival.

Throughout the weekend, visitors to Unicoi County’s biggest annual happening took in live music, dined on a variety of foods, picked up a bevy of crafts, and participated in a number of activities held during the two-day event. And, of course, many bought up all the apples they could carry.

But just past the boundaries of all the Friday afternoon bustle, things were much more subdued at the A.R. Brown House on South Main Avenue. There, a small group of folks had gathered to share memories, catch up and look over some old photographs brought by one member of the group.

Many have referred to the Unicoi County Apple Festival as a large reunion for the community, and members of the Unicoi County High School’s Class of 1966 felt the weekend of the festival was the perfect time to hold their 50th class reunion.

“We thought it would be a prime time to try and get as many classmates together as we possibly could,” said Brenda White-Shaw, one of the reunion’s organizers.

This, White-Shaw said, is because so many return to Erwin during the Apple Festival to visit family and friends. She said 145 invitations were sent out to members of the Class of 1966, with more than 50 percent responding that they would be attending the reunion.

“It’s just been so exciting,” White-Shaw said. “We’re so happy to have this location here because it has allowed us to come together, mingle and meet each other after 50 years.”

The Class of 1966 currently has the distinction of being the class to graduate in the midpoint of UCHS’s history. The school held its 100th commencement this past May, and the Class of 1966 had plans to mark this milestone. On Saturday, the Class of 1966’s class president dedicated a picture of the old high school, then known as Erwin High School, to the current UCHS class president during an afternoon ceremony.

The class capped off its 50th reunion with a dinner held Sunday at the Bramble in downtown Erwin.

“It’s just turned out to be wonderful,” White-Shaw said. “We have a wonderful committee. We have done nothing but eat and sleep reunion for the last year.”

Much like the Class of 1966’s reunion, planning for the 39th annual Unicoi County Apple Festival has been going on for the better part of the past year, as organizers begin planning the next year’s festival as soon as the current year’s has ended. And, like the Class of 1966’s 50th high school reunion, this year’s Apple Festival proved to be a success.

“The festival was a huge success, despite the rain showers that we had this year,” said Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Amanda Delp. “We still had a tremendous crowd come out. Although the weather was kind of wet and damp, it certainly did not dampen the spirits of festival-goers.”

There were more than 370 booths set up at this year’s Apple Festival, with nearly 300 vendors on hand to offer a variety of goods and festival fare.

Washington County-based Stanley’s Produce is one of the festival’s longtime vendors, having offered a variety of fresh apples and a plethora of apple treats to festival attendees for nearly 20 years. Tracy Darr with Stanley’s said it’s the crowds that keep Stanley’s coming back.

“It’s just the people are great,” she said. “It’s one of my biggest shows that I do the whole year.”

Darr also agreed that the rainy weather did little to deter those hankering for galas, wine saps, honey crisps and freshly-fried apple pies.

“It’s just wonderful. It’s just great,” Darr said of the festival. “It don’t matter if it’s raining, snowing, whatever, they’ll come out.”

Narcissa Evans is an Apple Festival veteran, having regularly attended the event in years past. However, she wanted to see the festival from the other side. This year marked Evans’ first festival as a vendor.

“We usually come every year as a guest, and we just love the atmosphere so we thought we’d try it out,” Evans said.

From her booth, Hazzard County Naturals, Evans sold several homemade items, including soy candles, fragrance oils, melts for warmers and room sprays. Evans named her business after “The Dukes of Hazzard,” her daughter’s favorite television show, and some of the items she sold are named for characters on the show.

Evans said her first Apple Festival as a vendor went well and that she was making plans to return as a seller at next year’s event.

“It’s actually been really, really exciting and excellent,” she said. “The people have been friendly. It’s been great.”

Also new to this year’s festival was a tailgate event held Saturday at the Bramble. This portion of the Apple Festival allowed attendees to step in out of the weather, grab some food and enjoy some ice cream while taking in Saturday’s college football action. Delp said the tailgate could become a staple of the Apple Festival.

“I know Saturday evening, we heard quite a few cheers early when UT was scoring, then we would hear some not-so-happy people at the end of the game, but I think they enjoyed being able to go in and watch the game,” Delp said.

Delp said the feedback from a large number of vendors was positive, as many had a successful festival experience despite the weekend’s wet weather.

“Most of the vendors we talked to said they did very well this year, even though it rained,” Delp said. “Of course, they were down from previous years when we’ve had beautiful, sunny weather. However, they also said they were very pleased given the weather conditions. We did have several come to us early on Saturday and say that they were packing up, going home, because they were sold out, which is always a great problem to have.”

Changes come with 39th annual Apple Festival

By Keeli Parkey

The 39th Annual Unicoi County Apple Festival has arrived.

Set for Friday, Oct. 7, and Saturday, Oct. 8, the festival, which draws more than 110,000 annual attendees, has been consistently named one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s Top 20 events in the southeast and is a three-year winner of the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association’s Pinnacle Award, will once again take over the streets of downtown Erwin, bringing unique vendors, entertainment and more to visitors and residents. The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is coordinating the Apple Festival again this year.

“We work on the Apple Festival year round,” Chamber Executive Director Amanda Delp recently told The Erwin Record. “We are really trying hard to make it bigger and better – that is our goal every year.”

Attendees will see a different layout to the festival grounds in 2016, according to Delp.

“We are making some changes that we think will enhance the festival,” she added. “One, will be stage locations. The stage we had in the Commons Area, which was located in the parking lot behind the courthouse, we are pulling that stage out of the parking lot and putting it on Gay Street. In previous years, that stage was hidden. We want to make it more visible. The music lineup for this stage will be very good again this year.”

This pro, touring stage will be placed almost in front of Liberty Lumber, facing toward Main Avenue. Booth spaces lost by the placement of the stage on Gay Street have been moved to the parking lot.

Delp said the stage that has “traditionally been the Southern gospel stage” will be repositioned this year.

“We are moving this stage onto Love Street at the corner of Love and Church Street with the sound amplifying down Love Street,” she added. “We will have seating in front of the stage and will use the parking lot where the stage was located in previous years for food vendors and sponsor booths.”

The format of this stage will also slightly change, according to Delp.

“We have had a lot of people in recent years tell us they would like to see some contemporary Christian acts perform,” she added. “We are going to do a mix of Southern gospel and contemporary Christian artists and groups. We are also bringing in a pro, touring stage this year.”

Delp said coordinators hope the contemporary Christian acts will appeal to the teenage demographic.

“The festival had something for every age group, except, maybe, the teen demographic,” Delp said. “We believe the contemporary Christian acts will be a draw for teenagers.”

The Gathering Place stage will again be located in that park on Main Avenue between Keesecker’s and Plant Palace, Delp said. For 2016, this stage will be mostly dedicated to bluegrass music with some local acts, such as line dancers, performing on that stage once again.

“We want our local favorites to take a stage at the festival every year,” Delp said.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to compete in a cornhole tournament this year.

“We announced last year we planned to host the tournament,” Delp said, “but, the inclement weather we had during the festival forced us to cancel it. We are going to bring that back this year.”

Applications for the tournament are available at the Chamber office.

Hundreds of vendors are again expected to sell their wares on Oct. 7 and 8.

“Our booth spaces are all full,” Delp said. “We have a very interesting group of vendors scheduled to come to the festival this year.”

Many of these booths will be occupied by culinary craftsmen in their own right.

“You can enjoy everything from Chinese to Greek foods, traditional foods such as barbecue, homemade hamburgers and hot wings to apple pies and apple dumplings,” Delp said. “For your convenience, three food courts, including tables and chairs, have been established.”

The young and young at heart will find fun at the children’s area.

“The large children’s area is a festival within a festival, uniquely designed for the young festivalgoers, complete with rides, games, concessions and much more,” Delp said. “Located in the parking lot of Erwin Town Hall, the 2016 festival children’s area, sponsored by the Unicoi County Family YMCA, will feature exciting attractions, including The Fun Factory’s Adrenaline Rush, Bungee Run, Joust, Saber-Tooth Tiger Slide, Bungee Trampoline and the King Kong Slide. Children and adults of all ages are invited to participate. The train ride, a children’s favorite from years past, will also be part of this year’s events.”

Also running in conjunction with the festival is the 37th annual Blue Ridge Pottery Show and Sale – a Unicoi County institution in its own right.

“Held at the Unicoi County Intermediate School, the show is a must-see for Blue Ridge pottery collectors and admirers,” Delp said. “Rare pieces can often be found during the show. Blue Ridge Pottery, now sought after by collectors worldwide, originated in Unicoi County.”

For more information about the Apple Festival and its related events, call the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000 or visit its office at 100 S. Main Ave. in downtown Erwin. The festival will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Oct. 7 and 8.

From Interstate 26, take Exit 37 into downtown Erwin to reach the festival grounds. Several parking areas around Exit 37 have been secured for festival attendees, according to the Chamber. 

To ensure the safety of the large number of attendees, festival organizers ask that you please do not bring pets onto the festival grounds. Bicycles and skateboards are also not permitted on festival grounds.

Hopson’s residency called into question – again

By Brad Hicks

The residency of a candidate vying for a seat on the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen has once again been called into question, four years after the matter was first addressed and just a little more than a month before the November election.

The Unicoi County Election Commission intends to discuss the most recent residency challenge concerning this candidate at a meeting to be held early next week.

Information was presented to the Unicoi County Election Commission office on Thursday alleging that Doug Hopson, current Unicoi vice-mayor and candidate for one of two four-year terms on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, does not reside within Unicoi’s municipal limits.

A letter dated Sept. 26 and addressed to Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey was included in the packet provided to the Election Commission. This letter states that because Hopson, who has served on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen since 2004, resides outside of the town’s limits, he should be disqualified from being able to pursue the office in the Nov. 8 municipal election.

“Recently it has come to my attention that Mr. Hopson eligibility to run for Alderman in the Town of Unicoi’s November election is in question,” the letter states. “From all accounts he has resided at 1000 Quail Run since 2009 of which disqualifies him to run for office in the Town of Unicoi.”

The letter also provides several items that could be interpreted to serve as the basis for Hopson’s disqualification and cites a section of the Town of Unicoi’s charter that states, “No person shall be eligible for the office of alderman unless such person has resided within the ward for at least one year next preceding the election.”

The letter also cites the Tennessee Secretary of State’s guidelines for determining residency which, according to the Secretary of State’s website, is used to determine whether a person is a resident of Tennessee for the purposes of voter registration. As the letter presented to the Election Commission points out, one of the six items used to determine residency is that a person can have only one residence. Another is that the place where a married person’s spouse and family live is presumed to be that person’s residence, unless that person “takes up or continues abode with the intention of remaining in a place other than where the spouse and family reside.”

A factor that may be determined by the state in determining residence is the “place of payment of taxes which are governed by residence.”

“In 2009 Mr. Hopson purchased a home at 1000 Quail Run and later relocated to that residence from his previous residence at 170 Lakeview drive,” the letter states. “This property at 1000 Quail Run is within the city limits of the town of Erwin. Property tax information as of August 17, 2016 shows that the only property that Mr. Hopson owns and pays taxes on in Unicoi County is at 1000 Quail Run.”

Hopson’s residency was also questioned ahead of the November 2012 election. Unicoi resident Bart Ray contacted the Election Commission ahead of that election to state that while Hopson listed his residence as 108 Hopson Lane in Unicoi on his voter registration and qualifying petition paperwork, he actually resides in the Quail Run subdivision located outside of the town’s limits.

During a September 2012 meeting of the Unicoi County Election Commission, Hopson told members of the commission he has used both addresses in the past and was in the process of selling the Quail Run residence. He also said the Hopson Lane property has served as his homeplace for more than six decades.

Election Commission member Marvin Rogers at that time advised fellow commissioners he had researched the matter and consulted with District Attorney General Tony Clark, who in turn consulted Tennessee Assistant Coordination of Elections Beth Henry-Robertson. In a letter provided to the Election Commission, Clark wrote Henry-Robertson stated it is legal for a person to have two residences as long as one of them is declared their home. Rogers said Henry-Robertson further advised the residence associated with a candidate’s voting record indicates that candidate’s permanent residence.

The Election Commission would unanimously vote during that September 2012 meeting to grant Hopson certification to run in that year’s November election.

“When everything was said and done, they said everything was above board and you could have more than one property as long as you only voted in one place, and my voter registration is in Unicoi,” Hopson said Monday.

