Flower power: Brummett uses love of outdoors to beautify community

Larry “Bud” Brummett waters the petunias he planted and placed in baskets on the Bill L. Bogart Memorial Bridge along Second Street in Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keith Whitson)

By Brad Hicks

Larry Brummett does a little bit of everything around Erwin Town Hall but, when the weather is nice, one would be hard-pressed to find the unassuming man known as “Bud” working indoors.

The aspect of Brummett’s job that he takes the most pride in is making certain that downtown Erwin is as beautiful and inviting as possible. It is there that Brummett’s green thumb is on full display, as the Unicoi County native works to ensure the flowers in baskets hanging from downtown light posts and from the sides of the Bill L. Bogart Memorial Bridge along Second Street are in full bloom.

Brummett, who received the nickname “Bud” from his older sister Sharon when he was a boy, was hired by the Town of Erwin around two-and-a-half years ago to complete maintenance and custodial tasks around Erwin Town Hall.

“I like working here at Town Hall,” Brummett said. “It’s a very good place to work.”

But most traveling through Erwin have seen Brummett working outside while applying his plant prowess. Along with his duties at Town Hall, it is Brummett’s responsibility to keep up with the plants hanging throughout downtown and along the bridge. This includes fertilizing, pruning and watering the flowers.

“If it’s real hot, I can come in and work,” Brummett said. “If it’s nice outside, I can go outside and work. I’ve got the option that most people’s not got.”

Brummett said he takes time each day to care for the flowers, as the response for the plants has been overwhelmingly positive among locals.

“Everybody loves them,” he said. “…They stop on the road. As a matter of fact, they’ll hold traffic up and say, ‘Them are beautiful.’”

The baskets hanging from the downtown light poles contain coleus, lantana and sweet potato vine. These, Brummett said, were planted by students from Unicoi County High School. The baskets along the bridge contain petunias, which were planted and placed along the bridge by Brummett himself.

“Every year, they’ll try to have a little bit of something different in them,” Brummett said of the flower baskets.

When it came time to beautify the Bill L. Bogart Memorial Bridge, a heavily-traveled entrance to and exit from Erwin’s downtown, Brummett relied on the resources and skills provided by a previous employer.

Brummett worked at Indian Creek Nursery for around 30 years prior to signing on with the Town of Erwin.

During his tenure with the greenhouse, Brummett did maintenance work around the nursery and drove the delivery truck. He also got to try his hand at growing while there.

The flowers contained within the baskets along the bridge were acquired from Indian Creek Nursery, Brummett said.

Brummett said he is not tied to any type of schedule when it comes to the flowers, as checking up on the plants and maintaining them is left at his discretion.

“That’s what I love about being here,” he said. “I can look out the window and see if they’re wilting, and I know to go water. I ain’t gotta go ask nobody. (Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff) and (Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley), I guess, trust me with my work.”

The flowers, Brummett said, are taken down before the first frost, as the lower temperatures would kill the annual plants.

Temperatures on the morning Brummett sat down inside Town Hall to speak with The Erwin Record were pleasant. With the perfect chance to work outside presenting itself and the flowers under his care on his mind, Brummett leapt from his chair at the conclusion of the interview and hurried to his truck.

“I’m going to work now,” he said. “The baskets on the bridge, they’re wilting a little bit.”

Erwin BMA considering property tax increase

By Brad Hicks

After weeks of crunching the numbers, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen has set a date for when it will consider final approval of the town’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget – a budget that could include a nearly 4-cent property tax increase.

The board on Monday, July 31, held what will likely be its final budget workshop before the new budget’s first reading to give the figures one last look and to discuss a couple of budgetary options, one that would include a more-than-3-cent increase over the town’s certified tax rate and the other that would include a 5-cent increase to that rate.

The board had also met on Thursday, July 27, and BMA members learned during that workshop that projected expenditures for 2017-18 were expected to exceed anticipated revenues by a little more than $39,000, meaning a tax increase of 3.06 cents over the certified tax rate would be needed in the new fiscal year to close the budgetary gap as each penny on the town’s property tax rate generates $12,764. 

This option included the refinancing of more than $1 million on a pair of capital outlay notes to save the town approximately $170,000. These savings would be used to purchase several new police cars, fire department equipment and a truck for the town’s public works department. Also included in the budget under this option was a 3 percent salary increase for municipal employees. However, this option did not include funding to cover the maintenance of the beautification projects that have been completed along Interstate 26, maintenance of the town’s skatepark and the adjacent playground, and new computer and office equipment for Erwin Town Hall.

Board members were presented with a new option during Monday’s workshop that would include everything within the first option, along with the maintenance of interstate beautification projects, maintenance of the skatepark and nearby playground, and funding for computer and office equipment upgrades. 

This second option would include a 5-cent property tax on the certified tax rate to offset the approximately $64,000 gap between expenditures and revenues.

The certified tax rate is described as the property tax rate to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue a government brought in the prior year. These rates must be set after reappraisal cycles, which occur every five years in Unicoi County and are based upon updated property values. This year marked a reappraisal year for Unicoi County.

The 2017 certified tax rate for the Town of Erwin is $1.397 per $100 of assessed value, which is slightly lower than the town’s actual property tax rate of $1.41 for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Governments are not bound to the provided certified tax rate when setting the jurisdiction’s actual property tax rate.

Although the final reading of the budget and the town’s property tax rate must be approved by the Erwin BMA during a regular meeting before becoming official, the consensus among the board’s members during Monday’s meeting was to proceed with the second option that includes the 5-cent property tax increase.

If effected, this 5-cent increase would be added to the $1.397 certified tax rate rather than the town’s actual current property tax rate. This would bring the town’s property tax rate to $1.447, meaning the actual increase in the town’s rate for 2017-18 would be 3.7 cents.

The BMA is set to consider the first reading of the town’s 2017-18 budget on Aug. 14. It will consider the second and final reading during its Aug. 28, and a public hearing on the budget will be held on that date.

Erwin’s proposed 2017-18 budget reflects $6,664,083 in total revenue against $6,727,872 in expenditures.

Approximately $3.683 million of the projected revenue is anticipated to come from local taxes. This includes $1.787 from current property tax collections and $55,000 from the collection of delinquent property taxes. Local sales tax revenue is projected at $880,000, and business taxes revenue is projected at $72,000 for 2017-18.

Also included in the local taxes revenues are payments in lieu of taxes from local utilities providers and the housing authority. These revenues total more than $640,000.

The town’s wholesale beer tax revenue for 2017-18 is projected at $180,000, the mixed drink tax revenue at $3,000, and the package stores & tax revenue $12,000.

Total intergovernmental revenues for 2017-18 are projected at nearly $621,400. The bulk of this is made up of state sales tax revenue, which is projected to come in at nearly $494,000 in the new fiscal year.

Licenses and permits, which includes building and plumbing permits, is expected to generate $53,300 in revenue in 2017-18, and municipal fines, fee and court costs are anticipated to bring in $26,000.

Revenue associated with the town’s receipt of state and federal grants is projected at more than $1.5 million for the new fiscal year.

Other revenues, which includes interest income and the rental income the town receives for the U.S. Post Office adjacent to Erwin Town Hall, is projected at $764,943. This also includes $250,000 under a line called “sale of asset,” which represents the amount the town hopes to receive from the sale of the former Morgan Insulation property currently under its ownership.

The proposed budget calls for the transfer of $50,000 from the town’s fund balance to help balance the budget.

On the expenditures side, legislative costs, which include the salaries of the BMA’s members, are projected at nearly $29,400 for 2017-18. The costs associated with the city attorney and municipal judge are projected at approximately $33,000.

Projected expenditures under the central staff agencies, which includes the salaries and benefits of employees at Erwin Town Hall, as well as equipment, supplies and training expenses, are around $353,500.

Expenditures for the town’s communications specialist position are projected at more than $78,300. This includes the communications specialist’s $31,200 salary, more than $10,200 for marketing and $26,325 that is to go toward town events and festivals.

Planning and zoning expenses are projected at more than $66,500 for 2017-18. Costs associated with the town’s buildings department, which includes town hall utilities and maintenance expenses, are projected at nearly $104,800.

The total 2017-18 budget for the Erwin Police Department is estimated at around $1,120,200. This includes nearly $705,000 for departmental salaries and approximately $152,000 for departmental health insurance. These projected expenditures also include $14,000 for operating supplies, $2,500 for education and training, $28,000 for gas, oil and tires, and $8,000 for machinery and equipment.

Expenditures for the Erwin Fire Department are expected to come in at approximately $666,300 in the new fiscal year. These costs include around $370,500 for salaries and $67,400 for departmental health insurance. Also included in the projected expenditures are $2,500 for education and training, $68,000 for fire hydrant rentals, $4,200 for equipment repair and maintenance, $6,000 for station repair and maintenance, $3,000 for gas, oil and tires, and $5,000 for machinery and equipment.

Total costs associated with the town’s Public Works Department are estimated at approximately $832,300 for 2017-18. This includes more than $366,600 for departmental salaries and $93,000 for health insurance, as well as $28,000 for operating supplies, $30,000 for equipment maintenance and repairs, $28,000 for gas, oil and tires, and $22,500 for machinery and equipment.

Municipal sanitation costs are projected at $176,000 for 2017-18.

Welfare and social services expenditures, which are made up of the town’s contributions to local nonprofit agencies and organizations, are projected at $176,148 for the new year, and parks and recreation expenditures are projected at around $302,500. The town’s debt service is projected at $1,168,925.

The town’s 2017-18 expenditures also include more than $2,037,868 for capital projects. Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said while the town receives grant funding for the majority of its capital projects, these grants require a match from the town. Rosenoff said included in the town’s 2017-18 capital projects list are the tunnel to be constructed under Harris Hollow Road, Surface Transportation paving and striping projects, work on a spillway bridge located along the Erwin Linear Trail near Indian Creek, and utilization of the Tennessee Valley Authority InvestPrep funding the town received last year to demolish the former Morgan Insulation property to ready the site for industrial development, as well as roadscape and beautification projects.

Planners OK site plan for new hospital

By Brad Hicks

The process of bringing a new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Erwin took another step forward last week, as local officials lent their approval to a document detailing how the facility will be situated on the property previously selected for its construction.

During a special-called meeting held Thursday, July 13, the Erwin Planning Commission unanimously approved the site plan for the new hospital, which will be located along Temple Hill Road.

Bill Alton, Mountain States Health Alliance vice president of facilities and construction, told the commission prior to its vote that the replacement hospital will measure around 40,000 square feet with medical offices attached for outpatient services. The hospital itself will have a total of 20 beds – 10 for the facility’s emergency department and 10 for inpatient services.

“I think it’s going to be a nice facility with the stone and things that are on it,” Alton said to the commission following its vote. “It’s really going to have a nice presence out there on that location.”

Alton added MSHA officials completed their due diligence before submitting the site plan to the Erwin Planning Commission for its consideration.

“We’ve worked with the city, and I think they’ve had an opportunity to review our drawings, layout and the elevations that the facility will be at,” Alton said. “We’ve looked at all of the regulatory mandates. I think we meet all of those for a healthcare facility. Our intent is to meet all regulatory requirements and mandates from the city.”

Alton said MSHA officials also worked with Erwin Utilities to ensure that adequate sewer and alterations to provide the utilities necessary for the facility were addressed in the site plan drawings.

MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which for 60 years had operated as a publicly-owned community hospital, became official in November 2013 after months of discussion and review. A caveat of MSHA’s acquisition agreement was the construction of a new hospital within Erwin’s municipal limits. A visioning committee tasked with determining the size of the new facility and the scope of the services it would offer was formed and began meeting after the acquisition was made official.

