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.

Crowe discusses IMPROVE Act in public meeting

By Brad Hicks

The initial report brought with it a number of questions and concerns, according to State Sen. Rusty Crowe.

To clear up confusion on the impact recently-passed legislation will have on his constituents, Crowe hosted a town hall meeting, held Friday at Erwin Town Hall and attended by Tennessee Department of Transportation officials, as well as transportation officials and leaders from Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties.

Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law the Improving Manufacturing, Public Roads and Opportunities for a Vibrant Economy, or IMPROVE, Act. Through this bill, a gas tax increase will be implemented beginning July 1. Through the tax increase, gasoline prices will eventually increase by 6 cents and diesel fuel costs will eventually increase by 10 cents. The state intends to use the additional funding garnered through the IMPROVE Act to fund nearly 1,000 road and bridge projects across the state.

Crowe said this is the first time in nearly 30 years the state has taken action to raise money for roads, a move he said was necessary due to transportation revenue lost due to more fuel-efficient vehicles coupled with increasing costs of road and bridge repair materials.

State officials have stated the IMPROVE Act provides “the largest tax cut in Tennessee history.” Although the fuel cost increases will be phased in over three years, the IMPROVE Act’s passage will bring with it cuts to reduce the tax burden on Tennesseans, Crowe said. These include a 20 percent reduction to the state’s sales tax on groceries, a continuing reduction in the Hall Tax until it is eliminated, and the elimination of franchise and excise taxes on businesses in the state.

In all, Crowe said, the IMPROVE Act will generate around $350 million in new tax revenue while reducing taxes by a total of $500 million.

“So we took off more than we put on,” he said.

Subsequent to the bill’s passage, the governor and TDOT Commissioner John Schroer released the state’s annual three-year transportation plan which, according to the state, was made more “robust” due to the funding increases through the IMPROVE Act. This, Crowe said, is when the confusion surrounding the IMPROVE Act began.

The transportation plan released for 2018-20 listed no projects in either Washington County or Unicoi County for the three-year period. A single project in Carter County was listed in the plan.

Crowe said the information disseminated by the state and local media reports of the lack of local projects listed in the plan unintentionally created confusion and concern.

“We’re getting three to four times more than we’ve ever gotten for our counties before, so it’s kind of misleading,” Crowe said. “They didn’t mean to mislead, and the media didn’t mean to mislead.”

Steve Borden, TDOT’s Region 1 director, said Friday that Tennessee pays for transportation projects as funding becomes available and projects are completed in phases. Projects slated for completion but falling outside of the plan’s three-year window were not included in the report.

Also, local bridges as listed in the IMPROVE Act were not included in the three-year transportation plan released by the state earlier this month. Borden said a bridge report is set to be released by the state in the next few weeks.

According to officials, state transportation dollars will be used to complete more than 50 road and bridge projects across Washington, Unicoi and Carter counties.

Five bridge projects with a total estimated cost of $4,639,000 are to be completed in Unicoi County through IMPROVE Act funding. The state bridge along Unicoi Drive is to be replaced, and four bridges crossing county roads will also be replaced. Those four bridges are the Carver Road bridge over Dry Creek, the Hensley Road bridge over South Indian Creek, the Locust Lane bridge over South Indian Creek, and the Tumbling Creek Road bridge over Spivey Creek.

“This is a legislative act,” Borden said. “These projects are set in stone. They are being delivered.”

Unicoi County will also be provided approximately $1 million additional transportation dollars through the Improve Act. Local municipalities will see a recurring $105,000 provided annually for transportation projects, and the county will receive a recurring $555,000 for projects. The Unicoi County Highway Department will also receive a one-time bonus in State Aid Funds in the 2018 fiscal year in the amount of $391,068. This one-time funding is on top of the regular State Aid allotment the department receives annually from the state.

Unicoi County Superintendent of Roads Terry Haynes said the additional funding will benefit the county greatly and aid his department in completing transportation projects on its plate. 

“The extra money coming in is great,” Haynes said. “It couldn’t come at a better time.”