But the letter submitted last week to the Election Commission office said the Election Commission was not provided all of the information concerning Hopson in 2012.

“On February 15, 2012 Mr. Hopson and his wife signed a ‘Tennessee Residential Property Condition Disclosure’ form in preparation of trying to sell their 1000 Quail Run Property in which they stated ‘YES’ to the question ‘DO YOU OCCUPY THE PROPERTY,’” the letter states. “This document verifies that Mr. Hopson did live at 1000 Quail Run preceding the 2012 election and should have been declared ineligible to run for the office of Alderman in the Town of Unicoi. As of this date Mr. Hopson still resides at this address.”

On his petition to run for the alderman seat in the November election, Hopson listed his address as 108 Hopson Road in Unicoi. The letter states this property is listed as belonging to Vestel and Edith Hopson, Doug Hopson’s deceased parents.

Included in the packet is a copy of the Town of Unicoi’s charter and copies of documents provided by the Unicoi County Register of Deeds and Property Assessor offices, among other documentation, to serve as exhibits to the allegations.

“In summary all of the above items indicate that Mr. Hopson does indeed reside at 1000 Quail Run, in the city limits of the Town of Erwin, with his wife and did not qualify to run in the 2012 election and definitely does not qualify to run in this coming election,” the letter states. The Town of Unicoi Charter is very clear when it states that ‘No person shall be eligible for the office of alderman unless such person has resided within the ward for at least one year next preceding the election.’

“Since Mr. Hopson lives in the city limits of Erwin he does not qualify to vote or run for office in the Town of Unicoi elections. Additionally Section 6-3-103 of the Town Charter states ‘any officer moving from such officer’s ward, in the case of an alderman, or moving from the municipality, in the case of mayor, during the term of office shall be presumed to have vacated the office, and it shall be declared vacant and filled as provided in 6-3-107.’ This action did not occur when Mr. Hopson relocated from Lakeview Dr. to 1000 Quail Run as it should have. Per the above Mr. Hopson does not qualify to hold his present office of Alderman and does not qualify to run for Alderman in this November election.”

Current Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley, also a candidate for one of the two open four-year seats on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, said he delivered the packet to the Election Commission office. Mosley, however, said he neither wrote the letter addressed to Bailey nor compiled the information contained within the packet.

The information was compiled by fellow Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen candidate Roger Cooper, who is vying against Billy Harkins Jr. to fill the unexpired term of former alderman Phillip Hensley, who resigned from the board earlier this year.

“There’s no way they can let him run this time,” Cooper said Monday.

Cooper added the Town of Unicoi’s charter and state guidelines are “clear” with regards to residency definitions and requirements. He said the information now in the hands of the county’s Election Commission spells out why Hopson should be disqualified as a candidate in the Unicoi race.

“The packet speaks for itself,” Cooper said. “It’s all there.”

The Election Commission was already scheduled to meet on Oct. 10 at 10 a.m. to inspect and seal voting machines for the November election but, on Monday, the commission announced it has amended its Oct. 10 agenda to discuss the information challenging Hopson’s qualifications to appear on the ballot.

Bailey said some voters have already cast ballots by mail. She said if the Election Commission determines that Hopson should be disqualified from seeking the office, new ballots with Hopson’s name removed would be sent to such voters residing within the Town of Unicoi.

“What we would do if we wound up in that situation, I believe the state would ask us to, of course, update the ballot, resend the ballots with explanations to all those voters who have already voted or to the ones we’ve mailed ballots to that haven’t returned theirs,” she said.

Bailey said if this move is necessary, only the race for the four-year term on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen would be impacted.

“They wouldn’t lose their vote in any other race,” Bailey said. “Really, the only thing that would happen if Mr. Hopson’s name is removed from the ballot, any votes for him obviously wouldn’t be counted, but any other offices that they had voted for if they didn’t send in a new ballot would still be counted.”

Bailey said every effort would be made to give affected voters an opportunity to vote on the revised ballot.

“Obviously, we’ll have a much better handle on this when the Election Commission reviews everything on the 10th,” Bailey said.

Hopson said his situation remains unchanged from four years ago. He said his Quail Run property is still on the market and that he is at the family-owned property within Unicoi’s limits daily.

“Ninety percent of my time is spent in Unicoi,” he said.

Hopson said the most recent challenge to his residency is a “personal” attack launched by political opponents.

“Nothing has changed except I’ve been dedicating a lot more of my time to the town, and everybody knows that,” Hopson said. “It will show at election time who supports the town and who wants the town to keep growing and progressing, and the ones who are bringing it up are the ones that are against the town and trying to do away with the town.”

Agencies seeking information in I-81 shootings

From Staff Reports

A car carrying a family was fired upon on I-81 in East Tennessee, according to officials. Agencies are seeking information into several shootings. (Contributed photo)

A car carrying a family was fired upon on I-81 in East Tennessee, according to officials. Agencies are seeking information into several shootings. (Contributed photo)

The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) Criminal Investigation Division (CID) along with The Tennessee Fusion Center (TFC) is providing this Request for Information (RFI) in an attempt to identify agencies that have any reporting of vehicles being shot while traveling on Interstate-81 in Eastern Tennessee. The agencies are also seeking the public’s assistance with any information that will lead to arrest of the individual(s) involved in this incident.  

On Friday, Sept. 9, at approximately 10:50 p.m., a commercial vehicle was traveling north on I-81 near mile marker 17 when a small car passed. The commercial vehicle driver described seeing a bright flash inside the passing vehicle, and believed it to be muzzles flash. THP responded to the location, however, neither the trooper nor the driver was able to locate a bullet hole.

On Sunday, Sept. 18, between 11:30 p.m. and midnight EST, occupants of an armored vehicle traveling north on I-81 heard a loud noise between the mile markers 4 and 20 and assumed a tire had blown. After reaching a destination in a nearby state, further inspection revealed a bullet impact on the passenger side of the cab.  

On Tuesday, Sept. 27, at approximately 9:08 p.m. EST, a bullet entered the front windshield of a vehicle, occupied by a family, traveling north on I-81 at mile marker 10.5.

The driver noticed a silver Toyota Camry that passed their vehicle prior to the incident with only one headlight.  It is unknown if that vehicle was involved.

The THP and TFC seeks to identify other jurisdictions that may have reports of vehicles having been shot at or that have evidence of bullet impacts after traveling on I-81 in Eastern Tennessee.

The agencies are also seeking to identify any information that may provide leads about the individual(s) that may be involved with the shooting of vehicles in the Hamblen and Jefferson Counties of Eastern Tennessee while traveling on roads or interstates.

Individuals and Law enforcement agencies with similar activities or information are requested to contact Sgt. Kevin Kimbrough, THP-Criminal Investigation Division at 426-6571, Detective Lieutenant David Stapleton with the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department is also assisting in the investigation and can be contacted at 586-3781.

Anonymous flyer raises questions about use of funds

This flyer was distributed to some Unicoi residents on Sunday, Sept. 18, one day before the regular monthly meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

This flyer was distributed to some Unicoi residents on Sunday, Sept. 18, one day before the regular monthly meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

By Brad Hicks

As has been the case for months, attendance at Monday’s meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen exceeded available seating at Unicoi Town Hall.

And, just like last month, an anonymous flyer was distributed to the town’s residents the day before the meeting, urging them to attend and question the town’s leadership on how tax money is being sent.

At the top of the flyer, which was placed in residents’ mailboxes on Sunday, is a cartoon figure resembling the “Monopoly Man” from the iconic board game. Behind the figure is a large bag of cash from which the mustached, top hat-wearing man is nonchalantly throwing money around.

“Is this the guy you want using your tax money?” the flyer asks. “Are you getting what you pay for with your tax dollars?

“Does your road need repair? Do you think you would like a fire hall closer to your home? Are you getting services you need or are all the pet projects getting more attention and money instead of what you and your family deserve.

“Is your government treating your money like Monopoly money?

“Come to the town hall meeting on Monday the 19th at 5:30 and ask questions!”

And while only one person in attendance actually questioned how the town was utilizing funding and Mayor Johnny Lynch’s request for the person who printed the flyers to identify himself or herself went unanswered, the latest flyer did prompt Lynch to provide a response – one that included him jokingly breaking out his own top hat and stating “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

Lynch’s response to the flyer came just before adjournment of Monday’s meeting.

“It’s real cute, you know,” Lynch said. “It’s got the little cartoon, and I assume that’s supposed to be me.”

But the mayor took on a more serious tone when addressing the concerns raised in the flyer, particularly the reference to the town’s “pet projects.” He said projects and town-sponsored events, such as the July 4th Freedom Fest and Strawberry Festival, are investments in the town made for its citizenry.

“It’s all for you,” Lynch said. “It’s all for you. We don’t get anything out of it. If you’re going to get out here and you’re going to criticize and you’re going to do all this stuff, even though it is election time, let’s be cool about it. Let’s get along, and let’s put good information out. Let’s not put inaccurate information out.”

Still, the heated atmosphere prevalent in recent meetings seemed to have cooled off Monday, as two of three attendees who spoke during Monday’s public comments period commended town leadership for its efforts.

Twelve-year resident Bob Sahli said officials have done a “fabulous” job for residents.

“I’m proud of what you all have done, every one of you,” Sahli said to the board. “I’m proud of everything that has been accomplished by what little amount of money that you get.”

Jean Stead served on the board for a project similar to the Town of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Hancock County. He said the kitchen there proved not to be a “pet project” but instead a tool for economic development.

“I would also like to address the fact that it seems to me the thinking in this town is that we cannot have quality of life, quote ‘pet projects,’ versus spending money,” Stead said. “It is not a linear problem. We can have both. They go together in what we call ‘quality of life.’”

Resident Donna Perry, however, questioned the return realized on projects such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. She said she first attended a meeting due to the issues with the bridge along Marbleton Road. Perry said what kept her coming back was her belief that the board is continuing to work on “special interest and pet projects.”

“Most of the money I see going out to these things is not bringing enough money into this thing,” she said, adding that such projects such as the kitchen are a “money drain” rather than “money maker.”

The board on Monday approved a bid from Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction Company to complete the second phase of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. Brunhilde Tober-Myer, who has served on the kitchen project’s board, said a previously-conducted survey indicated more than 250 people expressed interest in utilizing the kitchen and that the town continues to field interest in the project.

Lynch said the time and money spent on pursuing various projects has bought a greater return to the town.

“‘Pet projects’ are investments in your town. They’re investments in your town,” Lynch said. “We’ve worked very hard to get these grants. Tell me, if you took $2 out of the bank, do you think you could triple that? No, you couldn’t, but we can with grants and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken this money and we’ve tripled it.”

In other business, the board approved a resolution that would allow Unicoi County Schools officials to close Garfield Street from Virginia Street to Massachusetts Avenue while Unicoi County Elementary School is in session as school officials deem necessary.

By a 4-1 vote, the board also approved a measure to authorize Town Attorney Lois Shults-Davis to proceed with condemnation to acquire the last right-of-way needed for the Marbleton Road bridge should condemnation action be necessary. Alderwoman Kathy Bullen cast the dissenting vote.

Shults-Davis said officials are awaiting an appraisal of the property but that negotiations for the right-of-way have thus far been unsuccessful.

Sheriff opts not to sue over budget

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley will not pursue legal action against Unicoi County over the 2016-17 budget, but several items will be presented to the county’s governing body for its funding consideration in the next fiscal year.

Hensley and his attorneys issued a statement on Monday, Sept. 19, announcing the sheriff’s decision not to file a lawsuit against the county for the Unicoi County Commission’s failure to fund in the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget items Hensley previously described as necessities for his department.

“After giving the matter thorough consideration, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley has decided that he will not file a lawsuit against Unicoi County seeking additional funding for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department for the 2016-17 fiscal year,” the statement reads. “This decision was confirmed to Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch by Hensley’s attorneys on September 15, 2016. Sheriff Hensley stated while he remains concerned that the 2016-17 fiscal year budget that was approved in August by the Unicoi County Commission for the Sheriff’s Department will not be sufficient for him to perform his statutory and other duties (which include guarding the courts, maintaining the peace, serving subpoenas and other legal documents, and operating the Unicoi County Jail), he and his staff will do the best they can with the funds that were budgeted to the Sheriff’s Department by the County Commission to perform those duties and protect the citizens of Unicoi County.”

Lynch on Monday described Hensley’s decision as “good news.”