In July 2015, MSHA closed on its purchase of the little more than 40 acres just off the Jackson Love Highway Exit that will serve as the site of the new hospital.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UCMH. A Certificate of Need is a state permit for the establishment or modification of a health care institution, facility, or service at a designated location, according to MSHA.

The acquisition of the Certificate of Need cleared the way for MSHA to proceed with bringing a replacement UCMH to Unicoi County.

The architect for the UCMH replacement project is Earl Swensson Associates, and the construction firm previously selected is Layton Construction. Representatives from both firms were present for last week’s meeting of the Erwin Planning Commission.

MSHA has announced that a groundbreaking ceremony for the new hospital will be held on July 26 beginning at 11 a.m. at 2030 Temple Hill Road.

MSHA officials expect construction work to begin soon after the groundbreaking and projects that the new UCMH will open its doors in the fall of 2018.

“We’re just excited that you’re here and going to break ground,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said to Alton just before the commission’s vote.

Along with a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient acute-care services, the new facility will offer patients the same services offered by the current UCMH. Alton said these services include outpatient diagnostics, adding the diagnostic equipment at the new UCMH will be among some of the best with the MSHA system.

“This community will get some really top-notch healthcare going forward out of that facility,” Alton said. “You get great care now, but I think the ability to diagnose the health issues for the people that show up there will be even better.”

If the facility is to expand in the future, this growth will be submitted in a separate set of plans to be put before the Erwin Planning Commission, Alton said.

Roland Bailey, who chairs the Erwin Planning Commission and previously chaired the UCMH Board of Control, commended the work of UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll, who was present for last week’s meeting, as well as the staff at UCMH. He also said MSHA has raised the quality of local health care since acquiring UCMH nearly four years ago, adding the new facility will be a “crown jewel” of Unicoi County.

“Thank you guys for being here,” Bailey said to Alton and other MSHA officials present. “This has been a long time coming.”

Alton said MSHA shares the excitement of local officials.

“It’s going to be a great facility,” Alton said to the commission. “It will serve this community … We’re planning to grow, and some of you know where the growth is going to be that we have planned for that facility, so it’s very expandable. It’s going to be, I think, a great asset to this community.”

Community invited to attend groundbreaking for new UCMH

By Brad Hicks

Over the nearly four years since Mountain States Health Alliance acquired Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, most of the work needed to bring a new hospital to Unicoi County has occurred behind the scenes in boardrooms and offices.

The time has now come for officials to roll up their sleeves and turn some earth.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new UCMH will be held July 26 beginning at 11 a.m. at 2030 Temple Hill Road, the site of the new hospital.

UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll said the groundbreaking ceremony marks the changeover in the new hospital process from the intangible to the physical.

“When we actually break the ground, when we have the equipment onsite, it becomes, certainly, more real for the community and really shows that we’re actually moving forward with what we said we had planned to do,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the public is invited and encouraged to attend the groundbreaking event.

“We feel like it’s not just a celebration for us as a hospital, it’s a celebration for the entire community,” Carroll said.

Carroll said it is not yet known just how soon construction on the new UCMH will get underway following the groundbreaking ceremony, but he expects this work to begin shortly after the event. The first phase of the construction, Carroll said, involves the site preparation work necessary for the construction of the new hospital on the grounds.

MSHA officials project that the new UCMH will open its doors in the fall of 2018.

The replacement UCMH will have 20 beds in all, 10 for the facility’s emergency department and 10 for inpatient services, Carroll said. Along with a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient acute-care services, the new facility will offer patients the same services offered by the current UCMH.

“We plan to use a lot of new equipment, a lot of upgraded equipment, but as far as the services, they’re going to be the same,” Carroll said, adding these services include diagnostic imaging and laboratory services.

The facility will also have a community education area and medical office spaces.

MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which for 60 years had operated as a publicly-owned community hospital, became official in November 2013 after months of discussion and review. A caveat of MSHA’s acquisition agreement was the construction of a new hospital within Erwin’s municipal limits. A visioning committee tasked with determining the size of the new facility and the scope of the services it would offer was formed and began meeting after the acquisition was made official.

Plans call for the construction of the new hospital on more than 40 acres of land located just off the Jackson Love Highway Exit.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UCMH. A Certificate of Need is a state permit for the establishment or modification of a health care institution, facility, or service at a designated location, according to MSHA.

This step essentially cleared the way for MSHA to proceed with the process of bringing a new UCMH to Unicoi County.

“That was certainly a major milestone in really finalizing that the project was going to move forward was to get that Certificate of Need approved by the state,” Carroll said.

The architect for the UCMH replacement project is Earl Swensson Associates, and the construction firm previously selected is Layton Construction.

Invitations for the groundbreaking ceremony went out to local and state officials last week, and the medical staff at UCMH has been invited to attend, Carroll said. Carroll also said both UCMH staff and members of the community are eagerly awaiting the completion of construction and the opening of the new hospital.

“Everyone that I’ve been in contact with is eager and excited and anxious for us to get started on the project,” Carroll said. “…(The groundbreaking) makes it real. We’ve had a lot of talk for a long time in preparation for this moment. When that project actually starts then all of that actually becomes a reality for everybody involved.”

Officials feel the new UCMH will have a positive impact on health care in Unicoi County and the surrounding areas.

“I think one of our board members actually said it very well at the Certificate of Need hearing – ‘We have a lot of great things in Unicoi County, but having a full-service hospital is really one of the crown jewels of the community and seeing that a brand new healthcare facility is going to be built is something that is not only great for health care in the region but is also very marketable for everybody in the community. It’s a great thing for everybody,’” Carroll said.

The groundbreaking will be followed by entertainment and lunch.

Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP by July 21 by contacting MSHA at unicoihospital@msha.com.

Taste Test: Community gets chance to visit new Mountain Harvest Kitchen

Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning is seen with some of the equipment that will soon be utilized by kitchen users. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The official grand opening is still a little more than a month away, but future users of the Town of Unicoi’s long-awaited Mountain Harvest Kitchen had a chance last week to get a sneak peek of the facility.

Several open house sessions were held at the kitchen over June 26-28. Throughout the three-day period, chefs, food truck operators, community members and others stopped by to get an idea of how the kitchen will look when work is finalized and to receive information on how the project will benefit its users.

“We’ve met a lot of potential people who want to start using the space who are already making products and want a bigger space or that are just kind of figuring it out and seeing if they can benefit from the space,” said Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning.

Most of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen’s equipment has arrived and been set up and, although none of the equipment has been installed to allow for operation just yet, open house visitors were able to view the mixers, ovens, ranges, dehydrators and other items that will make the kitchen’s apparatuses.

Other equipment, such as a 60-gallon steam kettle and a tilting skillet, has not yet arrived but additional equipment is expected to come in around the time of the facility’s grand opening.

“It’s always a work in progress, so we’re looking at bringing in some more equipment,” Manning said. “What we have now, this is really serviceable for lots of different clients. Like we could do caterers, food trucks, bakers, those are all options at the moment, and I think that we’ll be better able to serve certain clients when we have other pieces of equipment.”

Also already in place are the community kitchen’s walk-in cooler/freezer, research and development lab, storage area and receiving area.

Interest in the Mountain Harvest Kitchen was high throughout the course of the open houses, according to Brunhilde Tober-Myer, a member of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen Committee, the group that has worked for several years to plan and develop the kitchen project. Tober-Myer said around 100 people visiting the kitchen signed the guest book as they entered. There were perhaps several dozen more who stopped by and did not sign the book, Tober-Myer said.

Several years before the kitchen project truly got off the ground, the Town of Unicoi conducted surveys around local farmers markets, asking sellers if they would utilize a facility such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. This survey was conducted around the time a law was enacted in the state essentially requiring processed foods sold at farmers markets to come from licensed and inspected facilities.

“They were so excited,” Tober-Myer said of those who completed the survey. “We got so many positive responses at that time. Then they’d ask us, ‘When is it going to be (open)?’ They were so disappointed that it took this long, but it took this long, A, for the planning and, B, you’ve got to have the planning done before you can apply for grant money.”

Both Tober-Myer and Manning said the Mountain Harvest Kitchen will be a certified facility, meaning those who use the kitchen to prepare or process foods may sell their fare on the open market.

“What people process in here, they can take to the farmers market and sale,” Tober-Myer said. “If they do enough numbers, then they can go to Food City. Food City would love to put this stuff on the shelves since it’s locally made.”

“Really that’s the benefit is providing a certified space and the equipment to people, which is a huge, huge startup cost that a lot of new businesses can’t justify taking on,” Manning added. “Secondly, there’s the guidance in navigating through regulations. That’s a really tricky process, and so we’re going to be able to help people get on track to get going.”

Tober-Myer said those visiting were impressed how the facility has taken shape. Tober-Myer, who has been involved with the project since it’s infancy, shared that sentiment.

“It turned out so good, so good,” Tober-Myer said.

Tober-Myer said a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen is planned for Aug. 11. The kitchen is expected to open to the public following this event.

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was first envisioned around a decade ago. Town of Unicoi officials have viewed the project not only as a shared-use processing kitchen but also as a business incubator, as users will be able to to see the food prepared and produce canned within the facility.

In 2014, the town purchased the building that would eventually serve as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

In September, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen accepted the nearly $685,000 bid from the Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction to complete construction on the second and final phase of the kitchen project. This phase included the necessary additions and alterations needed to convert the 4,000 square-foot structure to a commercial-grade kitchen.

The renovation work began in October and was completed in May.

The bulk of the project has been funded through federally-administered grant monies received by the Town of Unicoi.

Entrepreneurial training opportunities, as well as demonstrations and other classes, will also be offered to kitchen users. Manning, who was hired to serve as the kitchen’s director in April and began work in mid-May, said some such classes have already been held at the Town of Unicoi’s Tourist Information Center, which is located adjacent to the Mountain Harvest Kitchen along Unicoi Village Place.

Manning said once the kitchen is up and running, she anticipates that the facility will not only benefit those in the community but the region as a whole.

“It’s a pretty unique concept, so I think it’ll get used by a wide group of people,” Manning said.

Commission yet to decide on amount county will pay toward employee insurance

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission on Monday, June 26, did not take action on increasing the amount the county contributes toward the monthly health insurance rates of its employees, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the current contribution will remain static.

As was the case during its May meeting, the County Commission was set on Monday to reconsider the county’s contribution to employees’ monthly health insurance premiums. Currently, the county contributes $520 per month for each of its employees.

An increase to this contribution has been discussed by county officials but not yet acted upon. During its May 12 meeting, the County’s Commission’s Employee Benefits/Salary/Policy Committee talked about the possibility of raising the $520 cap by 15 percent, which would bring the county’s monthly premium contribution to $596 per employee. The committee recommended the full County Commission’s approval of the measure, as it was felt the contribution bump would help offset an expected increase in employee health insurance costs from the provider.

The County Commission last month opted to hold off on upping the contribution as budgetary information, such as the amount of revenue each penny on the county’s property tax rate would generate for the 2017-18 fiscal year, was not yet known. By Monday’s meeting, this information was still unavailable.

Rather than acting upon a contribution increase, the County Commission on Monday instead voted to have the Budget & Finance Committee discuss the contribution matter during its July 12 meeting, as the penny’s value on the property tax and expected revenues for 2017-18 are expected to be known by that date.

However, the Commission did take action on another insurance-related item. Panel members present voted unanimously to place $50 monthly, from the county’s insurance contribution, into a health savings account for county employees on the high-deductible plan option.

Around 15 employees would be impacted by the move.