Although not included in the IMPROVE Act, Borden also pointed out that the state has invested a great amount of effort and resources into the Rocky Fork State Park project, including a project that would see the widening of the road leading into the park and the extension of a waterline to the area. Included in the state’s 2017-18 budget now awaiting Haslam’s signature is more than $4 million for the completion of the visitors’ center at the state park located in Unicoi County

“So we’re really on track with Rocky Fork,” Borden said.

Tennessee Department of Health: Tick, mosquito season now in full force

From Staff Reports

Ticks and mosquitoes are now out in force and looking for food. The meal of choice for both is blood, creating opportunities to spread a variety of serious illnesses such as Zika Virus Disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever as they move from one bite victim to another.

Ticks often wait in tall grass or on bushes and similar vegetation for their next food source to arrive. They do not fly, but can attach to people as they brush against plants and trees. People can also get ticks from pets that may carry them. In Tennessee, the most dangerous illnesses spread by ticks are Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis. In 2016, there were 581 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Tennessee; between 2004 and 2014, there were 16 deaths attributed to Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the state.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis are preventable by avoiding tick bites, promptly removing ticks that do get on the skin and seeking medical care for a fever or rash after a possible tick bite. All common tick-borne diseases found in Tennessee can be easily treated with antibiotics if detected early. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the antibiotic Doxycycline is the most effective treatment of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ehrlichiosis. It is the antibiotic recommended for the treatment of most tick-borne diseases in patients of all ages.

Keeping grass trimmed and plants cropped around homes are good practices to prevent ticks. Wearing long sleeves and long pants, using Food and Drug Administration-approved insect repellents and treating clothing with permethrin can help prevent tick and mosquito bites.

Diseases spread by mosquitoes include West Nile Virus, Chikungunya, Zika virus disease and many others. Tennessee has already recorded two cases of West Nile Virus in 2017, which is unusual this early in the year. TDH continues to be concerned about the spread of Zika virus. While most people infected with Zika virus have very mild disease, infection during pregnancy can cause very severe problems including microcephaly, a condition causing a baby’s head and brain to be smaller than expected, and other neurologic and developmental problems.

In 2016, more than five dozen people in Tennessee were infected with Zika virus disease while traveling to other countries where the disease is common. TDH officials worked swiftly in each case to assure Zika would not be spread to others who live or work near those confirmed with the illness.

Travelers to areas where Zika is known to exist should understand the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus to others. For the most current updates on Zika from the CDC, visit www.cdc.gov/zika/.

TDH and CDC recommend women and men with possible exposure to Zika virus consult with their health care providers about attempting to get pregnant.

TDH and CDC also recommend:

• Using insect repellants such as DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 on your skin, following all label recommendations for usage. Pay particular attention to recommendations for use on children, and never apply any of these products around the mouth or eyes at any age. Consult your health care provider if you have questions.

• Using products containing permethrin, a highly effective insecticide, for clothing, shoes, bed nets and camping gear. Permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, mosquitoes and other pests and retains this effect after repeated laundering. Some commercial products are available pretreated with permethrin. As a caution, however, it is not to be used directly on skin.

• Tip and toss or drain and cover objects near your home or business that may contain water.  A mosquito can lay eggs in a container as small as a soda bottle cap. Repair screens on your home to prevent mosquitoes from entering.

Erwin displays banners honoring Erwin Nine

Erwin Nine member George Hatcher hugs Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley in appreciation for the recognition given the men with new downtown banners. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

The story of the Erwin Nine would be virtually unbelievable if it wasn’t true.

Nine Erwin natives all joined the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Each man was assigned to a different plane and all were shot down at different times. Yet, all nine airmen from this small mountain community ended up as prisoners of war in Stalag Luft IV, one of more than 50 prison camps in Germany during the war.

Each one the nine men returned home following his liberation.

The story of the Erwin Nine has been a source of pride for Unicoi County for more than 70 years, but it is a story the Town of Erwin has done little over the decades to spread.

Until now.