“It’s always a relief when you know you don’t have a lawsuit on the horizon,” Lynch said. “I think it was the best decision for the taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill for whatever the County Commission opts to do as far as salaries and different line items. So, hopefully, this will send a message to them that he’s willing to work within the parameters, and next year (the County Commission) can maybe work on broadening his parameters a little bit. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice concurred with Lynch’s reaction to the announcement.

“I’m thankful that the taxpayers won’t have to foot the additional cost for a lawsuit,” Rice said. “I’m glad the sheriff decided not to go that route.”

Monday’s announcement was made as the deadline for the sheriff to either agree to the approved budget or file suit approached.

The Unicoi County Commission was first made aware of possible legal action by the sheriff prior to its Aug. 8 meeting, during which it approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. Commissioners had received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In that letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting the maintenance of UCSD vehicles. The sheriff also wrote that he was seeking funding to bring two part-time corrections officers at each of the county’s jail facilities to full-time status, the restoration of funding for a teaching position included in the budget for the Unicoi County Jail, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter stated.

The sheriff presented the Commission with the option of replacing the roof on the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located in downtown Erwin and providing funding to hire a certified mechanic or increasing his department’s funding for vehicle maintenance and repair.

During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s overall 2016-17 budget, Hensley estimated the repair of the leaky roof would cost around $30,000. In his letter, Hensley provided annual mechanic salary estimates ranging from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

Hensley requested that $110,000 be provided in his budget for vehicle maintenance and repair if the Commission chose not to repair the roof and hire the mechanic. The UCSD originally sought $50,000 for this expenditure in the 2016-17 fiscal year, but the Budget and Finance Committee during its meetings proposed reducing this amount to $36,000.

The originally-submitted budget for the Unicoi County Jail included $25,000 for a teacher who leads the inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. During its sessions, the Budget and Finance Committee had proposed completely eliminating funding for the position but later opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

In his letter, Hensley called for the full $25,256 for the teaching position to be restored.

Hensley previously said around $24,000 would be needed to complete the installation of fencing around the Jail Annex.

The County Commission on Aug. 22 approved the second and final reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget without addressing the requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter.

According to law, officeholders have 30 days from the passage of the budget to either sign a letter of agreement stating they will work within the parameters of the approved budget or file a lawsuit if they feel the approved funding is inadequate.

After the passage of Unicoi County’s 2016-17 budget, Lynch received notice that Hensley had obtained legal representation should he opt to pursue legal action against the county. Attorneys with the Johnson City-based Pectol & Miles law firm provided Lynch with a letter dated Aug. 31 that stated the firm would have represented Hensley had he chosen to pursue legal action.

Even though he has decided not to pursue the lawsuit, Hensley is already looking ahead to the 2017-18 fiscal year. In the statement issued Monday, Hensley spells out several items for which he will seek funding in 2017-18.

“Sheriff Hensley further stated that for purposes of the 2017-18 fiscal year, he intended to submit a budget request which will set forth in great detail the funds he will need to (i) hire additional deputies and correctional officers; (ii) provide the existing deputies and correctional officers with salaries and benefits that are commensurate with those paid by surrounding counties; and (iii) make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the Jail and Jail Annex,” the statement issued Monday reads. “Sheriff Hensley added that his budget requests for fiscal year 2017-18 will be supported by written analyses prepared by the County Technical Advisory Service following its exhaustive investigation into the Sheriff Department’s staffing needs.”

The statement also requests that members of the Unicoi County Commission keep in mind the revenue the UCSD has generated when it comes time to consider these requests.

“Sheriff Hensley also pointed out that in the 2015-16 fiscal year alone, the Sheriff’s Department generated over $931,000 in revenue that was all paid into the County’s general fund – an amount that far surpasses the revenue generated by the Sheriff’s Department under previous administrations,” the statement issued Monday reads. “Sheriff Hensley stated that at the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the general fund had a balance of approximately $68,000, and he believes that the increase in the general fund balance was due in large part to the substantial additional revenue during the 2015-16 fiscal year. Sheriff Hensley is hopeful that when the County Commission consider his budget request for fiscal year 2017-18, it will recognize the Sheriff’s Department’s significant contribution to the County’s revenue and will use that additional revenue to enable Sheriff Hensley to (i) hire additional deputies and correctional officers, (ii) increase the salaries and benefits paid to the Department’s existing deputies and correctional officers, and (iii) make long-overdue and necessary improvements to the Jail and Jail Annex.”

Lynch said he hopes the Unicoi County Commission can work with Hensley throughout the 2016-17 fiscal year and that Hensley’s decision not to pursue the lawsuit sends a message to the County Commission that he is willing to work with them.

“I hope that the County Commission can work with him, actually, over this coming year prior to the budget, possibly getting some of the things accomplished that he had wanted to earlier,” Lynch said.

Rice said the Unicoi County Commission will work with the UCSD in the 2017-18 fiscal year, but she added the Commission must work within the revenue available when preparing the budget.

“As usual, we’ll try to work with him in any way we can, and then in next year’s budget, we still have to work with the revenue that comes in,” Rice said. “We have to balance the budget. If we don’t have the revenue, we sure can’t spend that money, so we’ll just have to look at his requests and see where things are. Hopefully, the revenue will improve by next year.”

It’s time to Relay!

Included in this issue is a special 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life supplement. The supplement features stories about the impact of cancer on local residents, as well as information about Saturday’s event.

Included in this issue is a special 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life supplement. The supplement features stories about the impact of cancer on local residents, as well as information about Saturday’s event.

By Keeli Parkey

Unicoi County residents will join forces to ‘Paint Your World Purple’ this weekend in the fight against cancer.

The 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life to benefit the American Cancer Society will take place on Saturday, Sept. 17, at the Unicoi County High School track field in Erwin. The annual event raises funds to help those diagnosed with cancer in many ways, an event coordinator told The Erwin Record.

“Money raised by Relay For Life funds research, awareness programs, local patient assistance, patient resources, support phone lines and advocacy efforts,” said Renea Jones-Rogers, chairwoman of the Unicoi County Relay For Life.

Jones-Rogers encouraged everyone to support this weekend’s event.

“At some point, we will all know and love someone that battles this often deadly disease,” she said. “Cancer is not a one-size-fits-all disease, so likewise neither is the cure. It takes an incredible amount of research and treatment plans to battle the multitudes of cancer cells and it takes lots of dollars to fight this war.

“Community involvement raises the much-needed funds to combat this disease, it encourages survivors and gives them strength to continue to fight and it is an opportunity to remember those who lost their battles in a very special celebration of their life,” she continued. “We need the community to come out and show their Unicoi County compassion, not only for those in their family, but also for our community. We need our community to come out and ‘Paint Your World Purple’ while helping to raise much needed dollars to continue to fund cures.”

Jones-Rogers has personal experience with the work of the American Cancer Society.

“That ugly ‘C word’ has impacted me personally on many levels, but the most impact was with my son’s diagnosis,” she said. “Relay For Life had always been an event I attended and felt connected to, but as a mother of a child with cancer words cannot explain the emotions that you feel.

“Relay For Life became a light of hope for me. Organizers reached out and teachers, family and friends started a team in his honor – a team that became my life support during those difficult days and later a team that gave us a purpose as we transitioned into the ‘no evidence of disease’ phase. I realized I want to help be that light of hope for others. I relay for hope,” she added.

The community can continue the fight against cancer after Saturday’s event, Jones-Rogers also said. Teams will be raising funds through the end of the year.

The opening ceremony of the 2016 Unicoi County Relay For Life will begin at 1 p.m. at the track. Events will continue until 11 p.m. and will include a reception for survivors at 5 p.m., the survivor lap at 6:45 p.m., team lap at 7 p.m., luminaria ceremony at 10 p.m. and Glo Run at 11 p.m., among others. There will also be live music.

A full schedule and other information of the event can be found in the special Relay For Life supplement included in this issue of The Erwin Record.

Sheriff hires legal representation

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (FIle photo)

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (FIle photo)

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch has received notice that Sheriff Mike Hensley has acquired legal representation in his possible lawsuit against the county’s governing body.

Last week, attorneys with the Johnson City-based Pectol & Miles law firm submitted to Lynch a letter addressed to the county mayor. The purpose of the brief letter, dated Aug. 31, was to notify the mayor that attorneys with the practice will represent Hensley should the sheriff opt to pursue legal action for the Unicoi County Commission’s failure to fund what Hensley previously described as necessities for his department.

The letter, which was signed by attorney Richard Pectol, in its entirety reads:

“Please allow this letter to confirm that my law firm has been engaged by Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley to represent him in connection with a lawsuit he is contemplating bringing under Tennessee Code Annotated 8-20-101(a)(1) and 8-20-120 in the event he is not afforded additional funding by the Unicoi County Commission to enable him to (i) meet his statutory duties as Unicoi County Sheriff and (ii) properly and efficiently conduct the affairs and transact the business of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s office. This would of course include additional funding for the security of the Unicoi County Jail and the Jail Annex.”

TCA 8-20-101 essentially permits county officials, including the sheriff, to file a salary suit if they do not agree with the budgetary amount appropriated by the county’s governing body. TCA 8-20-120 pertains to the funding of county sheriff’s departments.

“Notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, county governing bodies shall fund the operations of the county’s sheriff’s department,” TCA 8-20-120 states. “The sheriff may appoint such personnel as may be provided for in the budget adopted for such department. No county governing body shall adopt a budget absent the consent of the sheriff, which reduces below current levels the salaries and number of employees in the sheriff’s department. In the event a county governing body fails to budget any salary expenditure which is a necessity for the discharge of the statutorily mandated duties of the sheriff, the sheriff may seek a writ of mandamus to compel such appropriation.”

Due to the potential for legal action, Lynch said he could not comment on the specifics of the matter but called the most recent development “unfortunate.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see where it goes from here,” Lynch said.

Hensley directed all questions regarding the possible lawsuit to Pectol & Miles.

Pectol said Friday that while the letter does not necessarily mean a lawsuit will be filed, his law firm is prepared to represent Hensley should legal action be taken.

“Hopefully the lawsuit will not be necessary,” Pectol said. “I think Sheriff Hensley has been very reasonable in his requests, and we hope that the Commission will take another look and see that he is in dire need of the funds he has asked for. It’s all about the security and safety of the citizens of Unicoi County.”

Pectol said legal action could be avoided and Unicoi County’s citizens would be “well-served” if the County Commission would again convene to address Hensley’s funding requests.

“It’s just a tough situation when you have to file suit and, hopefully, reasonable people will get together and work this out. That’s all he really wants,” Pectol said.

County officeholders have 30 days from the passage of the county’s overall fiscal year budget to either sign a letter of agreement stipulating they will work within the parameters of the budget approved by the county’s governing body or file suit. Pectol said if a lawsuit is filed, it would be filed in Unicoi County Circuit Court. He added the 30-day clock started on Aug. 22, the evening the Unicoi County Commission passed the second and final reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. 

“We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do within the time limit prescribed by law,” Pectol said.

The Unicoi County Commission was made aware of possible legal action by the sheriff on Aug. 8, the same date the panel approved the first reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Prior to that evening’s meeting, county commissioners received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In his letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options pertaining to the maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. The sheriff also wrote that he was seeking the funding to bring two part-time corrections officers at each of the county’s jail facilities to full-time status, the restoration of funding for a teaching position included in the submitted budget for the Unicoi County Jail, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” Hensley’s letter stated.

Hensley provided the Commission with the option of replacing the roof on the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located in downtown Erwin and providing funding to hire a certified mechanic or increasing his department’s funding for vehicle maintenance and repair.

During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s overall 2016-17 budget, Hensley estimated the repair of the leaky roof would cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. In his letter, Hensley provided annual mechanic salary estimates ranging from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

Hensley requested that $110,000 be provided in his budget for vehicle maintenance and repair if the Commission chose not to repair the roof and hire the mechanic. The UCSD originally sought $50,000 for this expenditure in the 2016-17 fiscal year, but the Budget and Finance Committee during its meetings proposed reducing this amount to $36,000.

The original budget for the Unicoi County Jail included $25,000 for a teacher who leads the inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. During its sessions, the Budget and Finance Committee had proposed completely eliminating funding for the position but later opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

In his letter, Hensley called for the full $25,256 for the position to be restored. Hensley previously said around $24,000 would be needed to complete the installation of razor wire, which his department acquired at no cost, around the Jail Annex.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice previously said the requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter represented expenditures in the $175,000 to $200,000 range. She also said county officials had already been working to address some of Hensley’s requests. On the same evening it approved the budget’s second reading, the County Commission approved allowing Lynch to take quotes and/or bids on replacing the maintenance garage roof, as well as receive offers for surplus metal studs from jail facility renovations to help offset the roof repair cost.