In May, the County Commission opted that United Healthcare serve as the county’s insurance provider for 2017-18, as its previous provider, BlueCross BlueShield, had eliminated one of its three plan options prior to that meeting. United Healthcare is offering three plan options to county employees.

Under United Healthcare’s high-deductible plan, the monthly premium for employees would be a little more than $432. With the county’s $520 contribution applied, this premium would be covered leaving a difference of a little more than $87.

Per the Commission’s Monday vote, $50 of this $87 difference would be placed into a health savings account for each employee on the plan option. With the move, the county would save around $37 per month per employee on the high-deductible plan.

The majority of Monday’s meeting focused not on county employee insurance, but oversight of the county’s waste convenience sites during the upcoming fiscal year.

The Commission was set to award contracts for the operations of the convenience sites. Contracts for the operations of the sites located in the Higgins Creek and Limestone Cove areas were approved with little discussion. The contract for operations of the Higgins Creek site was awarded to Teresa Jones, who submitted a bid of $405 per month to operate the center. The contract for Limestone Cove station was awarded to Shane Church, who placed a bid of $350 per month.

These votes followed the recommendations of the County Commission’s Solid Waste Committee, which met prior to the full County Commission on Monday

It was the consideration of the contract award for what is known as the Hoover site, located along North Industrial Drive in Erwin, that caused the most controversy.

Four bidders submitted proposals to operate the Hoover site, including current operator Eddie Effler. But Commissioner Kenneth Garland, who chairs the Solid Waste Committee, has previously and again on Monday expressed his displeasure over the appearance of the site. Garland during the County Commission’s January meeting described the site’s conditions as “pitiful,” adding the station is “messy” even by a dump site’s standards as refuse is scattered about the property.

It took some time and several votes before the Hoover site contract was awarded to new operators Jerry and Linda Lewis, who submitted a bid of $350 a month to oversee the station’s operations.

Two commissioners – Todd Wilcox and Bridget Peters – were absent from Monday’s meeting. Despite this, five votes, the majority of the full nine-member County Commission, was needed from commissioners present to award the contract to one of the bidders. After one round of votes, none of the four bidders received the required five votes.

After a lengthy and at times heated discussion, Commissioner Gene Wilson moved that the contract be awarded to Effler, despite this proposed measure failing earlier in the meeting. But County Attorney Doug Shults informed the panel that for a measure which previously failed to again be brought up for consideration, a commissioner who voted against the proposal upon its first consideration must be the one to change course and move for its approval.

Wilson voted in favor of awarding the contract to Effler during the first consideration.

This prompted Wilson to withdraw his motion and instead move that Effler’s contract be extended by one month and the matter of the Hoover site contract be considered again during the County Commission’s July meeting. This measure also failed to garner the necessary five votes.

To break the stalemate, Wilson eventually moved that the contract be awarded to the Lewises. This measure was seconded by Commissioner John Mosley. This measure received five affirmative votes, with Wilson voting against his own motion and Jason Harris casting the other dissenting vote.

Unicoi County officials continue budget talks

By Brad Hicks

While they have a general notion, members of the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee had hoped by the panel’s Monday meeting to have more concrete information on the revenue generated by each penny on the county’s property tax rate.

But, as officials have learned since they last met in mid-May, the figure they need may not be known until after the official start of the new fiscal year.

This matter, along with several other budgetary topics, was discussed during the committee’s June 19 meeting.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice, who serves on the Budget & Finance Committee, said she spoke with Unicoi County Assessor of Property Teresa Kinsler the week prior to the meeting and was advised it could be this Thursday before the county’s Board of Equalization completes its work in what is a reappraisal year. After property values have been set at the conclusion of this process, officials can begin work to determine the penny’s worth on the property tax rate.

“Sometime after the first of July we should have those numbers,” Rice said.

Although the definitive figure may not be available until after July 1, the start of the 2017-18 fiscal year, Rice said she understands the value of the penny should remain flat from its amount during the 2016-17 fiscal year. In 2016-17, each penny on Unicoi County’s property tax rate generated $30,342 in revenue.

Still, because the exact value of what the penny will bring in during 2017-18 is not yet known, the committee, which has been meeting since early May to develop the county’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, opted to hold off on delving further into budgetary matters.

“We were hoping when we met today we’d have the penny and maybe we’d be able to do a little bit more in this session, but we don’t,” Rice said. “Perhaps in our next meeting, sometime after Fourth of July weekend, we’ll try to go over that with (Kinsler).”

Despite this, one outstanding funding matter and a new one were discussed.

During its prior meeting held on May 16, the committee reviewed funding requests submitted by the county’s nonprofit agencies and organizations. One request receiving much of the committee’s attention during that meeting was the request from the Unicoi County Family YMCA.

The YMCA received a $2,375 contribution from the county during the 2016-17 fiscal year. The agency is seeking a $12,000 county contribution in 2017-18.

The committee on May 16 opted to take no action on the YMCA’s funding request. Instead, county officials wanted to review a current financial statement from the YMCA and discussed the possibility of having agency leadership address the request before the Budget & Finance Committee prior to making a decision regarding the county’s contribution.

Rice said the YMCA is seeking the additional funding to offer a “health program” to county employees  which would provide these employees with access to the facility.

Action was again deferred during Monday’s meeting, but county commissioners present agreed they would like to meet with local YMCA officials at a later date to get a better idea of what the nearly $10,000 additional funds would be used for if provided.

Commissioner Gene Wilson also suggested the panel take a look at the contribution the county provides for the Unicoi County Veterans’ Services Program. This program, which is headed by former county commissioner Bill Hensley, aims to help local veterans secure benefits and other assistance.

The county’s Veterans’ Services Program is seeking $7,950 in 2017-18, the same amount it received from the county in the prior fiscal year.

Wilson said he would like to see the county’s contribution toward the program cut as local veterans are receiving more help through avenues that do not receive county funding. He added an office that was supposed to be setup for the program has yet to be established.

“I think that ought to go back to the taxpayers, because there have been people who have called me and they can’t get no help,” Wilson said of the funding contribution.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch recommended that the committee meet with Hensley before making a decision on the contribution request. The committee opted to follow this recommendation and will ask Hensley to be present during its next meeting in July.

Even though the penny’s value has not yet been determined, Unicoi County Finance Director Phyllis Bennett, has already begun work on the revenue projections for the 2017-18. Through May, the county has received revenue in the amount of $6,544,283. Using this figure, Bennett presented a proposed revenue for the 2017-18 fiscal year of $7,154,125. However, Bennett cautioned commissioners that this projection could change over time as more solid budgetary information arrives.

Rice said by the Budget & Finance Committee’s next meeting, officials should have the value of the penny on the property tax rate, a better idea of the county’s revenues and Unicoi County’s starting fund balance for the 2017-18 fiscal year. She said she would like to see the Unicoi County Commission by the end of July consider the first reading of the county’s overall budget for the new fiscal year.

The Budget & Finance Committee is set to next meet on Wednesday, July 12, at 1 p.m.

The Budget & Finance Committee did hear from one county entity during Monday’s meeting. Unicoi County Director of Schools John English and members of the Unicoi County Board of Education were on hand to present the Unicoi County Schools general purpose budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

The schools system’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $21,930,101, a reduction of approximately more than $1.8 million from the system’s 2016-17 budget of $23,804,277.

English said the schools system realized another reduction in its Basic Education Program, or BEP, funding from the state due to declining enrollment.

“We’re about 26 kids to the negative this year, for this year’s BEP funding,” English said.

BEP is the formula used to figure out how much revenue the state will provide to a school system each year, as well as the revenue local governments need to provide as a match. Student enrollment, also known as average daily membership, is the primary determiner of funds.

The school system’s total BEP allocation for the 2016-17 fiscal year was $12,810,000. According to the estimated allocation provided to the school system in May, the total allocation for 2017-18 would be $12,834,000. While the projection for the upcoming year is slightly greater, English explained this would actually result in a loss of BEP.

Schools systems equate BEP funding to the number of positions the money represents. In 2016-17, the amount Unicoi County Schools received was equal to 158.13 positions. Because of a state mandatory salary increase for 2017-18, the allocation for the upcoming year is equal to 153.42 positions.

English said this would represent a loss of 4.71 positions. If an average salary of $44,024 per position is calculated, the BEP loss for 2017-18 comes out to $207,353.

This marks consecutive years the local schools system has lost positions due to cuts in BEP funding. But he said school officials have worked to address position losses through attrition and personnel shifts.

“As we’re losing funding due to lack of enrollment, we’re taking a hard look at our personnel,” English said. “This summer and last summer, what we’ve done is as we’ve had retirements or folks leaving, we’ve just absorbed positions and kind of shifted some people instead of filling them, so we’re continuing toward that. I think over the last two summers, we’re at 11 positions now. We’ve lost 17 but we’ve absorbed about 11 that we’ve had people leaving and just not filled it, kind of shifted some people within. So we’re trying to attack our loss of BEP that way.”

The system’s budget also includes several additions totaling $549,176. Along with a 2 percent salary increase for employees across the system, these include additional pay based on experience and a 7 percent aggregate increase in health insurance costs for employees.

The school system, which is on the state’s health insurance plan, currently covers the entire premiums for employees on single coverage and this amount plus 45 percent for those on family plans. Because of increases in insurance costs and declining revenues, the school board intends to revisit the insurance matter prior to October’s open enrollment.

“Right now, we pay 100 percent of our singles and we’d certainly love to keep doing that, but it’s just getting to a place where, as the rates are going up and our funding’s going down, it’s hard to sustain that,” English said.

The school system is also projecting costs to its federal ESEA, federal IDEA and federal Carl Perkins funding totaling more than $110,000.

English said 83 percent of the schools system’s budget is made up of personnel expenditures. The total salaries for 2017-18, which include more than $2 million for benefits such as Social Security and nearly $2.5 million for medical insurance, is $18,346,194.

Remaining expenditures, English said, are made up of items such as supplies, fuel and utilities.

English said the estimated fund balance to end the 2016-17 school year is $3,520,418. He said $447,564 from the system’s unassigned fund balance was required to balance this 2017-18 budget, adding the projected fund balance to close out the upcoming fiscal year is $2,131,631.

But, English said, the exact numbers needed to paint a more exact picture of the budget, such as final state allocation totals, have not yet arrived. This, he said, could impact how the school board approaches the insurance matter.

The Unicoi County Board of Education approved the schools system’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget on May 30.

English also briefly discussed several capital projects on the horizon that may affect future school system budgets. He said he intends to look at replacing the more-than-20-year-old heating and air units found in each classroom at the current Love Chapel Elementary School, formerly Unicoi County Intermediate School. English also said the stands at Gentry Stadium are “outdated” and potentially hazardous, adding he plans on getting estimates on what it would cost to correct this issue. He also said some work may be needed in the future at Unicoi Elementary School.

911 board on hunt for new dispatch system

By Brad Hicks

Two companies wish to provide the computer-aided dispatch system for Unicoi County 911 center, and representatives from each were in town on Monday to make their pitch to the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District Board.

The board met at 3 p.m. on Monday, June 19, at which time bids submitted for the new computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system were opened. The companies submitting bids were the Knoxville-based GeoConex and the Wilmington, N.C.-based Zuercher Technologies.

These bids were set to be opened during the board’s May 15 meeting, but concerns over whether adequate notice was provided to the public ahead of that meeting delayed the opening of the bids until Monday.

Daniel Yarnell with GeoConex told the board his company, founded around 15 years ago, works with 60 to 70 percent of the counties in Tennessee, as well as entities throughout the Southeast.

“I have to tell you all, it’s exciting for our company for me to be here today because we’ve been wanting to do business with you guys for a long time, and the opportunity has finally presented itself for you all to be looking at a proposal from our company,” Yarnell said to the board.