Red, white and blue banners reading “Proud Hometown of the Erwin Nine” will soon hang from the light poles found throughout downtown Erwin for all to see. But days before the banners went up, the most appropriate of individuals received an advanced look at the displays that will now greet those passing through Erwin’s downtown.

The banners were unveiled during a ceremony held May 3 at Erwin Town Hall. Tasked with removing the cloth covering one of the banners to allow those in attendance to get a look were Erwin Nine member George Hatcher and Charlotte Edwards, widow of Erwin Nine member Richard Edwards. They were joined by Teresa Lewis and Don Alford, children of the late Allen Alford, also a member of the Erwin Nine.

The excitement was immediately evident.

“You’re a genius,” Hatcher said to Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley before offering up a hug.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Edwards said after helping to remove the banner’s cover.

Hensley said town officials have been advised over the past few years that Erwin has a story to tell, but the town is failing to tell it.

“And one of the stories that we’re most proud of and one that really has a significance to the whole world is the story of the Erwin Nine,” Hensley said.

Officials went to work, trying to come up with a way to spread the story of the Erwin Nine. Hensley said their efforts focused on the different banners regularly hung throughout the downtown area, as the banners tend to catch the eyes of those passing through.

“So we thought by putting up these banners, when a motorist, tourist, individuals come and see these and they see ‘Hometown of the Erwin Nine,’ in their mind they’re going to say, ‘What’s the Erwin Nine?’” Hensley said. “We can tell them our story and hopefully that story will get spread across the nation.”

Hensley said another tale in the annals of Erwin’s history that has spread far and wide – that of the 1916 hanging of Mary the circus elephant in the local rail yard – was told further through last year’s Erwin Elephant Revival. A new chapter in the story of Mary was written as a result of last year’s Elephant Revival, as the event raised thousands of dollars for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee located in Hohenwald.

Banners displayed around downtown helped advertise the Erwin Elephant Revival in advance of that event.

The Erwin Nine banners were designed by Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice who, as president of the RISE Erwin group, helped to organize last fall’s Elephant Revival.

“I think the story of the Erwin Nine is a very interesting story,” Hensley said. “I think it’s part of our world history that needs to be shared.”

The Erwin Nine banners will remain up through at least July 4 and possibly longer, Hensley said. She said one of the banners will be displayed permanently at the Unicoi County Veterans Memorial Park.

The 96-year-old Hatcher has done his part to tell the tale of the locally-renowned group. He has recounted his experiences as a POW and member of the Erwin Nine to a number of civic organizations, students and church groups across the area and throughout the region. He also wrote a book detailing his account.

Hatcher, who was liberated from German captivity on April 29, 1945, said he was encouraged to share his WWII story by a doctor at the Mountain Home VA, as Hatcher, following his retirement from the railroad, was having difficulty shaking the memories of his time as a POW.

“I wanted the public to know what my generation went through, and it’s just plain and simple,” Hatcher said. “There’s nothing extra about it. When I tell my story, the first thing I tell them is, ‘I am no hero,’ and I’m not. I’ve never done anything that I can brag about, but I served my country the best I could.”

While Hatcher takes a humble approach when describing himself, he had high praise for the banners that will hang in downtown Erwin.

“I don’t know the words to say,” Hatcher said. “It’s so wonderful, great. Somebody really knew what they were doing when they designed that, the poster, and I think it’s just wonderful and I feel so proud to be an American. I feel so proud of Unicoi County and Erwin, Tennessee.”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Edwards added. “It’s beautiful.”

Like Hensley, both Edwards and Hatcher feel the banners will help Erwin accomplish its goal of spreading the celebrated story of the Erwin Nine.

“People that don’t know about it, they’ll come through here and see that display and they’ll be wanting to ask a lot of questions about ‘Who is the Erwin Nine?’” Hatcher said.

The men making up the Erwin Nine are George Hatcher, Dick Franklin, Richard Edwards, Allen Alford, Clyde Tinker, Fred Miller, Stan Norris, Jim Hensley and George Swingle. Hatcher and Franklin are the only two living members of the Erwin Nine.

County officials begin 2017-18 fiscal year budget talks

By Brad Hicks

Although in the earliest of stages, work to hash out Unicoi County’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget is now underway.