The Unicoi County Commission on Aug. 22 approved the second and final reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget without addressing the requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter.

Of the county’s approximately $7.2 million total budget, expenses associated with the UCSD – which is made up of the department’s general budget, the jail budget and the jail annex budget – represent approximately $3 million.

Honoring Mary: Event opens new chapter in local history

The Erwin Elephant Revival concluded Saturday with the Elephant Glow Parade. A large statue of Mary was unveiled during the parade. The Revival raised more than $7,000 for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The Erwin Elephant Revival concluded Saturday with the Elephant Glow Parade. A large statue of Mary was unveiled during the parade. The Revival raised more than $7,000 for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

For 100 years, Erwin has been known as the town that hung the elephant.

The story of Mary the circus elephant has been told countless times since the fateful day she was brought to the Clinchfield Railroad yard for her public execution. A derrick was used to hoist the large mammal off the ground by her neck. A crowd of onlookers watched as life left the star attraction of the Sparks World Famous Shows circus.

The infamy of Mary’s Sept. 13, 1916, hanging has for generations left Erwin with a stigma that time has not erased, but it has become apparent that many were not content to let Mary’s story end with her demise.

Over the past several weeks, members of the community have helped write a new chapter in the tale of Mary and, in the process, have given Erwin a new elephant-related identity. Erwin is now the sole community supporter of an organization dedicated to providing care and habitat to captive elephants.

The Erwin Elephant Revival culminated Saturday in downtown Erwin. The event was conceived by a group known as R.I.S.E. (Rejuvenate, Invest, Support, Energize) Erwin as a way to not only honor the memory of Mary ahead of the 100th anniversary of her death, but also as a way to turn a black mark in the community’s history into a positive by having the event serve as a fundraiser for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a nonprofit refuge in Hohenwald that is home to 13 elephants retired from North American zoos and circuses.

Saturday’s free festivities kicked off with “Elephant Magic Night,” which featured an interactive kids’ zone, a magic show, music and games. The Erwin Elephant Revival concluded Saturday evening with the Elephant Glow Parade, which featured buskers, belly dancers, a marching band and the unveiling of a large statue of the famous pachyderm.

“It’s been 100 years in the making,” R.I.S.E. President Jamie Rice said of the Erwin Elephant Revival following Saturday’s parade. “We just felt like this year was the year to honor Mary, and the community that has hung its head for 100 years said, ‘We are not going to hang our head anymore. We’re going to support this Elephant Sanctuary and we are proud to be from Erwin and we’re moving forward.”

The parking lot beside the Unicoi County Courthouse was packed for Elephant Magic Night, which was made possible through a partnership between event organizers, Hands-On Regional Museum and Kindermusik. Among other activities, children were able to make elephant masks and “elephant boogers.” The streets of downtown Erwin were lined for the evening’s Elephant Glow Parade, the crowd applauding as the Mary statue made its way up Main Avenue.

Free watermelon was also handed out throughout Saturday’s portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival in honor of Mary. According to legend, as Mary tried to stray from a parade to nibble on a discarded watermelon rind, her trainer struck her with a barbed bullhook to keep the elephant in line. By some accounts, this was what led Mary to kill her trainer in Sullivan County on Sept. 12, 1916. His death led to Mary’s hanging in Erwin.

Enough watermelon was leftover at the end of Saturday evening to send plenty to the elephants housed at the Elephant Sanctuary.

In the middle of Saturday’s festivities, Rice and Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, on behalf of the community, presented a check for $6,393 to Todd Montgomery, education manager with the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. This amount represented the money raised throughout the course of the Erwin Elephant Revival for the elephant refuge.

“To say ‘Thank you’ is certainly an understatement, but I think that’s the best summary of how we feel,” Montgomery said. “I’ve told everybody in my short but wonderful time in Erwin how much it means to me and the Sanctuary as Tennesseans that this is happening right up the road from where we are. And I think it says a lot about our shared community, that we have these people here who care as much as they do about the elephants and are doing something really, really wonderful to help improve the lives of the elephants that are in the care of the Sanctuary.”

Montgomery said the money raised by members of the community will be put toward any number of items to provide a better life for the elephants at the Sanctuary, including hay, medicine and fencing. He also confirmed that Erwin is the only community that formally supports the Elephant Sanctuary, as all other donations come from individuals and organizations.

“To my knowledge, I cannot think of a situation where we had an entire community or town sort of come together in this way, in a unified fashion, to support the Sanctuary,” Montgomery said. “So I hope this is, certainly, the first of many, and I think Erwin has set a fantastic example to be followed here.”

Kristin Anders with R.I.S.E. said this is something that the community should take pride in, as its members made this a reality. She added it was important to note that the check provided to the Elephant Sanctuary was from the community.

“I don’t think you can ever force things to be forgotten,” Anders said. “We will always be known and associated with an elephant being from Erwin. So why not make it something positive? And this is not an individual or our group’s initiative. It is now our town’s.” 

The community’s support began well before Saturday. Throughout the Erwin Elephant Revival, community members have purchased event T-shirts, tickets to various events and even lemonade, with proceeds going toward the Sanctuary.

“It wasn’t just one big donor,” Rice said. “Everybody gave a little bit.”

Other events that comprised the Erwin Elephant Revival and helped raise funds for the Elephant Sanctuary included the Unicoi County High School Drama Department’s Aug. 20 and Aug. 21 performances of a one-act production titled “Mary’s Story: A Hundred Years Later,” The “Trunk Show” Antique Car Show on Aug. 25, and the Low-Country Boil charity dinner held on Aug. 26.

Hensley, who, along with Montgomery, served as grand marshal for Saturday’s Elephant Glow Parade, said although the past cannot be changed, it was time to make amends. She expressed her appreciation for the community’s support of the Erwin Elephant Revival, adding she hopes the community raising thousands of dollars for the Elephant Sanctuary has helped heal the “ill feelings” many have harbored against Erwin over Mary’s death.

“I think that this has been a community effort,” Hensley said. “Even though the R.I.S.E. has put their commitment and their time and their energy into making this happen, it took the community to support them. And, so, I do want to thank the community for the support that they have shown us. I look forward to the next project R.I.S.E. takes on because I’m sure they’re not going to give up. They’re going to keep on going, and I’m very appreciative and proud of the young people that we have in Erwin. It just shows that we’re going to have good leadership in the future.”

Both Rice and Anders said community support for the Erwin Elephant Revival remained high throughout the duration of the event. The event actually kicked off on Aug. 19 with the countywide, social media-based “#SeekMary” scavenger hunt. Rice said participation in this portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival was an indicator of things to come.

“We knew from people’s interest in #SeekMary that this was going to be a hit, because there was so much online participation for #SeekMary,” she said. “We got people from all around the region coming to Unicoi County trying to find these different locations. And that was one of our goals with all this, as well, is just promoting how beautiful our county is and all the good things we have to offer.”

But Rice admitted that she “never could have imagined” Saturday’s turnout would as great as it was. She and Anders used words such as “speechless” and “blown away” when describing the crowd and the community’s support.

“They want to embrace it. I think it provides healing,” Anders said. “Granted, it wasn’t our generation 100 years ago and we can’t control that, but we can control the future and be a part of it and make it something positive.”

And, as Rice explained, the Erwin Elephant Revival was about more than offering the community  a chance to heal the wounds that have remained from Mary’s hanging. She said it was the chance to bring together a community that needed further healing following last year’s closure of the local CSX office, which was around the time planning for the event began.

“It was a struggle, so we thought, ‘What is something that would help our town heal and that we could really get behind to bring our community together?’” Rice said.

“And it being the 100th year of Mary, it wasn’t better timing,” Anders added.

Anders said with Saturday’s portion of the Erwin Elephant Revival taken into account, more than $7,000 has been raised for the Elephant Sanctuary. And although the Erwin Elephant Revival has concluded, fundraising for the Sanctuary is far from over. Eight small elephant statues featured in Saturday’s parade were previously purchased from the Elephant Parade, a Denmark-based organization that brings awareness to elephant habitat loss.

“When they heard our story, they just jumped onboard wanting to help us, so they partnered with town officials and we coordinated and got these international elephants to Erwin, which is pretty amazing,” Rice said.

R.I.S.E. Erwin is still seeking sponsors for these elephant statues, which artists will be commissioned to paint over the winter. It is hoped that the uniquely-painted statues will be ready to be debuted in the spring of 2017, and they will be displayed throughout downtown Erwin over the next summer. At the end of the summer of 2017, the statues will be auctioned off with the money going to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

The large statue of Mary that was  featured prominently in Saturday’s parade will likely continue to pop up around town. The statue, which is around 11-feet tall, 18-feet long and 6-feet wide, was built by Chris Kastner, owner of the  Backyard Terrors Dinosaur Park in Bluff City. Rice said the statue may be displayed at a local playground or another public area.

“You will see her everywhere,” Rice said. “I bet she’s going to be in every parade from now on.”

And it is unlikely that Mary will be forgotten anytime soon, as the Erwin Elephant Revival’s success could lead to it becoming an annual happening.

“With the success that has been shown in the last week, I definitely think the town officials will want to make this a yearly event, something for people to look forward to all year, something different and exciting and new,” Rice said.

Local fundraising efforts for the Elephant Sanctuary are also ongoing. Anders said T-shirts and other elephants items sold throughout the Erwin Elephant Revival will be sold at the Erwin Farmers Market, held Tuesday evenings in downtown Erwin.

Those interested in sponsoring one of the elephant statues may contact R.I.S.E. Erwin at riseerwin@gmail.com.

Preparations underway for Apple Festival

By Keeli Parkey

The 39th Annual Unicoi County Apple Festival is just around the corner.

Set for Friday, Oct. 7, and Saturday, Oct. 8, the festival will once again take over the streets of downtown Erwin, bringing unique vendors, entertainment and more to visitors and residents. Once again, the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is coordinating  the Apple Festival.

“We work on the Apple Festival year round,” Chamber Executive Director Amanda Delp recently told The Erwin Record. “We are really trying hard to make it bigger and better – that is our goal every year.”

Attendees will see a different layout to the festival grounds in 2016, according to Delp.

“We are making some changes that we think will enhance the festival,” she added. “One, will be stage locations. The stage we had in the Commons Area, which was located in the parking lot behind the courthouse, we are pulling that out of the parking lot and putting it on Gay Street. In previous years, that stage was hidden. We want to make it more visible. The music lineup for this stage will be very good again this year.”

This pro, touring stage will be placed almost in front of Liberty Lumber, facing toward Main Avenue. Booth spaces lost by the placement of the stage on Gay Street have been moved to the parking lot.

Delp said the stage that has “traditionally been the Southern gospel stage” will be repositioned this year.

“We are moving this stage onto Love Street at the corner of Love and Church Street with the sound amplifying down Love Street,” she added. “We will have seating in front of the stage and will use the parking lot where the stage was located in previous years for food vendors and sponsor booths.”

The format of this stage will also slightly change, according to Delp.

“We have had a lot of people in recent years tell us they would like to see some contemporary Christian acts perform,” she added. “We are going to do a mix of Southern gospel and contemporary Christian artists and groups. We are also bringing in a pro, touring stage this year.”

The Gathering Place stage will again be located in that park on Main Avenue between Keesecker’s and Plant Palace, Delp said. For 2016, this stage will be mostly dedicated to bluegrass music with some local acts, such as line dancers, performing on that stage once again.

“We want our local favorites to take a stage at the festival every year,” Delp said.

• • •

Attendees will also have the opportunity to compete in a cornhole tournament this year.

“We announced last year we planned to host the tournament,” Delp said, “but, the inclement weather we had during the festival forced us to cancel it. We are going to bring that back this year.”

Applications for the tournament will be available at the Chamber office in the near future.

The Chamber will again sponsor the annual Apple Dumpling contest, as well. Applications for this will also be available from the Chamber.

“The Apple Dumpling Contest is a remarkable event that spans more than two decades of tradition during the Unicoi County Apple Festival,” Delp said. “The Chamber of Commerce is proud to keep this Apple Festival tradition going.”