The GeoConex proposal provides a base price of $108,381. This amount, Yarnell said, includes an option that would allow dispatchers to conduct National Crime Information Center queries through the CAD. If the Emergency Communications District Board forwent this option, it would bring the base price down to $97,556, Yarnell said.

Yarnell said the GeoConex proposal includes workstations, monitors, the server necessary for the CAD system and other hardware. He said the server and workstations would come with a five-year warranty, and that the proposal includes onsite training.

Yarnell said the yearly maintenance cost to the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District Board would be a little more than $8,580, plus an additional $1,600 if the board moves to include the NCIC option. Yarnell said there would be no charge for the first year of maintenance. GeoConex would also provide updates to the system and software through maintenance, Yarnell said.

Yarnell said it would take around four to eight weeks to complete data conversion and hardware installation for the GeoConex system.

David Jones with Zuercher Technologies told the board his company, which works primarily with small- to medium-sized counties and cities, was founded more than 14 years ago and has between 275 to 300 customers across 40 states.

“In that time, we’ve never failed a project and we’ve never had our CAD system replaced, ever,” Jones said. “So our reputation, our track record, is very important to us, and I don’t think there’s another vendor out there with that track record.”

The standard cost presented in the Zuercher Technologies proposal is $87,635. The proposal includes $50,121 in options and add-ons, including the NCIC queries through CAD, that the board could elect to include with the system.

Jones said the Zuercher proposal includes the physical server needed to run the CAD, the operating system software and the database needed for its operation. The proposal also includes a “testing/training server” which would allow dispatchers to familiarize themselves with features of the Zuercher software updates which occur every three months, Jones said. The proposal also includes mapping and the GIS services behind it, Jones said.

Jones said the yearly maintenance cost through Zuercher would be around $12,000 to $15,000. Like Yarnell, Jones said the first year of maintenance would be included in the contract. Jones added Zuercher takes “100 percent responsibility” for its software, server, operating system and database.

“What that means to our customers is that we monitor your system in real-time, and we’ll know before you do if there’s any issues and, if there are, it’s our responsibility to fix it,” Jones said, adding his company also conducts system backups for its customers. 

Jones said it could take anywhere from two to six months from the time the contract with Zuercher is signed before the CAD system it provides goes live.

Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Adams suggested that board members take time to study the two proposals before making a decision. Adams motion to that effect was unanimously approved by the board, and the panel will consider acceptance of one of the proposals during its July meeting.

The need for a new CAD system has been a topic of discussion for several months. During the Emergency Communications District Board’s January meeting, Emergency Communications District Board Chairman Bill Hensley appointed Adams and Unicoi County 911 Director Travis Chandler to research possible replacement systems. During its March meeting, the board voted to put out a request for proposal to obtain bids from companies interested in providing a new system.

Adams said in March that Unicoi County 911 is experiencing compatibility issues with its current CAD system, adding the system was outdated when it was purchased several years ago when the local 911 center was relocated to the county’s Jail Annex. He said only one other district in the state uses the same system as Unicoi County.

The board on Monday also approved its budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. The budget reflects a proposed $507,766 in total revenues and losses against $477,860 in total operating expenses.

The board also voted to put $12,000 toward new fencing, gating and guard rails at the 911 center. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he previously acquired price quotes for this work, with the estimates provided being in the $22,000 to $24,000 range. Per the board’s vote, the board’s money will be provided to the county which, upon consideration by the Unicoi County Commission, is to pay for the remainder of the work. If the work is not completed, the $12,000 will be returned to the Emergency Communications District Board.

The goal of the undertaking would be to increase safety and security for the center, which is located in the same building as the Unicoi County Jail Annex and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department’s administrative offices.

Also discussed by the board was a reduction in the number of paid holidays Unicoi County 911 employees will receive going forward. Currently, employees receive 13 paid holiday, but county 911 officials are discussing the removal of Columbus Day, Election Day and the Unicoi County Apple Festival from the list. The board opted to have local attorney Jim Pate draw up a policy for the board’s consideration at a future meeting.

Rep: Ayers partnership helped seniors acquire $1.4M in funds for post-secondary education

By Brad Hicks

After just its first year, a partnership aimed at helping Unicoi County High School students prepare for their post-secondary education is already proving to be a success.

“It’s really hard to believe the benefit that’s derived for our boys and girls already just in one year,” said Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle.

During its Thursday, June 8, meeting, the Unicoi County Board of Education received an end-of-the-year update on the school system’s partnership with the Ayers Foundation. Through this partnership, which was forged at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the Ayers Foundation through its Scholars Program provided funding to bring a new counselor to UCHS to provide students with application assistance, information and help in securing funding for the educational journeys awaiting them.

Thursday’s update was presented by Jodi Lane Bradford, the college access counselor provided through the Ayers Foundation. Perhaps the most impressive number provided by Bradford is that 98 percent of eligible seniors from the 2016-17 UCHS senior class are committed to pursuing a post-secondary education, which includes the military.

“It’s just a neat progression for me to see how far we’ve come as a program and how far the students have come and just that it’s going to continue to get better,” Bradford said as she reflected upon the first year of the partnership. 

Bradford also said 98 percent of the recently-graduated UCHS seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She said 100 percent of UCHS seniors completed Tennessee Promise Applications, and 100 percent of 2016-17 seniors completed at least one college application during the 2016-17 school year.

The 2016-17 UCHS senior class received around $1.4 million in scholarships for the upcoming year, and members of this past year’s senior class will represent UCHS this fall at 22 post-secondary institutions, including East Tennessee State University, Milligan College, University of Tennessee – Knoxville, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, New York University and Yale.

Bradford said, perhaps for the first time in UCHS history, more graduating seniors are set to begin their higher learning career at a four-year university rather than a community college.

“I think this is just because of us helping them realize all the resources that are available, because they’ve always been talented and academically able to do so, hopefully, they’ll succeed and do really well there,” Bradford said. “We’re excited for that.”

Six campus tours were also made available to UCHS seniors during the 2016-17 school year. Other events resulting from the Ayers Foundation partnership, such as college signing days, a junior parent night and a Unicoi County Middle School college and career fair, were held throughout the year.

In February, the Ayers Foundation brought in Kayla Tapia to UCHS to serve as a financial aid assistant, offering another resource for seniors looking to continue their education.

In August 2016, Jim and Janet Ayers announced that the Ayers Foundation would be providing funds to bring a new counselor to UCHS.

“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,” Janet Ayers, president of the Ayers Foundation, said in August. “Our counselors are very skilled at finding all possible funding sources that help our students attend the school of their choice.”

When the partnership was announced, Unicoi County joined three other counties – Decatur, Perry and Henderson – in receiving support from the Ayers Foundation. According to information provided at the time of the announcement, the program has helped secure more than $30 million in funding for students in West Tennessee, and over the nearly two decades of the program has supported Decatur, Perry and Henderson counties, more than 4,000 graduates in those counties have pursued a post-secondary education.

“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 in August. “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.”

Bradford added that there are plans in place to grow the program made possible by the Ayers Foundation. She said these plans include the hiring of another counselor at some point, an increased engagement with UCHS underclassmen, an increased focus on workforce readiness, the offering of life skills classes, and working to increase reading and English proficiency in the Hispanic student population. 

School board member Garland Evely said he attended one of the events held this past year at UCHS and observed an excitement among students “that I hadn’t seen before.”

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English commended the efforts of those brought in by the Ayers Foundation thus far, adding he is looking forward to what the future holds for the partnership.

“I said in August when we had the announcement that this was going to be a game changer and, certainly now, you can see just how big of a game changer it was for our students and our system to have you ladies to continue the work that was already there but to help build that culture of next step, post-secondary, what that looks like, how important that is,” English said to Bradford. “I know how invested both of you have been from day one, I’ve seen it, and our students are reaping the benefits from that.”

Painting inspires Heritage Museum event

Vehicles, like the one Mike McIntosh is standing with in the above photo, will be on display during an event at the Unicoi County Heritage Museum on June 10. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Displayed within the Unicoi County Heritage Museum is a painting completed several years ago by artist Jim Stagner.

Stagner’s work, which was previously sold as a fundraiser for the museum, depicts the exterior of the Heritage Museum with two vintage Ford cars parked just beyond the building’s front porch.

This painting, according to museum curator Martha Erwin, will come to life this weekend during what Erwin referred to as a “must-see event.”

This first-ever event, which will feature cars, music and food, will be held this Saturday, June 10, from 1-5 p.m. on the grounds of the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and the adjacent Clinchfield Railroad Museum.

“We’re doing it to promote the museums,” Erwin said.

During the event, vintage cars, like those depicted in Stagner’s painting, will be displayed on the museums’ grounds. Karen Simmering, president of the East Tennessee Model A Restorers Club, is also set to be in attendance.

Live entertainment will be provided by Art Lang and Friends. The group, which performed during last month’s kickoff ceremony for the museums’ 2017 season, is set to perform old-time bluegrass tunes and railroad-themed songs.

“They are returning by popular request,” Erwin said. “They will be playing multiple musical instruments – guitar, upright bass, fiddle, autoharp, harmonica and banjo.”

The car display and musical portions of this Saturday’s event are free to attend.

Food will be sold during the event. Erwin said a plate consisting of grilled hotdogs with all the fixings, chips and a canned drink will be available for $5.

The museums are located at 529 Federal Hatchery Road next to the Erwin National Fish Hatchery.

For more information on this Saturday’s event or the museums, call 743-9449, 743-8923 or 753-9233.

Board of Education OKs budget, uncertainty remains regarding revenue, deficit

By Brad Hicks

Although the Unicoi County Board of Education does not yet have the answer to the lingering question of just how much revenue Unicoi County Schools will receive in the upcoming fiscal year, a looming deadline to ensure the receipt of state funding forced the board to take action last week.

The board unanimously approved the school system’s general purpose budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year during a brief special-called meeting held Tuesday, May 30. The overall 2017-18 budget for Unicoi County Schools is $21,930,101. The original budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year reflected both revenues and expenditures in the amount of $23,804,277.

“We know it was a very difficult budget year with another round of cuts,” Unicoi County Director of Schools John English said to the board during last week’s meeting. “I appreciate your work over the last couple of months working through this, talking through some different possibilities.”

The unavoidable uncertainty surrounding 2017-18 revenues had been discussed at meetings leading up to last Tuesday’s session. To make sure their system receives state Basic Education Program funding, school boards must pass their system’s new fiscal year budget by June 1. However, final BEP estimates and other projected revenues needed to paint a clearer budgetary picture are often unavailable until after early June. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.

This is the situation the Unicoi County Board of Education found itself in with the 2017-18 fiscal year budget for Unicoi County Schools. Still, revenues totaling $21,930,101 are projected in the budget approved last week by the county’s school board. State education funding makes up the bulk of a school system’s funding, and that figure is currently projected at more than $13.7 million for Unicoi County Schools in 2017-18.

But English said this number could change in either direction between now and the end of June. The county schools system began receiving Basic Education Program, or BEP, funding estimates from the state in April. From April to May, the system saw its estimated share of state funding increase around $17,000, English said.

The system has not yet received its BEP estimate for June, but English said local school officials hope to see another increase in the funding when that final estimate arrives. However, he warned the June BEP estimate could contain a funding decrease.

BEP is the formula used to figure out how much revenue the state will provide to a school system each year, as well as the revenue local governments need to provide as a match. Student enrollment is the primary determiner of funds.