A projected fund balance is unknown at this time because anticipated revenue figures won’t come in until next month. It may be mid-June before officials know how much each penny on the county’s property tax rate will generate in the new budget year, as property tax assessments are ongoing in what is a reappraisal year.

What is known, however, is the amount of funding each officeholder and the heads of various county agencies are seeking in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Several of these budgetary requests were generally discussed during a May 2 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission’s Budget & Finance Committee. That meeting marked the panel’s first to begin work on the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Officeholders and department heads submitted their budget requests in early April or sooner, giving members of the County Commission at least a month to review the requests ahead of last week’s meeting.

No changes were made to these requests during the Budget & Finance Committee’s May 2 gathering, but the committee could call for cuts as the budget development process moves forward.

Several officeholders, including County Trustee Paul Berry, Circuit Court Clerk Darren Shelton, Assessor of Property Teresa Kinsler, Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey and Sheriff Mike Hensley were on hand during last week’s meeting to briefly discuss their requests and answer questions posed by county commissioners.

Officeholders across the county are set to receive state-mandated raises in the 2017-18 fiscal year. But, despite these pay bumps, the budget requests for nearly all of the county’s officeholders more or less fall in line with the amounts originally budgeted for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

A total of $268,970 is being sought for the Unicoi County mayor’s office in 2017-18. The amount initially budgeted for 2016-17 was $263,379. Not included in the budget for his office but being sought by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch is $15,000 in funding that would be used to bring in an additional part-time employee. In an April letter addressed to members of the Unicoi County Commission, Lynch wrote his office is currently understaffed, adding that each of the three employees in his office has so many duties and responsibilities of her own that they would be unable to “adequately cover an employee who is absent, especially for an extended period of time without neglecting their own duties.”

“I think it is crucial that we bring someone in to learn the various responsibilities and procedures of this office now, rather than wait on some event to take place that could cause a lapse in the services of this office, which is crucial to the administration of our County government,” Lynch wrote. “Most all of the duties of this office are legally charged and time sensitive to the point that any interruption in these duties could potentially harm Unicoi County and our employees.”

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley is seeking $1,806,888 for the 2017-18 fiscal year, up a little more than $4,000 above the $1,802,4000 budgeted for the 2016-17 fiscal year. The majority of the increase – $3,997 – is due to Hensley’s stated-mandated pay bump.

Hensley has requested $790,429 for the Unicoi County Jail in downtown Erwin, down from the $796,468 originally funded for the current fiscal year. This difference reflects a $6,039 decrease in the amount being sought for guards in 2017-2018. The sheriff is seeking $519,601 for the Jail Annex in the upcoming fiscal year, up from the $513,556 originally budgeted for 2016-17. The increase – $6,045 – is for additional guards at the Jail Annex.

The 2017-18 budget request for the office of Unicoi County Assessor of Property is up around $6,000 from the amount originally funded for the current fiscal year. The office is seeking $253,562 for 2017-18. Around $7,000 in additional funding is being sought for an office deputy, while no funding in 2017-18 has been requested for postal charges and dues and memberships, two expenses for which a total of $6,250 was budget in 2016-17.

Unicoi County Clerk Mitzi Bowen has requested $269,342 for her office for the 2017-18 fiscal year, up a little more than $3,000 above the originally budgeted for the current year. The increase is primarily due to Bowen’s mandated salary increase. In a letter addressed to Lynch, Bowen wrote that she will utilize funding from the department’s reserve account, which does not represent new money, to provide in 2017-18 each of her office’s three deputies with a $1,560 and to cover expenses related to maintenance and repair, office supplies, communications and equipment.

A total of $442,383 is being sought for Unicoi County Circuit Court in the new fiscal year. The funding originally approved for the 2016-17 fiscal year was $435,759. For General Sessions Court, $119,560 has been requested for the 2017-18 fiscal year, up slightly from the $118,185 budgeted for 2016-17. The funding being sought for Chancery Court in the new fiscal year is $158,001, up from the $152,194 requested for 2016-17, and the funding requested for Unicoi County Juvenile Court – $52,326 – is up exactly $2,000 over the amount budgeted for the prior fiscal year.