Apple Festival merchandise will also be available soon, according to Delp.

Hundreds of vendors are again expected to sell their wares on Oct. 7 and 8.

“Our booth spaces are all full,” Delp said. “We have a very interesting group of vendors scheduled to come to the festival this year.”

For more information about the Apple Festival, call the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce at 743-3000 or visit its office at 100 S. Main Ave. in downtown Erwin.

UCSD locates almost 300 marijuana plants

From Staff Reports

Sheriff Mike Hensley, right, and Chief Deputy Frank Rogers stand with the marijuana plants discovered in Unicoi County on Thursday, Aug. 25. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

Sheriff Mike Hensley, right, and Chief Deputy Frank Rogers stand with the marijuana plants discovered in Unicoi County on Thursday, Aug. 25. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

Using a Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department located two patches of marijuana growing in the southern end of Unicoi County on Thursday, Aug. 25.

Sheriff Mike Hensley said 283 marijuana plants, some standing as high as eight feet, were found and removed from one patch. Eight other plants, ranging from 7-9 feet, were found in another patch and removed.

No arrests have been made at this time.

Commission passes budget, no word on sheriff’s threatened lawsuit

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Commissioners, pictured from left, Todd Wilcox, Kenneth Garland, Jason Harris, Bridget Peters, Marie Rice, Gene Wilson, Loren Thomas and John Mosley, are shown during their Aug. 22 meeting.  Six of the eight commissioners present voted to pass the 2016-17 budget. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)

Unicoi County Commissioners, pictured from left, Todd Wilcox, Kenneth Garland, Jason Harris, Bridget Peters, Marie Rice, Gene Wilson, Loren Thomas and John Mosley, are shown during their Aug. 22 meeting. Six of the eight commissioners present voted to pass the 2016-17 budget. (Erwin Record Staff Photos by Brad Hicks)

It is known that Unicoi County’s fund balance to begin the 2016-17 fiscal year is the best it has been in years. It is also known that there will be no property tax increase in the new fiscal year.

Still, there is an air of uncertainty with regards to the budget, as it is not yet known whether Sheriff Mike Hensley will pursue legal action against the county for failure to fund expenditures he previously referred to as “necessities” for his department.   

The Unicoi County Commission on Monday, Aug. 22, approved the second and final reading of the county’s budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The measure passed by a 6-2 vote among county commissioners present, with Loren Thomas and John Mosley casting the dissenting votes. Commissioner Glenn White was not present at Monday’s meeting.

The County Commission was made aware of potential legal action by the sheriff on Aug. 8, the same evening the panel approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget. Prior to that evening’s meeting, county commissioners received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley.

In the letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting the maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. Hensley also sought the funding to bring two part-time corrections officers at each of the county’s jail facilities to full-time status, the restoration of funding for a teaching position contained with the Unicoi County Jail budget, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” Hensley’s letter stated.

The budget was passed Monday as presented, and the requests Hensley spelled out in his letter were not discussed. Hensley did not speak during the course of Monday’s meeting and, following the meeting’s adjournment, left the Unicoi County Courthouse, declining comment to media.

In his letter, Hensley gave the commission the option of replacing the roof on the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located in downtown Erwin and providing funding to hire a certified mechanic or increasing his department’s funding for vehicle maintenance and repair.

During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s new budget, Hensley estimated the repair of the leaky roof would cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. In his letter, Hensley provided annual mechanic salary estimates ranging from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

If the county did not wish to repair the roof and hire the mechanic, Hensley requested that $110,000 be provided in his budget for vehicle maintenance and repair. The UCSD originally sought $50,000 for this expenditure in the 2016-17 fiscal year, but the Budget and Finance Committee during its meetings proposed trimming this amount to $36,000.

Hensley previously said the Commission previously agreed to begin moving a few part-time corrections officers to full-time each year, but this was not included in his department’s proposed budget due to a letter he previously received from Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch’s office asking that positions, pay increases and capital expenses not be included in the submitted budgets since such expenditures would be discussed by the Budget and Finance Committee.

A memo from Lynch’s office dated March 10 and sent to all of the county’s officeholders asked officials not to include salary increases in their proposed budgets but to instead include these in a separate letter attached to the budget requests.

Also included in the original budget for the Unicoi County Jail was $25,000 for a teacher who leads the inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. During its sessions, the Budget and Finance Committee had proposed completely eliminating funding for the position but later opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

In his letter, Hensley called for the full $25,256 for the position to be restored.

The sheriff also previously said the fencing project around the Jail Annex could be completed for around $24,000.

While Hensley declined comment following Monday’s meeting, Lynch and several commissioners did provide comments concerning the possibility of legal action.

“I just hope and pray for the taxpayers of Unicoi County we don’t have to face a lawsuit,” said Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice, adding it would be up to the county to cover attorneys’ fees for both sides.

Rice said the new requests outlined in Hensley’s Aug. 8 letter represented expenditures totaling $175,000 to $200,000. She also said the county had already been working to address some of Hensley’s requests, including repairing the roof on the maintenance garage. On Monday, the Unicoi County Commission unanimously approved allowing Lynch to take quotes and/or bids on replacing the roof, as well as receive offers for surplus metal studs from jail facility renovations to help offset the roof repair cost.

“We just hope he sees we’re trying to work with him, and we always have,” Rice said.

Now that the budget has been approved on second reading, Hensley has 30 days to either sign a letter of agreement stipulating that he will work within the approved budget or file the lawsuit, Lynch said.

Following the Aug. 8 meeting, Hensley said he would refuse to sign the letter of agreement if his requests were not addressed.

“(Hensley) told me as early as yesterday that he ‘wasn’t blowing smoke,’” Lynch said. “I’m hoping that he’ll reconsider.”

Commissioner Kenneth Garland, who moved the budget be approved as presented, said while he hopes the situation does not result in a lawsuit, he is not overly concerned.

“I ain’t concerned,” Garland said. “I mean, if he does, he ain’t got a leg to stand on and he’s just hurting himself. Even threatening what he’s doing, people out here don’t like that. I’ve talked to a lot of people. They’re upset over it, just the threat of doing it makes them mad.”

During Monday’s meeting and before the vote was taken, Mosley asked fellow commissioners how the budget could be passed without addressing a request from Erwin Utilities to provide funding for fire hydrants located within the county and increased insurance costs to county employees. Rice responded that the raises employees received either covered or exceeded the insurance increase.

“That’s not what I’ve heard from the majority of employees,” Mosley said.

Thomas also voted against passage of the county’s budget on first reading after asking commissioners if they wished to discuss Hensley’s letter received that day.

The county’s overall 2016-17 budget reflects projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures. Unicoi County’s projected fund balance for the new fiscal year is approximately $569,000.

“I’d like to thank the officeholders that stayed within their budget,” Rice said during Monday’s meeting. “They also returned unused funds at the end of the year, and this year, with their help, we were able to balance our budget and build up our fund balance.”

Rice said this was accomplished even with officeholders, including Hensley, giving most of their employees raises. She also said the sheriff’s department received in the budget funding for the purchase of one new vehicle, with the Commission previously agreeing that the department could purchase additional vehicles with funds obtained from the sale of surplus equipment.

The county was also able to designate around 2 cents – or roughly $60,000 – of the county’s property tax rate to the Unicoi County Highway Department. This amount will be matched by the state. Rice added passage of the budget will allow the Unicoi County Schools system to receive state Basic Education Program (BEP) on schedule.

Rice further commended officeholders, most of whom received increased budgets from the prior fiscal year, for using reserve funding to help the county.

“I do appreciate all the commissioners working together to balance our budget,” Rice said.

Following Monday’s meeting, Rice said this marks the second consecutive year the county’s budget has been balanced. Previously, she said, the county began each fiscal year with a deficit.

“By doing that, it’s allowing our fund balance to grow,” Rice said. “Some of the officeholders, the money they didn’t spend comes back into the general fund, and you take that with a little bit of fund balance and it adds to it and it builds our fund balance.”

This also marks the fourth consecutive year with no increase to the property tax rate in Unicoi County. The Commission on Monday unanimously approved a measure to set the rate at $2.6838 per $100 of property value.

Lynch said the projected fund balance is the best he has seen in his 10 years in office. He said revenues came in high and, like Rice, commended the county’s officeholders who were able to turn money back into the county.

“That always bodes well because there’s always emergencies and, technically, you’re supposed to have enough fund balance to cover, like, two months of your budget, and we’ve never had that,” Lynch said. “So it feels good.”

Fields set for November town elections

By Brad Hicks

The November election isn’t just about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Voters in the towns of Erwin and Unicoi will decide the office of mayor for their respective municipality, as well as who will fill several seats on their town’s governing body. These same voters will also decide whether to uncork the sale of wine in grocery stores located within their town’s limits.

The field of candidates in the local races was set on Thursday, Aug. 18, the qualifying deadline for candidates seeking office in November to file their petitions with the Unicom County Election Commission.

Incumbent Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley filed paperwork to seek reelection and will be unopposed in the race for Erwin mayor. But there will be competition for seats on the panel Hensley heads.

Four candidates are vying for two open seats on the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Current Erwin Vice-Mayor Gary Edwards and incumbent Alderwoman Sue Jean Wilson submitted paperwork to seek reelection. Also filing petitions with the Election Commission were Wayne Morris and Rob Martin.

Unlike Hensley, longtime Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch will face opposition in his reelection bid. Current Town of Unicoi Alderwoman Kathy Bullen filed paperwork ahead of Thursday’s qualifying deadline to seek the office of Town of Unicoi mayor in the November election.

Three seats on the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen will also be decided by voters residing within Unicoi’s municipal limits.

At least one new member will join the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen following the Nov. 8 election. Two candidates are vying to fill the unexpired term of former alderman Phillip Hensley, who resigned from the panel earlier this year. Those filing paperwork in hopes of filling the remaining two years on the term were Roger Cooper and Billy Harkins Jr.

Todd Hopson, appointed to fill the vacancy left by Hensley’s resignation until the next municipal election, is not seeking election to the board.

Four candidates are looking to fill two four-year seats on the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Current Vice-Mayor Doug Hopson and incumbent Alderman Jeff Linville are seeking reelection. Their opponents for the seats will be current Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley and Jonathan Clint Miller.

Seats on both the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen are staggered, meaning the seats not up for grabs in November will be decided in the 2018 municipal election.

The deadline for candidates to withdraw from the November election is Thursday, Aug. 25, at noon.

Voters residing in each town will also have the chance to vote on referendums to permit the sale of wine in retail food stores located within the limits of the municipalities.

Petitions calling for these referendums have already been returned to the Unicoi County Election Commission, well ahead of this Thursday’s submission deadline. Referendums will appear on the ballots for voters in Erwin and the Town of Unicoi as the previously-disseminated petitions received the required number of valid signatures.

State lawmakers in 2014 approved a law permitted the sale of wine in Tennessee’s grocery stores. The law went into effect on July 1. But, while the law legalized the sale, it was left up to each county or city to have a local option election authorizing the sale of wine in retail food stores.

The number of signatures required on the petitions for the referendums to appear on the November ballot was equal to at least 10 percent of the number of people in each municipality who voted in the 2014 Tennessee gubernatorial race.

The petition distributed in Erwin netted a total of 208 signatures. Of those, 157 were accepted as valid and 51 were denied. A signature may be denied by the Election Commission for several reasons, including the signee not being a registered voter or residing outside of the municipality in which the referendum would be applicable.

A total of 130 valid signatures was required in Erwin for the referendum to appear on the November ballot.

The petition calling for the authorization of wine sales in retail food stores within the Town of Unicoi received a total of 143 signatures. Of those, 141 signatures were counted and only two denied.

A total of 93 valid signatures was required for the referendum to appear on the ballot for voters residing within the Town of Unicoi.

 

Anonymous letter sparks debate at Unicoi BMA session

By Brad Hicks

Most cheered. Some jeered. Others questioned some of the calls made by those in charge to take action.

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, including Mayor Johnny Lynch, center, address a packed crowd during the panel’s meeting on Monday, Aug. 15. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, including Mayor Johnny Lynch, center, address a packed crowd during the panel’s meeting on Monday, Aug. 15. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

As has been the case for the past several months, Monday’s sometimes-heated meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen was held before a standing-room-only crowd. And while the board quickly got through the business portion of its meeting, the public comments portion of the agenda made up the bulk of the meeting.