Like surrounding school systems, student enrollment in Unicoi County Schools has decreased in recent years, a trend English attributed to a lack of jobs within the county, increased homeschooling, online education options and families having fewer children. This enrollment decrease has negatively impacted the system’s BEP funding. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the school system experienced a loss in BEP funding in the $500,000 range.

Schools systems equate BEP funding losses to the number of positions the decreases represent.

“For example, we’ve been cut 17 teacher positions in the last two years,” English said following last Tuesday’s meeting. “We have absorbed some positions. We’re very mindful in trying to keep – and this is the way we put it always – as many people working as we can. We know job loss in this county has been difficult for a lot of folks, but the truth is what we’ve been able to do as we’ve had retirements and as we’ve had people maybe move to other systems, we’ve been able to shift within and not fill those positions. A lot of the savings you’ve seen have been from people moving. But, no question, we’ve had to take a hard look at some cuts and some positions where, maybe three years ago, we had enough students to justify those positions but now we don’t.”

This is not the only funding cut Unicoi County Schools is facing in 2017-18. The system could lose around $105,000 in federal Title I money. These federal dollars have previously been used by the schools system to fund state-mandated Response to Intervention positions. Although English said lawmakers are working to see that this funding is restored and have provided positive feedback that it will be, Unicoi County Schools has, for now, picked up the RTI positions in its general purpose budget.

Another key revenue piece not yet determined is how much funding the Unicoi County Schools system will receive from Unicoi County. The school system receives a share of both sales taxes and property taxes collected locally. The county does not yet have its anticipated sales tax revenues for the upcoming year, and the value of each penny on the county’s property tax rate will not be determined until mid-June in what is a reappraisal year. Once the penny’s value has been determined, county officials can use the figure to set Unicoi County’s 2017-18 property tax rate which, in turn, will allow them to estimate property tax revenues for the upcoming budget year.

More than $4 million in revenue from local taxes is projected in the schools system’s budget approved last week.

Local school officials worked prior to last week’s meeting to whittle down a more than $800,000 deficit Unicoi County Schools was facing. As English explained, this projected deficit stemmed from revenue uncertainty, but officials were able to trim $394,000 from the figure thereby reducing the amount the system would need to pull from its reserves in order to balance the 2017-18 budget.

The moves made to accomplish this $394,000 in deficit cuts included the elimination of bus monitors originally included in the 2017-18 budget. This saved the system around $97,000. A library assistant position and guidance position at Temple Hill Elementary School and a custodial position at Unicoi Elementary School were also eliminated. An English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher currently in the system will be moved into the spot previously occupied by a retiring Special Education teacher, lowering the salary and benefit costs associated with the post. Two UC Advance assistant salaries have also been eliminated from the original budget, as one of the assistants voluntarily resigned to complete student teaching and the other position will be picked up by IDEA – SPED.

“So we just absorbed some positions within the budget with some retirements and some personnel moves,” English said.

With the more than $390,000 in cuts, the system’s deficit entering 2017-18 currently stands at $447,564. If nothing changes, this is the amount the system would need to pull from its reserves – which currently sit at around $2 million – in order to balance the budget. But English said he expects a decrease in that deficit total as projected revenues begin to roll in.

“So that number will look better, we just don’t know how much better,” English said. “But between now and July 1, a lot of that will play out and we’ll have some concrete end-of-year numbers.” 

English also said school officials will continue to keep an eye on personnel moves throughout the summer, assessing whether it is necessary to fill positions opened due to retirements and looking at internal shifts that could be made to further trim the deficit. If the Title I funding is restored, that money would also reduce the deficit.

By law, a school system must maintain at least 3 percent of its annual budget in reserves. English said, ideally, system officials would rather see reserve funding used for capital projects than toward recurring costs such as salaries and insurance.

Questions over the system’s financial situation have prompted the Unicoi County Board of Education to delay a decision regarding school system employee insurance until the budget situation shakes out further.

Unicoi County Schools is on the state’s health insurance plan. Officials were previously made aware that costs on that plan are set to increase in the future. Some plan options could see costs increase by around 7 percent, while one option could possibly realize a 23 percent increase. 

The school board met in a work session on May 17 to review and discuss possible insurance options. At present, the school system currently covers the entire premiums for employees on single coverage and this amount plus 45 percent for those on family plans.

The possibility of having the system cover a fixed percentage of the premium costs was discussed during that work session, as were other options. But, by the end of the meeting, the board decided to go ahead and consider approval of the budget prior to the June 1 deadline and revisit the employee insurance matter prior to October’s open enrollment.

“We want to wait until we see what all those final numbers are before we make that decision,” English said.

The 2017-18 budget, however, does include a 2 percent pay increase for school system employees. Officials previously said this bump would help offset insurance cost increases should they occur.

“I know on behalf of the employees they appreciate the fact that, even though we’ve taken the cuts that we’ve taken, that you’re very mindful of the job they do, and I know in all the discussions with you it all centers back around to trying to take care of our employees,” English said to the board during last week’s meeting. “I know in speaking to them at the end of the year they’re very appreciative of that and they do recognize your efforts there, so I want to say ‘Thank you’ for keeping them at the forefront of your thoughts. I’m proud that we’re able to do a 2 percent increase with the budget that we have.”

Around 78 percent of the system’s budget is made up of personnel salary and benefit costs. The remainder, English said, is comprised of expenses such as electricity, fuel and supplies.

Even though the budget has now been approved, English said school officials will continue with the wait and see approach on revenues, as the bottom line could change significantly over the coming weeks.

“Every year, if you go back and look at our budgets, we’ve had to take money from reserves to balance it,” English said. “This year’s no different, but the fact that it’s not going to be $447,000, I think we all are glad of because that’s a lot of money. It’s hard to predict exactly where that’s going to land, but it could land another $200,000, $250,000 less than that, which would make all of our days, but what the penny brings, property tax, sales tax, when all that revenue comes in, then we’ll have a clearer picture.”

Tennessee Department of Safety mobile unit coming to county on June 21

By Keeli Parkey

Local individuals needing driver-related services are urged to visit the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security mobile unit when it stops in Unicoi County on Wednesday, June 21. The unit is coming to the county in cooperation with County Clerk Mitzi Bowen and her office.

“The mobile unit goes around the whole state of Tennessee to rural areas,” Bowen told The Erwin Record. “They set up in order to accommodate citizens. Instead of having to send people 20 or 30 miles away in order to provide a service, they can offer it here on June 21. This is going to be convenient for our citizens. Instead of going to Elizabethton or Boones Creek for these services, they can get them here on that day.”

According to Bowen, the mobile unit will provide a variety of services.

“They can do anything, except they won’t do a driving test,” Bowen said. “They will do the knowledge testing, but not the driving test. They can do out-of-state into state updates, first-time handgun permits, renewals on handgun permits, for example.”

The mobile unit will open for services at 9:30 a.m. in the parking lot of the Unicoi County Courthouse. For more information about the unit and its services, call the County Clerk’s office at 743-3381.

Assistance available to first-time homebuyers

By Brad Hicks

As he tours the state to discuss the resources his agency makes available to Tennesseans, Ralph Perrey said many are surprised to learn that homeownership is within their reach.

Perrey, executive director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, recently visited the area, stopping by The Erwin Record office on May 17, to get the word out about assistance offered through the TDHA for first-time homebuyers.

“We’re looking forward to doing a little bit more business up here,” Perrey said. “We’ve got good lenders. This is just such a nice area. People want to live here. People who live here, at some point, start looking around and thinking, ‘I’d like to buy a house here.’

“If they’re a first-time homebuyer and they meet our criteria, we’ve got a product that can really help them.”

That product, Perrey said, is the THDA’s Great Choice Home Loans program.

“I tell people we call the product Great Choice, but for an awful lot of first-time homebuyers at moderate-, middle-income it really is,” Perrey said. “We have been very pleased that many more East Tennessee families have been able to take advantage of what we offer.”

A first-time homebuyer is defined as one who has not owned his or her property in the past three years. However, the first-time homebuyer requirement to qualify for the Great Choice program has been waived for Unicoi County, Perrey said.

Through the Great Choice Home Loan program, monthly payments are spread out over a 30-year term. The program offers a fixed interest rate, meaning the rate will not change throughout the life of the loan. The THDA’s rate currently sits at 4.625 percent.

“What we can help you with is a competitive rate on a 30-year, fixed rate, no gimmick mortgage,” Perrey said, “and we have some credit flexibilities and we can help you with a down payment.”

Information on the program, including what is needed to qualify for a Great Choice mortgage and financial assistance offered through the program, may be found at www.greatchoicetn.com. Once there, those interested in the Great Choice program can click on the “Homebuyers” tab at the top of the page to learn more about it.

In Unicoi County, a one to two person household can make as much as $68,760 per year and qualify for the Great Choice Home Loan program. Households of three or more have an annual income limit of $80,220.

“This is something that continues to surprise people,” Perrey said. “A single person here in Unicoi County can be making as much as $67,000 a year and qualify for our financing. A larger family can be earning $75,000, $76,000 and qualify for our financing. Because we do so many different things in housing and we do help a lot of low-income Tennesseans, some people just naturally assume, ‘You only help poor people. I thought I made too much money to take advantage of your financing.’”

The maximum purchase price buyers may pay for a home and still qualify for the program varies by county. In Unicoi County, the maximum purchase price is $300,000.

A lack of money saved to cover the down payment and closing costs seems to be the biggest impediment to homeownership, Perrey said. But, Perrey said, those who qualify for the THDA’s Great Choice Home Loan program have the option of financial assistance with their down payment and/or closing costs.

“So they can take advantage of our program and we’ll help them with 5 percent of the purchase price as a down payment,” Perrey said. “If somebody’s buying a $150,000 home, that means we’ll help them with $7,500 toward their down payment and closing costs. That’s often what puts them over the top. That gives them the ability to purchase that home.”

As for credit flexibility offered through the program, Perrey said those with a credit score of at least 640 may qualify. Conventional lenders, he said, prefer scores of more than 700. And Perrey said while conventional lenders may work with those possessing scores below this range, the potential homebuyer won’t receive the advertised rate.

Perry said the buyer’s debt-to-income ratio must be below 45 percent to qualify for Great Choice.

The Great Choice website also provides a list of lenders in the area who offer the THDA program, as well as a list of homebuyer education counselors who can get new homebuyers started and provide tips on the process. Perrey said the THDA encourages this counseling, much of which can be completed online, as it helps people line up their finances, improve their credit scores, and have a better understanding of the home buying process.

“This is the biggest investment most people ever make,” Perrey said. “You can be kind of anxious about what you’re getting into. The counseling really helps you understand what you’re getting into, feel better about it, and be better prepared for it because, for us, this has always been more than just, ‘Can we sell a house? Can we book a mortgage?’ It’s, ‘We’re helping somebody take their first step into homeownership.’ We want them to succeed. We want that to be a building block for their future and their family.”

Perrey said when he became THDA executive director a little more than four years ago, East Tennessee represented about 22 percent of the agency’s business. To improve this number, the THDA based staff in East Tennessee and began an “aggressive program” of community outreach, consumer-targeted marketing, and engagement with lender partners, Perrey said.

“I think that’s how you build your business – strong relationships with your industry partners and making sure that the people you want to serve know you’ve got the product and how it works and how it can help them out,” he said. “And, certainly, the numbers hear it out. The better job that we have done getting the word out, the stronger our business volume has become. That, in turn, lets us turn around and do more things to support housing opportunity in Tennessee.”

And the tours have proven effective. Since Perrey took over as THDA executive director, the THDA has realized a 42 percent increase in loan volume in East Tennessee. Perrey said East Tennessee now represents 36 percent of the THDA’s total loan business, adding this is now a considerable percentage of a “much bigger pot,” as the THDA’s overall business has grown by more than 30 percent over the past few years.