The funding requested by the Unicoi County Election Commission for 2017-18 is nearly $14,000 less than the amount approved for the prior fiscal year, as the only election that will take place in the budget year is the County Primary is May 2018. The Election Commission is seeking $186,705 in the new fiscal year.

The office of Unicoi County Register of Deeds is seeking $193,828 in the upcoming fiscal year, an increase over the $184,768 originally funded for the 2016-17 fiscal year. In a letter addressed to the Budget & Finance Committee, Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle wrote the increase is mostly due to the need for $5,000 to purchase new record storage racks.

“It has been many years since the office purchased the free standing racks in the center of the deed room,” Tittle wrote. “This year we will need to append to the rack for additional book storage. This sum includes additional shelving, shipping and handling fees and installation.”

For county buildings, $130,802 is being sought in the upcoming fiscal year, an increase over the $119,302 originally budgeted for the current year. Lynch wrote $7,500 of the increase is for maintenance and repair services for necessary repairs to county facilities, as well as costs associated with the county website and any needed I.T. work. Natural gas and utilities costs have each been increased by $2,000 in the new year.

The Unicoi County Commission is seeking $52,236 in the new fiscal year, up slightly from the $51,871 originally approved for the panel in the 2016-17 budget year.

Berry is seeking $193,773 for his office in the new year, up from the $187,015 initially budgeted for 2016-17. Among the increase is $1,000 additional dollars sought for temporary personnel and $1,500 for data processing services.

The Unicoi County Health Department has requested $80,950 for the new fiscal year, the same amount originally budgeted for 2016-17. The Unicoi County Animal Shelter is seeking $159,351 for 2017-18, up from the $136,104 approved for the current fiscal year. Much of the requested increase pertains to funding for additional part-time personnel.

A total of $132,000 is being sought in the new year to pay the annual subsidy of MedicOne Medical Response, the county’s ambulance services provider. This is the same amount approved for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

For industrial development, $91,079 is being sought for the 2017-18 fiscal year, up from the $65,000 budgeted for the 2016-17 fiscal year. A total of $28,000 is being sought for employee benefits, up from the $25,000 budgeted for 2016-17. The $3,000 difference is due to an increase in workmen’s compensation insurance.

The county’s overall 2016-17 budget, as approved by the Unicoi County Commission in August, reflected projected revenues of around $7,150,000 against approximately $7,210,000 in projected expenditures. Unicoi County’s projected fund balance to begin the 2016-17 fiscal year was approximately $569,000, and a tax increase was not included the County Commission’s approval of the current fiscal year’s budget, marking the fourth consecutive year with no increase to the property tax rate in Unicoi County.

The Budget & Finance Committee is set to next meet on May 16 at 1 p.m. to continue discussions regarding the county’s 2017-18 budget.

Heritage Museum to celebrate 35th season

By Brad Hicks

A ceremony will be held this weekend to mark the annual opening of a facility that has been dedicated to showcasing Unicoi County’s history and heritage for more than 30 years.

The Unicoi County Heritage Museum is scheduled to reopen for its 35th season this Saturday. An opening ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. that day on the museum grounds, with festivities and live entertainment following the ceremony.

The public is invited to attend the ceremony.

The Unicoi County Heritage Museum, which once served as the home place of the superintendent of the nearby Erwin National Fish Hatchery, opened in July 1982. The museum features a number of themed rooms, including a parlor, Blue Ridge Pottery room, butler’s pantry and wildlife room, as well quilts and military memorabilia. The old Greasy Cove schoolhouse is also located on the grounds, and a nature trail is located just behind the museum.

The ceremony will also mark the seasonal reopening of the adjacent Clinchfield Railroad Museum, which opened its doors in June 2011. This museum, which aims to tell the story of Erwin’s rich railroad history, includes several exhibit rooms containing railroad artifacts and memorabilia.

Martha Erwin, who serves as curator for the museums, said the museum’s theme is “Clinchfield Pride.”