Some of Monday’s discussion was spurred by an anonymous letter recently disseminated throughout the town.

“Let’s keep the momentum going!” the letter states. “As a resident and family in the city of Unicoi it is our duty to our family to know what our town officials are doing. Items on the agenda may impact you.

“We need to pay attention, while we have lost homes to inadequate fire protection in the north end of the county, the current administration continues to use the budget for a cabin, pavilion, welcome center with an a (sic) attendant to give directions, farmers market, possible car charging station and planned amphitheater. Responsible management???”

The letter also urged town residents to attend Monday’s board meeting, providing the start time and location.

“Ask questions,” the letter implored its recipients.

Resident Suzan Harkins was the first speaker to address the unsigned letter. She said the town’s management has acted responsibly, as the municipality’s budget is balanced. She said the town’s farmers market is open to vendors wishing to participate at no cost. She added that the town’s various undertakings are not being paid for via a municipal property tax. The town of Unicoi does not have a property tax and instead has operated from sales tax revenue collected within its limits.

“There’s a rumor going around that ‘A vote for (Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch) is a vote for increasing property taxes,’ but I’d like to see how you increase something that doesn’t exist,” Harkins said.

Resident Jean Stead said the town has retained its “rural integrity” while still acting progressively, fulfilling the promises town leadership made more than 20 years ago.

“Whoever sent that letter out needs to get the facts,” Stead said.

Stead’s husband Edward Stead also complimented the efforts of town officials.

“This place has become a vibrant, rural, fun place to be,” he said. “It’s got all kinds of neat stuff going.”

Residents Bob Sahli and Court Lewis were also among those who applauded the town’s efforts and its work on various projects, including the installation of sewage lines, work on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and work to repair the bridge on Marbleton Road.

Lynch said the town’s activities and projects, such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, Bogart-Bowman Cabin and Visitors Information Center, are about generating sales tax revenue by attempting to draw visitors to the town of Unicoi. To further drive home this point, the board on Monday considered a resolution in which its members pledged not to entertain the prospect of a town property tax while in office.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said while she does not favor the implementation of a municipal property tax and would sign the resolution, she pointed out that the board’s membership will change in November. Todd Hopson, appointed to the board in June to fill the seat left vacant by Phillip Hensley’s resignation, will not seek election in November. Bullen also said the board has not discussed a property tax in any meetings or retreats since she began serving, adding the board signed off on a similar resolution just four years ago in 2012.

“This is nothing more than a campaign promise disguised as a resolution,” Bullen said.

Still, the resolution was unanimously approved by the board.

Bill Clemson asked that the board move its regular monthly meetings to the town’s Visitors Information Center beginning with the September meeting. He said Unicoi Town Hall is no longer an adequate meeting venue due to its lack of seating, a sound system and capacity combined with increased citizen attendance.

Lynch said he would have no issue considering such a request – but only after the November election. He attributed the recent spike in meeting attendance and increased number of public comments to the looming election. Lynch also said there was plenty of seating at Town Hall until around three months ago when “you all started this,” directing his statement at a small group standing in the back.

“We don’t have a crowd here until it comes up right before election time, so don’t think that we’re fooled by that,” Lynch said. “We know what’s going on.”

Developer Brian Dunbar addressed purported efforts to eliminate the town. Lynch said town officials recently got word that there was a petition circulating in favor of dissolution of the town of Unicoi.

“I think opponents would like to see this town done away with,” Dunbar said. “I think that would be a mistake. The numbers, maybe, look good on that. Maybe. But these people in the town of Unicoi would not be properly served if that happened. I know that for a fact.”

Speaking after Dunbar was Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley, who addressed the same issue.

“Mr. Dunbar said there was a group wanting to do away with the town,” Mosley said. “I know of no one. That was told last time I ran against you, Mr. Mayor Lynch, that I wanted to do away with the town. There’s no truth to that. There never will be. I never even thought about that until I heard it come from your mouth.”

To address the fire protection concerns referenced in the letter, the board called upon Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Adams to speak. Adams commended the support of the town’s BMA, stating the fire department would never have reached its current state without this.

“This board has not turned the fire department down on any request,” Lynch said, with this statement confirmed by Adams.

Adams said the UVFD has a Class 6 rating throughout its district, which he said is a strong ranking for a volunteer department. He also said the department has better equipment than other departments throughout the county and an exceptional group of volunteer firefighters that the department is always looking to expand. And while Adams said he did not wish to comment on politics, he, too, gave his opinion on the letter.

“If I was going to put out propaganda, I’d have the guts to put my name,” Adams said.

The board also received an update on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen from Town Recorder Mike Housewright. He said the town received word on Thursday from the First Tennessee Development District that the state has signed off on the design and given the town notice to proceed with bidding construction.

Housewright said the bid package was released Monday. The bid closing will be Sept. 15, and construction will begin moving forward afterward.

“Regardless of how you feel about the kitchen, a lot of people worked very hard to get it to this point,” Housewright said.

In other business, the board:

• Approved the second and final reading of an ordinance regarding A-1 language for accessory structures for churches.

• Approved the second and final reading of an ordinance regarding language changes in the Planned Business District zone concerning single-family residences.

  Approved the first reading of an ordinance to amend the bylaws of the town’s Planning Commission. This would allow the town recorder or his designee to prepare the commission’s agenda.

• Approved the first reading of an ordinance to repeal town Ordinance 1999-44, an ordinance that closed Garfield Street between Virginia Street and Massachusetts Avenue for certain periods of time while Unicoi County Elementary School was in session. The repeal will allow the town to work with school officials to determine when the road should be opened and closed, providing more flexibility.

Ayers Foundation announces expansion to Unicoi County

By Keeli Parkey

Jim Ayers, fourth from left, and Janet Ayers, third from left, announced that The Ayers Foundation will provide funds for a counselor, Jodi Lane Bradford, second from left, at UCHS to help students continue their education after graduation. Also at the announcement were, from left, School Board Chairman Tyler Engle, Director of Schools John English, The Ayers Foundation Director Susan Rhodes and UCHS Principal Dr. Chris Bogart. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

Jim Ayers, fourth from left, and Janet Ayers, third from left, announced that The Ayers Foundation will provide funds for a counselor, Jodi Lane Bradford, second from left, at UCHS to help students continue their education after graduation. Also at the announcement were, from left, School Board Chairman Tyler Engle, Director of Schools John English, The Ayers Foundation Director Susan Rhodes and UCHS Principal Dr. Chris Bogart. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

A program that has reportedly helped secure $39 million in grants and other funds for students in West Tennessee has arrived in Unicoi County.

On Friday, Aug. 12, Jim Ayers and his wife, Janet Ayers, a native of Northeast Tennessee and former county businesswoman, announced that The Ayers Foundation will provide funds to bring a new counselor to Unicoi County High School through its Scholars Program. The purpose of this counselor will be to help students apply – and find funding for – their post-secondary education.

“The foundation will provide funding for a counselor in Unicoi County to help students and parents find outside financial aid so that they can continue their education,” Mrs. Ayers, who is president of the Foundation, said. “Our counselors are very skilled at finding all possible funding sources that help our students attend the school of their choice.”

Unicoi County joins three other counties – Decatur, Perry and Henderson – in receiving this support from the Foundation. In its 17 years supporting Decatur, Perry and Henderson counties, approximately 4,200 graduates from those three counties have continued their education after high school.

“The work Jim and Janet Ayers have done in these communities has transformed the lives of hundreds of young people and their families,” Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said. “Now, more students are graduating from high school equipped for college and careers, which will change their futures and strengthen their communities – both now and for years to come.”

Speaking before an assembly of students, high school faculty and community leaders at UCHS on Friday, Director of Schools John English shared the Foundation’s history of success with students.

“Since working with the The Ayers Foundation, the graduation rates for these counties have shot through the roof, as have the number of graduates who went on to continue their education after high school,” English said. “Just to give you an example of the impact The Ayers Foundation has had on partnering schools … Scotts Hills High School had 96 percent of all seniors committed to post-secondary education. That is a staggering, staggering figure.

“The Ayers Foundation and its impact on these communities has been transformative and life-changing for numerous students and families.”

Following Friday’s announcement, English expressed his appreciation for the new partnership.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for our school system and community,” he said. “We are very grateful to the foundation for this partnership. It is an absolute game changer for our students.”

Postsecondary education is critical in today’s economy, according to state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd.

“Employers today are looking for workers who are continual learners and critical thinkers,” Boyd said. “With support from The Ayers Foundation, high school graduates in Unicoi County will be able to pursue additional education and training in colleges or technical schools.”

Mrs. Ayers told the assembly the school’s new counselor, Jodi Lane Bradford, started working at UCHS on Aug. 1. She also said that while Bradford is an employee of The Ayers Foundation, she will have an office at UCHS.

“Her sole person is to work with every single student in this high school and your parents to help you to find the best fit, the financial resources … anything and everything she can to help every single student do something post-secondary when they graduate from Unicoi County High School,” Mrs. Ayers said. “Every single student. We don’t cherry pick. We don’t make you jump through a lot of hoops. You have to do your part – you have to graduate. You have to work on your grades. We are not looking for just the top 10 percent; we’re not looking for just the student-athlete; we’re not looking for the band member; we are looking for every single student to get you to the highest level that we can.”

Bradford will also help students with TN Promise, which according to the state, offers two years attendance at a technical school or community college in Tennessee tuition free.

Jim Ayers, who founded The Ayers Foundation in 1999, on Friday encouraged students to continue their education and work with the counselor.

“This can be transformative for this school, for every one of you students and for the community if you students recognize what an opportunity this is and take it seriously,” Mr. Ayers said. “… I want each of you to make a commitment to yourself: ‘I am not going to let this opportunity go away without taking advantage of it.’ You can do it. Everybody in here can do it. … I know you are going to do it. … We are going to love to see the progress that you make.”

Mrs. Ayers said she and Mr. Ayers “believe in” communities like Unicoi County.

“Jim started The Ayers Foundation as a way of giving back to a community that had done so much for him,” she said. “… We both come from small-town communities and we believe in them. There is a small-town community in Unicoi County that means as much to me as Henderson, Decatur and Perry counties mean to Jim.

“About nine years ago we decided we wanted to get a lot more involved in Unicoi County because we believe in small communities,” she continued. “… One of the best ways to raise a community up, besides your family and your faith, is your education. We believe very strongly in that.”

Mrs. Ayers said she expects 160 students from the UCHS 2017 graduating class to go on to a form of post-secondary education.

“I am really expecting Unicoi County to knock it off the charts,” she said. “We are so excited about being here and being part of this high school. … I can’t think of a better place for The Ayers Foundation to be. I am so grateful that we get to join hands with this amazing community and together bring a full-time employee here.”

For more information about The Ayers Foundation, visit www.theayersfoundation.org.

Sheriff threatens legal action over budget

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, addresses the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 20. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Despite Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley’s insistence that the panel review several funding requests he said are needed to operate his department, the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, Aug. 8, approved the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

And Hensley said if his needs are not addressed between now and the Commission’s consideration of the budget’s second and final reading, he will be left with “no choice” but to let the court decide whether the county should fund the requests.

“I cannot operate on what they’ve given me to operate on,” Hensley said following Monday’s meeting.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, members of the County Commission received a letter dated Aug. 8 and signed by Hensley. In his letter, Hensley presented commissioners with two options impacting maintenance of Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department vehicles. He is also seeking the funding to bring two part-time jailers at each of the county’s jail facilities up to full-time status, the full restoration of funding for a much-discussed teaching position at the Unicoi County Jail, and funding to install fencing around the Unicoi County Jail Annex.

“If this can be accomplished I will accept this budget and the cuts that we have previously discussed, respectfully if this cannot be accomplished this will be turned over to my attorney,” the last sentence of Hensley’s letter reads.

In his letter, the sheriff gives the County Commission the option of replacing the roof of the UCSD’s vehicle maintenance garage located next to the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin. During meetings of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee held to prepare the county’s 2016-17 budget, this repair was estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $30,000. With this, Hensley writes that the county would need to fund a certified mechanic to perform vehicle maintenance for his department. Annual mechanic salary estimates provided by Hensley in his letter ranged from around $31,000 to nearly $46,000.

Should the commission opt not to proceed with the repair of the leaky roof and the funding of a certified mechanic, Hensley is seeking $110,000 in his department’s budget for vehicle maintenance and repair. Fifty-thousand dollars was originally sought for this expenditure in the UCSD’s 2016-17 budget, but the Budget and Finance Committee previously proposed providing $36,000 for this item in the new fiscal year.