“So that’s a real encouraging trend for us, and we just find the more we get around, the more we talk to people, the more folks wake up and realize, ‘You know, we’ve been thinking about buying a home. We thought that opportunity might be two to three years away from us but, really, this might be something we can do right now,’” Perrey said.

Erwin Planning Commission approves ordinance changes

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley addresses possible changes to Erwin’s municipal zoning ordinance. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Several changes to Erwin’s municipal zoning ordinance could be on the way if the town’s legislative body follows a recommendation made last week by the Erwin Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission, during its Wednesday, May 24, meeting voted unanimously to recommend the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s approval of an ordinance to amend articles within the municipal zoning ordinance. The articles to be altered through the amendment include the definition of a nursing home within Erwin, the provision pertaining to nonconforming uses, off-street parking regulations, and the town’s comprehensive sign ordinance. The amendment would also clarify provisions within the town’s M-1 industrial district and remove the F-1 flood zone district.

The town’s current code defines nursing homes only as facilities licensed by the state. Clarifications and additions to this definition have been proposed and, per the now-recommended amendment, nursing homes are to be defined as a “home licensed by the State of Tennessee for the aged or chronically or incurably ill persons in which five or more such persons not of the immediate family are provided with food and shelter or care for compensation, but not including hospitals, clinics, or similar institutions devoted primarily to the diagnosis and treatment of the sick or injured.”

This new definition is intended to delineate nursing homes from hospitals in the zoning ordinance.

The change to zoning ordinance provision pertaining to nonconforming uses has been recommended to adhere to state law. Under the current zoning ordinance, when the nonconforming use of a building or land has ceased for a period of one year, it cannot be reestablished or changed to any use not in conformity with the provisions of the zoning ordinance. To comply with state law, it is recommended that this period be increased in the town’s zoning ordinance from one year to 30 months.

The recommended off-street parking amendment states such parking space shall be provided on every lot for a number of uses except in the B-3 central business district. Among these uses, the amendment states churches would need at least one parking space for each four seats. For dwellings, one space would be required for each unit. At hospitals and nursing homes, one space would be needed for each two staff or visiting doctors plus one space for each two employees and one space for each four beds, “computed on the largest number of employees on duty at any period of time.” Hotels are to provide one space for each four employees and one space for each two guest rooms. Schools are to provide one space for each faculty member, plus one space for each four pupils except in elementary and junior high schools.

If the off-street parking space cannot be “reasonably provided” on the same lot on which the principal use is conducted, the Erwin Board of Zoning Appeals may allow such space to be provided on other off-street property so long as this space lies within 400 feet of the main entrance of the principal use, according to the amendment. Such space shall be deemed to be required open space associated with the use and shall not “thereafter be reduced or encroached upon in any manner.”

The parking spaces are to be a minimum of 9 feet in width and anywhere from 18 to 25 feet in minimum space depth, depending on the parking angle. Standard and van-accessible handicapped spaces are to conform with state and federal Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Turning space shall be provided for off-street spaces so that no vehicle is required to back into the street, according to the recommended amendment.

Required parking spaces may be extended up to 120 feet into residential districts so long as the space adjoins a commercial or industrial district, has its only exit to or from the same street as the property in the commercial or industrial district from which it provides the required parking space, and is separated from abutting properties in the residential district by a plant or fence buffer strip as determined by Erwin’s building inspector.

If the amendment is granted final approval by the BMA, a provision governing the town’s M-1 industry district would be changed to allow the Erwin Planning Commission to request input from the town’s building inspector, fire chief and/or police chief when determining permitted M-1 uses. The commission can seek this input to ensure an industry “does not cause injurious or obnoxious noise, fire hazards or other objectionable conditions,” according to the amendment.

A number of alterations have been proposed for the town’s comprehensive sign ordinance contained within the zoning ordinance.

Per the recommended changes, the announcement portion of all permanent signs, other than monument signs, is to be located at least 9 feet above the ground. Signs above a driveway are to have minimum clearance of 15 feet. Monument signs will be allowed only when advertising along a road with a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour or less.

Attached single-tenant signs, such as those located above a business entrance, must be flat against the building or within 24 inches of the structure, under the proposed changes. Attached signs are not to project above the building and are to be limited to 1 square foot of area per linear foot of wall facing a public street or customer parking area not to exceed 200 square feet.

The new regulations would allow one detached single-tenant sign with a maximum of 150 square feet.

For multiple-tenant signs, such as those at shopping centers that list the businesses found within the complex, only one such “major directory” sign would be allowed for a multiple-tenant complex, per the amendment. This sign would have to be located on the same real estate tract as the business complex and may only advertise businesses physically located within the complex. This detached sign is not to exceed 150 square feet.

Signs that advertise a product, service or other business that are not physically located on the same premises as what is being advertised are prohibited, per the proposed changes. Also, according to the recommended changes, any nonconforming sign located as a business in continual use shall not be allowed to be changed in any manner other than to provide for safety precautions or unless in conformance with the provisions found within state law.

Under the proposed changes, a monument sign would be defined as a “freestanding sign attached to the ground, which incorporates a design and materials complementary to the architectural theme of the building on the same property. A monument sign is not mounted on a pole or brace, and does not exceed ten feet in height.”

Under the proposed amendment, the F-1 flood zone district as described in the town’s zoning ordinance would be removed. This zone is not contained on any of the town’s maps, and it is up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine flood zones.

These changes to the town’s zoning ordinance were discussed at length during a Planning Commission workshop held in late February. The Planning Commission reviewed and again discussed the proposed alterations in April, and the changes were put into an ordinance format for the panel’s consideration ahead of last Wednesday’s meeting.

Cory Osborne, community and transportation planner with the First Tennessee Development District, said the multiple amendments could be enacted under a single ordinance. 

“This would be the cleanest way to do it, and it would hold up,” Osborne said.

As Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff explained, the town’s zoning ordinance differs from its municipal code in that the zoning ordinance is set up as a single ordinance containing multiple articles rather than the multiple ordinances pertaining to various items that make up the town’s code.

But Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said it may be difficult for citizens and officials looking for a particular item to locate the updated zoning regulations with so many amendments covered under one ordinance.

“How would they know to come and look at this ordinance when it’s got signage, nursing homes?” Hensley said.

Hensley said she would like to see separate ordinance amendments for each of the proposed changes put before the Erwin BMA. Osborne said this could be done prior to that board’s meeting to consider the alterations.

“If the concern is it’s too confusing because everything is grouped together or that it would be harder to reference back to because of that, it can be broken into individual multiple ordinances,” Osborne said. “It doesn’t have to be, but it can be for the sake of clarity.”

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen must approve the Planning Commission-recommended amendments on two readings before they take effect. The board could consider the first reading of the changes as soon as its next regular meeting. A public hearing will coincide with the BMA’s consideration of the second and final reading.

Unicoi County Commission Budget Committee discusses funding for nonprofits

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee met May 16, marking the second time this month the panel worked toward the development of the county’s overall budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

This time, nonprofit funding was the primary topic of conversation. 

Like county officeholders and department heads, nonprofit organizations across the county are asked to submit funding requests to be reviewed by county commissioners.

The county in 2016-17 provided more than $152,500 in funding to a variety of local nonprofits. These nonprofits are seeking a total of more than $197,300 in county contributions in the 2017-18 fiscal year, or an increase of around $44,800 over the prior year.

The nonprofit request that received the most attention from the Budget & Finance Committee during last Tuesday’s meeting was the contribution sought by the Unicoi County Family YMCA. The YMCA is seeking $12,000 contribution from Unicoi County in the 2017-18 fiscal year, up nearly $10,000 from the $2,375 county contribution the agency received in 2016-17.

After some discussion, the committee opted to take no action on the YMCA’s funding request. Instead, officials wish to review a current financial statement from the organization before making a decision on the county’s contribution. Officials with the YMCA may also be asked to meet with the Budget & Finance Committee to further discuss the request once the financial statement has been reviewed.

The committee also opted to recommend that funding for a pair of entities seeking a contribution increase in 2017-18 remain at the 2016-17 level.

The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce is seeking $15,000 in county funding in the upcoming budget year, up more than $12,000 from the $2,350 it received from the county in 2016-17. The committee voted last week to recommend that the county’s contribution to the Chamber remain at the 2016-17 amount.

Also seeking an increase in the 2017-18 fiscal year is the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, which is asking for $3,000 in the new year. The Budget & Finance Committee recommended that the county provide the museum with $950 in county funding, which is the same amount the museum received in 2016-17.

However, the committee recommended meeting the 2017-18 funding requests of several organizations, despite these requests exceeding the amount the county contributed in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Unicoi County’s Soil Conservation District requested  $5,000 in county funding for the new fiscal year, up from the $3,000 it received in 2016-17. The Budget & Finance Committee voted to recommend extending the $5,000 sought for 2017-18 to the agency.

In 2016-17, Unicoi County contributed $1,975 to the county’s Little League organization. Unicoi County Little League requested a contribution of $3,000 in the new fiscal year. The committee voted to recommend the full County Commission’s approval of the increased funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

Both the Children’s Advocacy Center and Second Harvest Food Bank received $475 from Unicoi County in 2016-17, and both organizations are seeking $1,000 in county funding for 2017-18. The committee voted to recommend approval of the funding increases.

The Clinchfield Senior Adult Center’s 2017-18 request for funding was $33,000. While the Budget & Finance Committee did not vote to extend this amount, the panel did recommend providing the senior center with $28,000 in county funding in the new fiscal year, a $3,000 increase over the $25,000 the center received in 2016-17.

The funding recommended for the Soil Conservation District, Little League, Second Harvest Food Bank, Children’s Advocacy Center and Clinchfield Senior Adult Senior Adult Center represents a total of $7,075 more than the entities received during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Ten of the 23 organizations submitting contribution requests are seeking the same funding in 2017-18 as was received in 2016-17. The First Tennessee Development District is again seeking $1,803 from the county. The Tennessee County Services Association is seeking $1,230 in the new fiscal year, the same amount it received the prior year, and the Tennessee County Commissioners Association is again seeking $1,250.

The Southside Volunteer Fire Department has requested a county contribution in the amount of $30,000. The Limestone Cove Volunteer Fire Department is requesting $15,000 from the county, and the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department is seeking a $10,000 contribution. The funding requests from each of these fire departments match the contributions they received from the county during the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The First Tennessee Human Resources Agency is seeking a total of $17,209 from Unicoi County in 2017-18, the same amount it received the prior year. The U.S. Forest Service is asking for an $800 contribution, the amount it received during 2016-17, and the county’s Veterans’ Services Program is seeking the $7,950 in 2017-18 it received the year prior.

Increases sought by other organizations were not acted upon during last week’s meeting. Unaka Mountain Search & Rescue is asking for $5,000 in the new fiscal year, up slightly from the $4,750 it received in 2016-17. Frontier Health, which received $1,000 in 2016-17, is requesting $3,000 in 2017-18. The Unicoi County Public Library is asking that its $21,500 2016-17 contribution be increased to $23,000 in the new fiscal year, and Unicoi County Imagination Library is asking for $2,500 in the upcoming year, up from the $1,200 it received from the county in 2016-17. The Tennessee Rehabilitation Center, which received $2,250 in 2016-17, is requesting $5,654 in 2017-18.

The budget development process is in the most preliminary of stages, as county commissioners await information on how much revenue each penny on the county’s property tax rate is expected to generate in the new year and the county’s overall anticipated revenue for 2017-18. 

Projected revenues are slated to arrive in June, and officials should learn the value of the property tax penny after June 14, after the Board of Equalization has finished meeting to close out the reappraisal process.

Because it is still early in the budget process and some uncertainty with regards to county employee insurance remains, changes to the nonprofit contributions agreed upon during last week’s meeting could again shift before the budget is presented to the full Unicoi County Commission for its consideration.

The Budget & Finance Committee opted to hold off on further meetings until the penny value is determined and anticipated revenues become available. The panel set its next meeting for June 19 at 1 p.m.

Joint Economic Development Board OKs FTDD plan

By Brad Hicks

The Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County last week chose to move forward with the planning pitch presented by the First Tennessee Development District.

This decision was made during the Friday, May 26, meeting of the full JEDB. The board was to select either the proposal from the regional planning agency or a proposal from Benchmark Planning, a Charlotte, N.C-based planning firm.

Both the FTDD and Benchmark previously presented their proposals to develop a consolidated comprehensive land use plan for Unicoi County. This plan is intended to help steer future development for all of the county, including Erwin and the Town of Unicoi.

The wheels leading to Friday’s meeting were set in motion several months ago when the JEDB set out a request for proposal to field proposal submissions from companies interested in developing the comprehensive land use plan. Benchmark, a firm that focuses on comprehensive planning, downtown master planning, economic development and regional planning, was the sole company that responded to the RFP.

In its response, Benchmark presented a proposal detailing a 17-month, multi-phase work program. In late March, Benchmark Planning President Jason Epley traveled to Unicoi County and met with the JEDB to further discuss the proposal. Epley said the planning project would involve two phases. The land use and economic development plan would represent the first phase, while the comprehensive plan would represent the second component.

Epley told the board, work on the data-driven land use and economic development plan could begin soon and would run through late 2017. The comprehensive plan component, which Epley said would build upon planning completed during the first phase, would begin in early 2018 and be completed in November 2018.

Benchmark officials estimated that completion of both phases of the plan would cost a little less than $100,000. According to the company’s proposal, the first phase of the project was estimated to cost $47,750, and the second phase was estimated to cost a little more than $50,000.

The JEDB met in April to consider approval of the first phase of Benchmark’s proposal. However, as the company’s bid was being discussed, Town of Unicoi Recorder Mike Housewright inquired about the JEDB’s “internal capacity” to complete the planning itself. Housewright said planners with the FTDD could likely complete the planning if provided with the JEDB’s specifications for the project.

Ronda Sawyer, a community planner with the FTDD, told the board during that April meeting that her agency would be willing to complete the planning if its services were sought. Rather than voting on the Benchmark proposal, the board, instead, voted to allow the FTDD to present a proposal of its own.

Cory Osborne, community and transportation planner with the FTDD, presented the agency’s proposal during a JEDB meeting held earlier this month. Osborne said the comprehensive land use plan document would include both elements of a land use and transportation plan, along with other components. He said the framework of the document would be broken into several categories, including a community profile, land use and development, housing, utilities and infrastructure, transportation and mobility, parks and recreation, economy, and implementation.

According to the FTDD proposal, the agency would break the project up into three phases to be completed over a 16-month period.

Osborne said the FTDD’s estimated cost for completion of the plan is $53,101. Around $51,000 of this cost is for the projected labor involved in the plan’s development and is based on 675 FTDD staff hours. If the labor hours exceed the 675, the price of the plan’s development would not increase as it would be capped at the $53,101, Osborne said. If the plan takes fewer than 675 staff hours to develop, the cost would be prorated and the cost would be reduced based on the actual hours spent developing the plan, Osborne said.

Along with Osborne and Sawyer, Vagn Hansen with Benchmark was present during Friday’s meeting. Each suitor was allowed to explain to the board what their respective entity would bring to the table in development of the comprehensive land use plan.

Hansen said Benchmark would bring with it a team of experienced planners who have completed projects throughout the country, adding Benchmark has a track record of positive results.

“We have experiences from all that work that we can bring here and have people at Benchmark that are very well-qualified and have lots of personal and professional experience doing this kind of work,” Hansen said.

Hansen said the company’s planning process would be thorough, involve the public, and would “take care of all the communities equally.”

Osborne said FTDD planners already know the community, having assisted with projects locally and throughout the region. Osborne said numerous objectives and goals previously outlined in local plans have been achieved, adding the FTDD provides planners to the county and its two municipalities, meaning FTDD representatives will still be in the community throughout the plan process and once the plan has been completed. 

“What we bring is knowing the community very well,” Osborne said. “We’re already here. We’re already working here. We know what some of the strengths and weaknesses are, and we have a lot of relationships that we’re going to have to lean on in order to put this plan together that’s already in place. I think that’s a strength not to discount. And some of the best planning practices, we’re also aware of those. We see what’s going on across the state. We speak with planners from all over the place, and Ronda and myself work in 16 different communities, so we see a wide range of different experience and different challenges, different strengths over those communities, and we’ll bring those to bear as we’re taking a more local approach on this particular plan.”

Like Benchmark, Osborne said the FTDD’s planning process would be data-driven and involve public input.

When asked to provide some insight on the cost discrepancy between his company’s proposal and the FTDD proposal, Hansen said Benchmark is a private business that pays taxes and benefits and is not funded through governmental membership dues. 

“That’s the main reason, I would imagine, that there’s a difference in cost,” Hansen said.

Hansen added Benchmark had agreed to work with the JEDB by reducing its estimate from its originally-projected cost.

Osborne reiterated that the FTDD proposal is framed on the projected 675 staff hours, at a cost of $75 per hour, it would take to complete the plan.

“In terms outlining goals and strategies and objectives for the communities, as well as focusing on the strengths you have currently, I think both plans probably contain the same level of implementation as far as getting things going as soon as the plan’s over. It just may look different and be in a different package.”

Prior to the board’s vote, JEDB Executive Director Tyler Engle said cost should not be the panel’s first consideration, reminding members the JEDB presently has at its disposal for planning $50,000 in previously-awarded U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Development Grant funding with another $25,000 through the Governor’s ThreeStar program potentially on the way.

But members of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County cited the agency’s estimated price as well as its familiarity with and prior work in the community as their reason for supporting the FTDD proposal.

“There is an inherent value (with the FTDD) in the sense that they are stakeholders, they are members of our community,” Housewright said. “I think everybody in the room knows that there’s sometimes friction between our communities, and I believe that the Development District has seen that friction, that they understand the agendas and the goals of each of the communities. I think there’s an inherent value in helping them help navigate that. Additionally, I think there’s a great value in having the continued relationship with them beyond the planning and on into the implementation.”

“I feel like First Tennessee has kind of been a partner with us and they work with us on a lot of different projects,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said. “I think they are aware of our community needs and can help us plan for our future.”

The motion to accept the FTDD proposal was made by Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and seconded by Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch. JEDB Chairman Lee Brown cast the lone dissenting vote on the measure.

The JEDB on Friday also unanimously approved its budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. A $158,000 operating budget has been projected for the upcoming fiscal year.

TWRA: Black bear cubs seen alone might not be orphaned

From Staff Reports

In response to numerous calls from concerned citizens regarding sightings of black bear cubs seen alone, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) is issuing a reminder to residents and visitors that a cub that is alone might be that way for a good reason.

A mother bear, otherwise known as a sow, typically gives birth to as many as four cubs while in her winter den and emerges with them in the spring. Unfortunately, available food is scarce and the sow might cover great distances to replenish calories lost while denning and nursing.  During this time, she often places her cubs in what she perceives to be a safe location and goes in search of food.

TWRA Captain Willard Perryman equates it to a human mother leaving her children with a babysitter and heading to the grocery store to get something to eat and then returning home to feed them.  In a bear’s case, the babysitter could be a tree in eyesight of someone’s home but the grocery store might not be visible.

TWRA Wildlife Biologist Dan Gibbs points out that TWRA has a system in place to address truly orphaned cubs through the Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend. ABR is permitted by TWRA to receive and care for sick, injured, and orphaned black bear cubs brought to them by TWRA.  TWRA evaluates each case in the best interest of the cub and then decides if it is a candidate for rehabilitation through ABR. No one other than TWRA or the National Park Service is allowed to catch or deliver a cub to ABR.

David Whitehead, curator at Appalachian Bear Rescue, said for the public to not jump to the conclusion that a cub is abandoned just because they do not see the mother and that a cub may remain alone for hours. An orphaned cub in the spring is likely to appear healthy unlike an orphaned cub in the fall that will be thin and in poor health., “that unlike orphaned cubs in the fall, a spring orphaned cub will.”

TWRA’s protocol regarding abandoned cubs is that TWRA should only be contacted if the mother bear is confirmed to be dead or the cub remains alone for more than 36 hours.  Appalachian Bear Rescue President Dana Dodd said that like human children, sometimes bear cubs will not mind their mother’s instructions to stay in one place and may wander off. She also points out that if a cub is seen alone, to back away and give the sow a chance to return.  If someone is standing directly under a tree taking pictures of a cub, the mother might not come back as she feels threatened.

“The worst thing you can do is to take a cub that is not truly orphaned from its mother,” Dodd also said. “The best case scenario is for a cub is to remain with its mother because she can do a far better job at raising it than ABR can.”

School system faces budget cuts

By Brad Hicks

The Unicoi County Board of Education does not yet know whether finances will allow the school system to continue with its current employee health insurance contributions, but that did not stop the board from meeting last week to discuss what may be awaiting the system on the insurance front.

The board met in a called work session on Wednesday, May 17, to review possible insurance options. By the end of the meeting, the board decided it will first consider approval of the school system’s budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year before finalizing a decision on insurance since uncertainty as to exactly how much funding Unicoi County Schools will receive in the upcoming fiscal year remains.

Because actual revenue totals, such as the school system’s cut of local sales taxes, will not be known until after the first of July, the insurance numbers crunched ahead of last week’s work session and discussed during the gathering represented the “worst case scenario,” as the information was compiled without the use of such revenue projections, according to Unicoi County Director of Schools John English.

Unicoi County Schools currently pays 100 percent of the premium for employees on single coverage plans. For family plan premiums, the school system provides the same amount as it would to cover the single coverage premium plus 45 percent.

According to English, the school system currently pays approximately $2.3 million annually toward employee health insurance costs.

The Unicoi County Schools system is on the state’s health insurance plan. Local officials were previously aware that percentages on that plan are set to increase in the future. Some plan options could see costs jump by around 7 percent, while the limited option could possibly realize a 23 percent spike.

These increases are on the horizon as a decrease in school system funding looms. A decrease in Basic Education Program (BEP) funding the school system receives from the state is anticipated for 2017-18. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the school system experienced a loss in BEP funding in the $500,000 range.

BEP is the formula used to figure out how much revenue the state will provide to a school system each year, as well as the revenue local governments need to provide as a match. Student enrollment is the primary determiner of these funds.

Student enrollment again decreased in Unicoi County Schools during the current school year.

The school system is also expected to lose around $100,000 in federal Title I money. These dollars have previously been used to fund state-mandated Response to Intervention (RTI) positions. Although English said legislators are working to possibly restore at least some of this funding, the loss of this money has, for now, led the school system to have to pick up the RTI positions out of its general purpose budget.

• • •

The loss of funding has prompted school officials to take a closer look at how to bring the system’s bottom line into balance, with employee insurance being one of the items explored.

And different options are being discussed. Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle said a fixed subsidy for insurance could be a feasible option. Information on the costs of the school system covering certain percentages of the insurance premiums was presented last week. Under the partnership plan option, the premium for a single coverage plan currently costs the school system $717.18 per month with the employee paying nothing. If the board was to cover 70 percent, the employee on a single coverage plan would pay a monthly premium of $215.15. If the board covered 75 percent of the premium, the employee would pay $179.30 per month. The employee would pay $143.44 per month if the board covered 80 percent of the premium, $107.58 monthly if 85 percent is covered, and $71.72 if 90 percent is covered by the board.