Following Monday’s meeting, Hensley said the hiring of a mechanic to perform maintenance on his department’s cruisers and other vehicles would save the county thousands of dollars. Approximately $35,000 was spent on maintenance and repair in 2015-16, but Hensley said this was the amount spent on parts and did not include labor costs due to having a mechanic onboard.

Hensley said the Commission previously agreed to begin moving a few part-time corrections officers up to full-time status each year, but he said this was not included in his proposed 2016-17 budget due to a letter he previously received from the county mayor’s office asking that positions, pay increases and capital expenses not be included in the submitted budgets, as these expenditures would be discussed by the Budget and Finance Committee.

Included in the original budget for the Unicoi County Jail, however, was $25,000 for a teacher who leads inmate GED and drug rehabilitation programs. At one point, the Budget and Finance Committee discussed completely eliminating funding for the position but eventually opted to provide $15,000 for the position by increasing projected state inmate revenues by the same amount.

Hensley in his letter called for the full $25,256 for the teacher’s salary to be restored.

“It is not required by (the Tennessee Corrections Institute) for me to do this. I’ll agree it’s not,” Hensley said of having the teacher at the jail. “But the thing of it is, what he has done has been successful for the inmates to keep them out and not return back to jail.”

Hensley said fencing is needed to secure the Unicoi County Jail Annex. The sheriff said he has obtained the razor wire needed to complete the project through the U.S. military, reducing the projected project cost from $50,000 to around $24,000.

“I fully realize that this will need to be put out to bid and I have brought this to the county commission attention for several years and nothing has been done,” Hensley wrote in reference to the fencing project.

The sheriff’s letter also outlined areas in which his department has increased revenue, including bringing in 2015-16 state inmate revenue over original projections, as well as medical, commissary and telephone revenues.

Because the UCSD has brought additional revenue to the county, Hensley said the money is there to meet the requests spelled out in his letter. However, the sheriff said the additional revenue is instead being used to build the county’s fund balance. And, while Hensley said he is not opposed the county bolstering its fund balance, he said his requests must be met.

“Those things I’ve asked for are needs, necessities,” Hensley said. “The money is there. The money is there, and they refuse to give it up.”

Monday’s meeting was a special-called session, and the only item up for the Commission’s consideration was approval of the budget on first reading. Commissioner Kenneth Garland moved that the budget be approved, with Commissioner Gene Wilson seconding.

Commissioner Loren Thomas asked fellow commissioners if they wanted to discuss Hensley’s letter.

“We’ve all read it, but we’ve met with the sheriff, Mr. Thomas,” Wilson said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said she did not receive Hensley’s letter until less than an hour before the start of Monday’s meeting and was unaware of the requests prior to that.

“All of these requests are over and above what had been included in the original budget from the sheriff’s department,” Rice said.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be addressed, and I would urge you to take a serious look at them,” Hensley said to the Commission.

But Rice and Wilson pointed out Hensley left the Budget and Finance Committee’s July 26 meeting  before items in his budgets could be fully discussed and did not attend the July 27 meeting to provide the committee with further information.

The first reading of the budget was approved by a 7-1 vote, with Thomas casting the dissenting vote. Commissioner John Mosley was not present for Monday’s meeting.

Hensley said Monday evening he has consulted with the County Technical Advisory Service and has been advised that doing nothing is not an option. He said if the budget is passed on second reading, he can either sign a letter of agreement stipulating that he will work within the approved budget or take legal action against the county.

“I’m standing firm on (the jail teacher). I’m standing firm on my budget. I’m standing on everything I’ve asked for is a necessity,” Hensley said. “It’s nothing extravagant. It is things that has been put off and put off and put off. It needs to be addressed.”

Hensley said the county is obligated by state law to fund his department so that it can operate efficiently. He said he will not sign the letter of agreement if his requests are not addressed prior to approval of the budget’s second reading. He said legal action against the county is not something he wishes to proceed with and described it as a “last resort.”

“There is no way I can operate my jails and my department efficiently and safely with the budget that they’re trying to give me and the cuts that they have made to me. There’s no way,” Hensley said.

• • •

As for the county’s overall 2016-17 budget, it reflects projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures. It also does not include a property tax increase. Unicoi County’s current property tax rate is $2.6838 per $100 of property value.

Unicoi County’s projected fund balance for 2016-17 is approximately $569,000. Following Monday’s meeting, Rice said county officials must continue efforts to increase the fund balance, as the county is supposed to maintain three month’s worth of operating funds. The goal, she said, is to get the fund balance over the $1 million mark.

The County Commission is set to consider the second and final reading of the budget at its Aug. 22 meeting.

Erwin Hatchery lends hand to W.Va. counterparts

By Brad Hicks

The Erwin National Fish Hatchery is one of two hatcheries in the federal system tasked with helping the White Sulphur Springs Hatchery meet its trout egg commitments.  (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The Erwin National Fish Hatchery is one of two hatcheries in the federal system tasked with helping the White Sulphur Springs Hatchery meet its trout egg commitments. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

The historic and deadly flash flooding that struck White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., in late June left sheer devastation in its wake.

More than 1,000 homes were destroyed. More than 20 lives were lost.

Also caught in the path of destruction was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery.

The hatchery, located in Greenbrier County, W. Va., was heavily damaged by the June 23 flooding of Wade’s Creek. The hatchery’s raceways, where fish are raised, were flooded, resulting in the deaths of around 15,000 adult rainbow trout broodstock, according to the USFWS. Another 30,000 juvenile future broodstock were impacted by the flooding. The hatchery, according to the USFWS, was depopulated on these fish appropriately in consultation with health biologists and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources.

It is estimated that the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery will not again be fully operational for another two years. However, the hatchery, being a broodstock hatchery that provides eggs to other federal, state and tribal hatcheries, has commitments to provide eggs to hatcheries throughout the USFWS’s Northeast Region and other areas.

In the aftermath of the flooding, the USFWS began assessing whether other state and federal hatcheries in the national broodstock program could provide eggs to meet the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery’s demand.

This led the USFWS to call upon two of its hatcheries – the Erwin National Fish Hatchery and the Ennis National Fish Hatchery in Ennis, Mont. – to ensure the eggs that would have been shipped from the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery reach their destinations.

“Between the two of us, we have their commitments covered,” said Erwin National Fish Hatchery Manager Norm Heil.

The White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery was committed to the production and shipment of approximately 4 million eggs, according to Heil. He said the Ennis National Fish Hatchery is picking up the bulk of the damaged hatchery’s commitments, with the Erwin facility offering assistance to its sister station in West Virginia.

The assistance of the Erwin and Ennis hatcheries was sought, Heil said, because each facility raises the same strains of trout as the White Sulphur Springs facility. Heil said the USFWS maintains backups such as this in the event disasters inhibit a hatchery’s ability to operate.

“We’re lucky we had all that in place,” Heil said.

The White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery, established in the early 1900s, sustained significant structural damage, Heil said. Along with fish-rearing structures, the hatchery’s main facility, other structures and parking area were also impacted.

“It was considered a 100 percent loss of the fish,” Heil said.

But while significant fish losses were realized, mussels and crayfish at the station, which are raised there for the restoration and recovery of imperiled and endangered species, survived, according to the USFWS. The West Virginia hatchery must be cleaned and disinfected before repairs can be made and fish can again be raised there.

Along with helping the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery meet its shipment commitments, Heil said the Erwin and Ennis facilities will also work to supply eggs to the station to allow it to hit the ground running once it is ready to resume full operations.

In the meantime, the Erwin National Fish Hatchery will continue to meet its own obligations, Heil said. Last year, approximately 14 million trout eggs were shipped from the local facility to hatcheries throughout the country.

“We’ll certainly continue to meet our Southeast (Region) commitments and help them along the way,” Heil said.

Commission set to vote on budget Aug. 8

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee first convened more than a month ago to begin the process of reviewing – and proposing cuts to – the 2016-17 fiscal year budgets presented by Unicoi County’s department heads and elected officeholders.

Since its first meeting, the panel has met regularly to continue its preparation of the county’s overall budget for the new fiscal year and, the end of the process is now in sight.

The full Unicoi County Commission is set to consider the first reading of the county’s 2016-17 budget on Aug. 8, with consideration of the second and final reading set for Aug. 22.

The budget does not include a property tax increase. Unicoi County’s current property tax rate is $2.6838 per $100 of property value.

Most recently, the Budget and Finance Committee met on July 26 to further discuss the proposed budget of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, met on July 27 to take care of some loose ends, and gathered on Monday, Aug. 1, to give its work one last look before the budget is considered by the full county commission.

As it currently stands, the county’s 2016-17 budget reflects overall projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in anticipated expenditures.

The county is set to enter the new fiscal year with a projected fund balance of around $628,500, but County Budget Director Phyllis Bennett said Monday that a subsequent audit adjustment would likely reduce this to around $600,000.

Some commissioners remarked on how the projected fund balance to enter 2016-17 is the county’s best starting point in years.

“Since I’ve been on the County Commission, each year I’ve tried to help increase the fund balance,” County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said following Monday’s meeting. “When I first came on the County Commission they were having to borrow funds to finish out the year. Late in the year, we’d just run out of funding. And most other entities – the town of Erwin, the town of Unicoi – their fund balance is well over $1 million.

“We’re trying to increase it each year, and that’s my hope and plan that we can continue to increase that fund balance until we can be financially stable, and each year, the auditors, that’s one of their complaints is that we have a low fund balance. Sometimes, we would be concerned about the Comptroller’s Office even passing the budget, so this year with what we had we should be well on our way and hope that we can continue to inch that up each year and kind of get our books in order.”

The committee picked up where it left off with its July 26 meeting, as items contained within the  proposed budgets overseen by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department – in particular a teacher position included in the presented budget for the Unicoi County Jail – dominated the discussion.

Eventually the committee would reach what several commissioners referred to as a “compromise” to extend at least some of the funding for this position.

Originally contained within the proposed 2016-17 budget for the county’s jail was a $25,000 line item for a teacher. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley previously said this position is held by Lyle Wilcox, who not only leads inmate GED programs but also oversees drug rehabilitation programs.

Throughout its budget-preparation process, the Budget and Finance Committee has proposed cuts to the bottom line totals proposed in the departmental budgets, using individual line items contained within these budgets as guides. At its July 12 meeting, the committee proposed reducing the total jail budget by nearly $43,500, agreeing that $25,000 of this could come from the complete defunding of the teacher position.

Hensley was present at the committee’s July 20 meeting to discuss the need to maintain the position, and Unicoi County Greg Lynch urged county commissioners to meet with Wilcox prior to making a final decision. However, commissioners learned that day the position is not mandated by the Tennessee Corrections Institute.

The sheriff was again in attendance for the committee’s July 26 meeting to advocate for the position, and he was not alone. Several local ministers and Dale Clements with East Tennessee State University’s Educational Opportunity Center were on hand to voice support for keeping Wilcox’s position.

“I honestly believe that the GED program can help these people in the jails have a better life once they finish,” Clements said.

David Crutchfield, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist Church, said the majority of inmates who go through the local HiSet course pass their final exam and the majority of those, as well as the majority of inmates completing the 12-step program, do not return to jail.

“What we are here to support is that this position remain a paid position to have a quality, qualified person to fill that position,” Crutchfield said, “and if you have to cut that position and pay some, I believe we’d understand that, but I would say it’s at the top priority for the good of our county that this position remain.”

Lynch also provided commissioners present with a copy of a letter from officials with the town of Unicoi written in support of Wilcox’s position.

“It has been shown that inmates reentering society with higher levels of education stand a significantly greater chance of successful rehabilitation,” the letter stated in part. “The opportunities afforded to inmates with greater levels of education serves to better increase their likelihood of finding employment, for providing for their families, and contributing to society. Likewise, the impact that these factors have on their self-esteem is immeasurable.”

Hensley added his department is short-staffed and that Wilcox completes tasks that deputies would otherwise have to do, such as taking inmates to visitations should a family member pass away.

But some commissioners remained staunch in their stance that the position be cut. Commissioner Gene Wilson said he opposed funding $25,000, especially since the jail teacher also drives a county vehicle and has his own fuel card. Wilson also pointed out that the loss of the $90,000 the town of Unicoi previously paid to the sheriff’s department has led to the need for a tighter budget.

“We voted against that $25,000,” Commissioner Kenneth Garland said. “Let’s leave it that way.”

Commissioner Jason Harris suggested that $35,000 in funding for a new vehicle contained within the sheriff’s department’s general budget could be cut to allow the salary for the jail teacher to be restored. The sheriff’s department was originally seeking $70,000 in the 2016-17 fiscal year to purchase two vehicles, but the Budget and Finance Committee previously proposed cutting this amount in half to have the county provide one vehicle and allowing the department to use revenues from the sale of surplus equipment to purchase a second vehicle.

“To me, it’s either that car or that salary,” Harris said.

“I know I can probably speak for all my fellow commissioners – we’re just trying to balance the budget,” Commissioner Glenn White said to Hensley and others present. “It’s not that we’re against any of this, but you all tell us how we can balance the budget if we don’t cut. So you look at the least important of the priorities when you cut. And, yeah, this is a great program, but right now we’re $7,000 in the black and we don’t even know what our fund balance is.”

Hensley left the July 26 meeting before an agreement regarding the teacher position and other items contained within his proposed budgets could be reached.

“You all have my budget. Thank you,” the sheriff said to commissioners as he exited the meeting.

The committee on July 26 held off on a proposal presented by Commissioner Loren Thomas to restore the teacher’s salary in the jail budget and add $25,000 to the income projected from the housing of state inmates in Unicoi County’s jails.

However, the panel did restore $2,000 back to the sheriff’s department’s general budget. Hensley had originally requested $50,000 for vehicle maintenance and repair in the new fiscal year, an amount the committee previously proposed scaling back to $34,000. But because the sheriff’s department spent approximately $35,400 on this item on 2015-16, the committee agreed to provide $36,000 in the new year.

This move left the county’s 2016-17 finances around $5,000 in the black.

The funding for the teacher at the jail was again a primary topic of conversation at the committee’s July 27 meeting. To help maintain the much-discussed position, the committee returned to a solution presented since the cut was first proposed.

The committee agreed with a proposal made by Rice to increase projected state inmate revenue by $15,000 and increasing the jail budget by the same amount. Commissioners said this would help fund the teacher position if the sheriff chooses to put the money toward that expense.

Harris was the only commissioner present to oppose this move, as it would leave the county’s 2016-17 contribution toward sheriff’s department vehicles at $35,000.

Although Commissioner John Mosley favored Rice’s proposal, he called it a “gamble.” The county projected around $650,000 in state inmate revenue for the 2015-16 fiscal year, but it appears the actual revenue realized may be in the $800,000 range. Based off this, the county originally projected $750,000 in state inmate revenue for the new fiscal year. With Rice’s proposal, that projection would increase to $765,000.

Other budgetary action was also recommended by the committee during its July 27 meeting, including granting some employees raises, providing funding for a veterans’ service program, and extending county funding to the Unicoi County Highway Department.

To fund the veterans’ service program and the employee raises, the committee agreed to increase “other state revenues” by $10,000. The panel agreed that $7,000 of this could be put toward the program, a move that left the county around $8,000 in the black. The town of Erwin is providing office space for the officer, and the committee also suggested that additional funding for the officer be sought from the town of Unicoi.

A total of $5,000 were provided to six employees who were set to receive either small or no pay raises. This include $1,000 each provided to four employees and $500 to two others.

The committee also agreed to extend an additional $1,500 in funding to the Unicoi County Little League to provide a total of $2,000 in 2016-17.

These moves left the county around $2,400 in the positive with revenues exceeding expenditures.

The committee further agreed to designate 2 cents of the county’s property tax rate, or approximately $60,000, to the Highway Department. The state will provide the same amount, as it matches county highway funding.

“That gives (Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes) $60,000 more in his budget from the state, and then that money comes back to us next year. We just felt like that was an investment,” Rice said following Monday’s meeting.

The committee also recommended at its July 26 meeting that the 2016-17 fiscal year budget for Unicoi County Schools be approved as presented. The school system’s balanced budget reflects $23,804,277 in both revenues and expenditures.

The school system’s general purpose budget for the new fiscal year contains additional funding totaling $2,191,390. Unicoi County Director of Schools John English said this amount includes $315,000 for the purchase of iPads. The system previously leased the tablets, and English said about $30,000 could be saved through their purchase. The additional funding also includes nearly $1.3 million for renovations to Temple Hill Elementary School and work to prepare the new Love Chapel Elementary School, $447,000 to cover a 6.1 percent insurance increase and to provide 2 percent raises to all the system’s employees, and a little less than $150,000 for the UC Advance program, a blended learning program established to reengage local students lost to online schools and due to dropouts. 

On Monday, Lynch again brought up a prior request to fund a part-time position within his office. The mayor was seeking $15,000 in funding for the employ, which would be cross-trained to complete various duties within his office. The committee agreed to utilize the $2,400 remaining to put a new line item in the county mayor’s budget for the position, a move that will allow the position to be added later should the Commission opt to do so.

If the proposed 2016-17 budget passes as presented, it would mark another year without a property tax increase in Unicoi County. Rice said this was of the utmost importance to the Unicoi County Commission.

“I am proud of the fact that we have not raised taxes in the last four years now, I think it has been,” Rice said Monday. “This year, especially, with the CSX layoffs and all that’s happened in this county, we just felt like as a Commission that we could not afford to pass that on to the people who have already suffered the losses that they have.”

Sheriff: ‘Not enough ambulances available’

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he has pulled the numbers and has noticed a trend – one he feels needs to be addressed immediately.

“We can do better than this,” he said. “We have to do better than this.”

The sheriff said he believes there are simply not enough ambulances in Unicoi County to meet the county’s needs. He said reports from Unicoi County 911 indicate that over the past two months there have been 14 separate occasions in which someone contacted 911 but no ambulances were available.

“My main complaint is there are not enough ambulances here to meet the needs of the people here in Unicoi County,” Hensley said.

Hensley made his feelings on the topic known throughout last week, starting with a July 19 post to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page. That post was made one day after an accident on Interstate 26 near the Unicoi Walmart in which Hensley said no ambulances were available. Hensley said members of Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department and local off-duty EMS employees shopping at the store responded to stabilize the injured patient until an ambulance became available.

“Citizens of Unicoi County, as your Sheriff I am informing you we have a serious problem concerning Ambulance Service,” Hensley wrote in the Facebook post. “There is not enough Ambulances here to meet the needs of our county. There is documented evidence on several occasions we have called for an Ambulance, and there was not one available in Unicoi, Carter, or Washington Counties. The EMS workers we have do an excellent job. Yesterday there was an accident near Wal Mart with injuries, no ambulance available. I want to commend the Unicoi Fire Department and off duty EMS persons who responded and stabilized the patients until an Ambulance was available. It is not my job to negotiate Ambulance Contracts, BUT it is my job to inform the Legislative bodies of this county & cities, as well as the citizens when a serious safety or security problem exist. You have been informed.”

MedicOne Medical Response has served as Unicoi County’s ambulance services provider since 2011. Under its original contract with the company, the county paid to MedicOne an annual subsidy of $180,000. But as the April 1, 2015, expiration of the original contract approached, county officials began to express concern that the county could no longer afford the subsidy.

This would lead MedicOne to having to rebid on the county’s ambulance services. Per its bid submitted early last year, the company would require a $132,000 annual subsidy under the new contract. The bid was approved by the Unicoi County Commission in February 2015.

Hensley again expressed his concerns during a July 20 meeting of the County Commission’s Budget and Finance Committee after Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas suggested that county officials look at the possibility of increasing the subsidy paid to MedicOne to allow for more ambulance coverage.

“We have got a serious problem and it needs to be addressed immediately,” Hensley said to members of the committee. “We do not have enough ambulances in this county to do what we need to do.”

Under its current contract with the county, MedicOne is required to operate two 24-hour ambulances – a requirement that Hensley said the company is meeting. And, as he stated in his Facebook post, Hensley said the problem is not MedicOne’s employees.

“The EMS workers that we have here do an excellent job, an excellent job. No problem whatsoever,” he said. “The problem is there’s just not enough to go around.”

Because situations requiring emergency medical response are impossible to predict and can occur at any time, Hensley said Unicoi County needs more ambulances that are ready, as minutes and seconds count in such situations.

“Two ambulances cannot meet the needs of Unicoi County now,” he said.

The sheriff added that he took to social media to voice his concerns as it is his responsibility as Unicoi County’s top law enforcement official to make fellow county officials and residents of the county aware when a safety or security issue exists.

Also, as he stated in his Facebook post, Hensley said it is up to the Unicoi County Commission to come up with a solution to the issue.

“There’s no question in my mind I have done my duty. The people know,” he said. “It’s not my job to work this problem out. It’s not my job. But it is my job to say, ‘Look, we have got a serious problem and you need to address it and address it immediately,’ and I have done that. The rest of it lies on (the Unicoi County Commission’s) shoulders.”

Lt. Stacy Wigand, public information officer for MedicOne, said that no local ambulances are available is an inaccurate statement. Instead, Wigand said it would be more accurate to state that, in some instances, response times are higher than the average.

“The statement that there is an ambulance unavailable is wrong,” he said. “That’s not the case. If there was truly an ambulance unavailable, then that would result in that patient needing to be transported to the hospital by other means, and that is not the case. I don’t think there is one documented case where there was literally no ambulance available and that patient was forced to be transported to the hospital, either by themselves, by family members or other means.

“The problem is not that we have no ambulances available. It is that the response time is delayed.”

Wigand said a third 24-hour ambulance would be “ideally beneficial” to Unicoi County, but this is not fiscally feasible due to several factors, including funding, staffing and an increased number of out-of-county transports.

Wigand said it was the county’s decision to reduce MedicOne’s subsidy was perhaps the first domino to fall. 

“We cautioned the county back during the negotiations, ‘If you cut our subsidy that much there will be cuts. We have to make cuts,’” Wigand said.

But the lower subsidy is not the only area in which MedicOne has seen reduced revenues. Wigand said the passage of the Affordable Care Act led to significant losses in insurance reimbursements, such as those from Medicare.

Maintaining a full staff has also presented an issue, Wigand said. Like Hensley, Wigand said there is a shortage of EMTs and paramedics throughout the state of Tennessee, both because government-operated ambulance agencies have the ability to provide better employee benefits than private companies like MedicOne and because EMTs and paramedics are finding better paying jobs outside of the emergency services field.

“Even if we had four ambulances sitting there and the funding, I don’t think we would even be able to staff them,” Wigand said. “We don’t have the staffing, and it’s not just us. We’re struggling to keep our staffing as it is with the trucks we have simply because there’s such a shortage.”

MedicOne has also realized a recent increase in out-of-county transports, both Hensley and Wigand said. Wigand said more local patients and residents of Unicoi County’s nursing homes are being transported by MedicOne ambulances to facilities such as Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethan and the Johnson City Medical Center. Such transports tie ambulances up for longer periods of time, Wigand said.

Once a patient is transported to a hospital, Wigand said that a briefing of aid offered by EMS crews must be provided by hospital staff and crews must wait until the facility accepts the patient.

“So we’re at their mercy,” Wigand said. “If they’re busy…We’re at their mercy. We can’t just walk in and say, ‘Here you go. Bye.’”

Wigand said MedicOne’s current average response time in Unicoi County is around 11 minutes 34 seconds, lower than the national average of more than 19 minutes in rural areas. He said prior to last year’s renegotiation of the company’s contract, local response times were around 8 minutes.

Wigand also said Ken Tipton, MedicOne’s operations manager in Unicoi County, compared local ambulance agencies and found that the ratio of ambulances to the county’s overall population is better in Unicoi County than in Washington or Carter counties.

MedicOne President and CEO Jim Reeves is intending to visit Unicoi County in the near future to speak with county commissioners and discuss possible options for additional funding, Wigand said. A timetable for Reeves’ trip to the county has not yet been set, but Hensley told commissioners during the July 20 Budget and Finance Committee meeting that he has spoken with Reeves and he is open to speaking with county officials to “try to work something out.”

“MedicOne takes the concerns of (Unicoi County’s) citizens to heart,” Wigand said. “At MedicOne, our corporate leadership, our local leadership, we feel like the residents of Unicoi County are family to us. We don’t want them with the image that they’re not going to have an ambulance. It’s not that an ambulance isn’t available. There will still be an ambulance coming to them, but it may take a little bit longer.”