The possibility of joining a consortium with surrounding school systems was also briefly discussed. This would require Unicoi County Schools to remove itself from the state plan for at least two years.

English said he has recently discussed the potential changes in insurance costs with employees.

“Nobody wants to see anything change, but I think folks get it,” he said. “You see a lot of nodding heads and see, ‘We didn’t expect this to be able to go on. How could it?’ They realize that other systems have already made this move, and nobody likes to see their checks change, but I do think a lot of our folks realize the situation.”

Aside from the insurance aspect, the school system’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which currently includes a 2 percent raise for system employees to help offset insurance cost increases, is more or less complete, English said. Although the new fiscal year does not begin until July 1, the Board of Education is required to pass the school system’s budget for upcoming fiscal year by June 1.

As it currently stands, approximately $680,000 would need to be pulled from the system’s reserve fund to balance the 2017-18 budget, English said. However, he said this could change after actual revenue figures are made available after early July.

“We know by the time June 30 gets here, that’s not going to be $680,000 anymore,” English said. “That’s not considering anymore revenues like sales tax. Anything like that is not considered in that. So we know that’s going to come down. That’s just what we have right now.

“At this point, anything we get revenue-wise is going to come off of that $680,000.”

The revenue numbers may also determine how the school board approaches the insurance issue.

Because the budget must be passed by June 1 and open enrollment for employee insurance does not begin until October, English recommended that the board meet in a called session to consider approval of the school system’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

That special-called session will take place on Tuesday, May 30, at the Unicoi County Schools Central Office.

Because open enrollment is still several months away, a decision on employee insurance will be made at a later date once the actual revenues the system will see in 2017-18 have been obtained.

“I know for budget purposes, we have to have numbers and we have to have the budget approved, but the insurance decision, I personally don’t think it should come until we have all the facts, until we realize what all of our expenditures and revenue is come June 30, which we don’t know what that is right now,” English said.

911 Board delays bid opening for new system

By Brad Hicks

Concerns over the notification time given for the May 15 meeting of the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District Board, have delayed the opening of bids for a new computer-aided dispatch system for the county’s 911 center.

The board was set to open bids for a new computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system during its Monday, May 15, meeting, but board Chairman Bill Hensley and Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch expressed concerns that the opening of bids and a move to accept one of the cost proposals could open the board up to complaints, as officials may be unable to verify the legally-required five-day notice was provided ahead of the meeting.

“We can’t verify if we’re OK as far as our notice on this meeting,” Lynch said.

To prevent any complaint from going further, Hensley said the board may need to prove all the necessary parties, including bidders, were given proper notification of the meeting. Although the bid deadline was specified in media advertisements announcing the board was seeking bids for the CAD system, Hensley said there may be some question as to whether the meeting at which the bids were to be opened was notified.

Because of these concerns, Hensley recommended that the board hold off on opening the bids until next month. He suggested that emails notifying the board’s June meeting be sent to all involved, as well as local media, to serve as proof that proper notification was given.

A motion made by board member and Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Adams to that effect was unanimously approved by the board.

The board will meet in regular session on June 19 at 3 p.m. at which time the submitted bids are set to be opened.

The need for a new CAD system has been a topic of discussion for several months. During the Emergency Communications District Board’s January meeting, Hensley appointed Adams and Unicoi County 911 Director Travis Chandler to research possible replacement systems. During its March meeting, the board voted to put out a request for proposal to obtain bids from companies interested in providing a new system.

Adams said in March that Unicoi County 911 is experiencing compatibility issues with its current CAD system, adding the system was outdated when it was purchased several years ago when the local 911 center was relocated to the county’s Jail Annex. He said only one other district in the state uses the same system as Unicoi County.

The radio problems that officials say have persisted since the county’s 911 center was moved to the Unicoi County Jail Annex were also discussed during the May 15 meeting. Both Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said local law enforcement’s receipt of emergency traffic continues to be a serious issue.

Adams said technician Todd Malone with PS Kustoms has already looked at the system and advised issues exist with the microwave system which operates between the communications tower and the 911 center. Adams also said the radio equipment is in a box under the tower and may need to be moved indoors.

There was some discussion of replacing the microwave system through the use of a conduit that would link the tower directly to the dispatch center.

Tilson moved that Adams and Chandler contact Malone to “get this radio situation analyzed and, at a minimum, get the microwave system out of there until we can move forward with secure, good communications.” The motion was approved unanimously by the board.

The board also moved to eliminate future compensatory time among county 911 employees by approving a measure to pay these employees overtime rather than allowing the buildup of comp time. This would begin with the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Joint Economic Development Board hears land use plan from FTDD

Cory Osborne with First TN Development District discusses his agency’s proposal to complete a comprehensive land use plan for Unicoi County
(Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

With a pair of proposals now in hand, the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County now has a choice to make.

The JEDB heard from First Tennessee Development District officials during a meeting held on Friday, May 19, at Erwin Town Hall. Representatives from the regional planning agency were on hand to present the agency’s proposal for a consolidated comprehensive land use plan for Unicoi County.

It will now be up to the JEDB to decide if it will accept the FTDD’s proposal or a proposal previously submitted by a Charlotte, N.C.-based planning firm.

During Friday’s meeting, Cory Osborne, a community planner with the FTDD, detailed what would be included in, a completion timeline for, and estimated cost of developing the plan.

The goal of the consolidated comprehensive land use plan, or CCLP, is to guide future development for all of Unicoi County, including Erwin and the Town of Unicoi. According to the FTDD, the document will include both elements of a land use and transportation plan, along with other components to round out a full comprehensive plan.

“Given the twenty-year horizon of the completed plan, the focus is on providing the JEDB with a finished product containing flexible goals that can evolve with the communities over time,” the FTDD proposal states.

Osborne told JEDB members that the framework of the document would be broken into several categories, including a community profile, land use and development, housing, utilities and infrastructure, transportation and mobility, parks and recreation, economy, and implementation.

To develop the community profile aspect of the plan, FTDD officials would examine the area’s history, the local government structures, the area’s demographics, information on local education, current zoning and land use maps, and community facilities and services, among other data and maps. This information, according to the proposal, would help establish a baseline for planning goals moving forward.

The land use and development section of the plan is intended to inform future decision-making and regulations by “combining stakeholder input and best planning practices based on community characteristics,” according to the FTDD proposal. This component of the plan would include future land use maps, historic preservation guidance, information on municipal growth, an analyses of subdivision regulations and zoning ordinances, and development goals, objectives and strategies.

An overview of current community housing characteristics and the identification of future housing objectives is also to be included in the plan document. According to the FTDD, aspects of the plan’s housing section will include current housing estimates, the local rental profile, and historic and current home values, among other information and data.

The utilities and infrastructure section of the plan is intended to inventory existing services and providers within the county and highlight areas of need while identifying potential funding sources for utilities expansions. The transportation and mobility portion of the document would inventory the county’s existing transportation network, including roads and rail, and would map out traffic generators, roadway functional classifications, major thoroughfare plan designations, crash data, and pavement maintenance responsibility jurisdiction.

Like other sections of the plan, the FTDD proposal states stakeholder input will be crucial in forming the goals and objections included in the transportation and mobility section.

The parks and recreation section of the FTDD’s plan would focus on the county’s natural resources and the efforts of the parks and recreation departments of Unicoi County’s two municipalities.

“The County is well-positioned with a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities that will be highlighted and inventoried,” the FTDD proposal states. “Federal, state and local facilities and properties will be addressed. The parks and recreation section will also incorporate information about community events. The goals and objectives of this section will be heavily formed by local staff and public input.”

The economy section of the plan would include information on major employers across the county, workforce data, economic indicators, community patterns and active economic development entities.

“While this section will include areas of opportunity derived from stakeholder input, it is not intended to serve as a strategic plan or detailed site selection analysis,” the FTDD proposal states. “Past plans, studies, and local economic development staff may be relied upon for formulation of objectives and strategies in this section if so desired.”

The implementation component would summarize the goals and objectives of each of the plan’s sections and would detail potential strategies for achieving each goal and would provide ideal implementation timetables.

“The process for adoption of the plan will be elaborated upon and the need for continual review and updating of the plan as a living document will be emphasized,” the proposal states.

Osborne said the plan process would be broken up into three phases completed over a 16-month period. The first phase, which would take around six months, involves project initiation meetings with JEDB members and other local officials to hammer out expectations and the direction of the plan. The collection and analyses of data for several sections of the plan would also take place during this phase.

The second phase, which would occur over months 7 to 13, would focus on obtaining public input for the plan. Several public input sessions would be held and surveys would possibly be used to garner input during this phase. Based on that feedback and data collected, the FTDD would begin drafting the goals and objectives for each of the plan’s sections, as well as the build of the land use development component.

Phase three of the process, which would occur over months 13 to 16, would include the presentation of the initial comprehensive plan draft to the JEDB for input and any necessary revisions, Osborne said. Following this input, a final version of the plan would be developed and submitted to the JEDB, along with the legislative bodies of the county’s three governments.

Osborne said the FTDD would bring a “local view” to the plan process, adding the agency regularly works in Unicoi County.

“We’ve been here and we intend to be here for a long time,” Osborne said. “So I think our strength is we are already involved with the community and, when it comes to implementing the plan and getting feedback from stakeholders, we already have those connections and relationships built. We would be there during the plan drafting and also after the plan is drafted to help through adoption and then implementation.”

Osborne said the FTDD’s estimated cost for completion of the plan is $53,101. Around $51,000 of this cost is for the labor involved in the plan’s development and is based on 675 FTDD staff hours. If the labor hours exceed the 675, the price of the plan’s development would not increase as it would be capped at the $53,101, Osborne said. If the plan takes fewer than 675 staff hours to develop, the cost would be prorated and the cost would be reduced based on the actual hours spent developing the plan, Osborne said.

In April, the JEDB voted to allow planners from the FTDD to present their proposal for a comprehensive plan. This vote was made as the panel discussed a proposal previously presented by the North Carolina-based Benchmark Planning.

Several months ago, the JEDB sent out a request for proposal to field proposals companies interested in developing a comprehensive land use plan for Unicoi County. Benchmark Planning, a firm that focuses on comprehensive planning, downtown master planning, economic development and regional planning, responded to the RFP with a document detailing a 17-month, multi-phase work program.

In late March, Benchmark Planning President Jason Epley met with JEDB members to discuss his company’s proposal. He said the planning project would involve two phases. The land use and economic development plan would represent the first phase, while the comprehensive plan would represent the second component.

Epley previously said the land use and economic development plan would be “very data-driven,” adding work on the plan could begin soon and run through late 2017. The comprehensive plan, which would build upon the land use and economic development plan, could begin in early 2018 and be completed in November 2018, Epley said.

According to the Benchmark proposal, the first phase of the project is estimated to cost $47,750, and the second phase is estimated to cost a little more than $50,000. The JEDB was set to consider approval of Benchmark’s first phase work in April when it instead voted to allow the FTDD to present its proposal.

The JEDB intends to use a $50,000 grant the county previously received through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Development Grant program to help cover planning costs. JEDB officials are also hoping to acquire additional money, such as funding through the Governor’s ThreeStar program, to put toward planning.

The JEDB will meet this Friday at 11 a.m. at Erwin Town Hall to consider approval of one of the two proposals now in hand. This meeting will be preceded by a 9:30 a.m. meeting of the JEDB’s Executive Committee to discuss the board’s budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year.