“The spirit of pride is always in style while promoting our town’s railroad legacy and heritage for future generations,” Erwin said.

The ceremony’s entertainment will be provided by Art Lang and Friends, which perform old-time ballads, historic, novelty and gospel songs, along with some old-time string band tunes. The group’s set will include some railroad-related songs.

The Clinchfield Railroad Museum, in particular, has been the subject of much attention recently. East Tennessee State University students from the “Documenting Community Traditions” course, which is part of the university’s Department of Appalachian Studies, previously worked closely with Erwin and utilized the Clinchfield Railroad Museum to conduct interviews with former railroad employees.

A group of these students presented “A Railroad Town Without A Railroad: The Changing Cultural Landscape of Erwin, TN” at Erwin Town Hall in February. At that time, students also presented Erwin with a rack card they had designed and created to provide potential visitors with information on the Clinchfield Railroad Museum.

Following Saturday’s ceremony, both the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum will be open daily from 1-5 p.m. through October. Admission is $4 per adult and $2 per child.

The museums are located next to the Erwin National Fish Hatchery on Federal Hatchery Road in the Town of Erwin.

The museums are also available for field trips, private events and organizational outings. For more information on the museums or Saturday’s ceremony, contact Erwin at 743-8923 or 735-9233.

Erwin BMA updating alcohol ordinance

By Brad Hicks

For months, members of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen have discussed and recommended changes to the town’s code that would make the downtown area more conducive to the establishment of restaurants serving alcohol, taprooms and breweries.

These amendments cleared another hurdle on Monday, April 24, as, during its regular meeting, the board unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance amendment that would abolish alcohol-related distant requirements within Erwin’s downtown overlay district, as well as the first reading of an amendment pertaining to the serving of alcohol at special events.

Current municipal code states beer permits may not be granted to businesses located within 200 feet of an established church or school.

The proposed amendment states the 200-foot requirement is “unreasonably restrictive” within the town’s downtown overlay district, which was adopted in 2012, and would end the requirement only within this district.

“What we found is if a church located right now in the middle of downtown, with that distance, any restaurant or anyone coming that wanted to sell alcohol would not be allowed to, which a 200-foot radius would take out almost the entire middle of downtown,” said Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff.

The amendment would take effect upon approval of the alteration’s second and final reading.

Even if the ordinance amendment is given final approval, Rosenoff said discretion on the issuance of beer permits would still lie with the Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of Erwin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The second amendment to gain first-reading approval Monday evening relates to alcohol at special events. The town’s current code provides officials with some discretion in allowing the serving of alcohol at special events and outdoor events held within the town, but Rosenoff said more specific language was needed in the town’s ordinance.

“Basically, when we’re having our festivals and different activities, currently the municipal code says under ‘Alcohol’ that the board has the discretion and authority to do certain things to permit beer,” Rosenoff said, “but, seeing the (Erwin Great Outdoors Festival) and other things happening, this has been a work in progress to basically change the code and add it in there to where there is a process to allow, at certain times, alcohol for outdoor activity or special events.”

The amended code states that it shall be unlawful for a person to drink or consume, or have an opened container of beer or liquor on any public roadway, park, school grounds or other public place “except in a permitted outdoor use area with a permitted special event or town sponsored activity, or in a permitted outdoor use area with a restaurant or establishment with a current alcoholic beverage commission permit and town beer permit.”

Again, Rosenoff said the town’s Beverage Board would retain the discretion to issue permits should the proposed amendment pass on second and final reading.

Like the distance requirement change, the special events ordinance would require passage on two readings before taking effect. The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen will consider the second readings of the ordinance amendments at a future date, possibly as soon as its next meeting.

The pair of changes were discussed by town officials during a work session held in the early part of March and were again discussed by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen during its March 27 meeting. The Erwin Beverage Board during its April 10 meeting voted to recommend the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s approval of the ordinance alterations.

• • •

The board also approved paying the full cost needed to place a sign along Interstate 26 to notify them of Erwin’s downtown antique district.

This matter was discussed, but not acted upon, during the board’s April 10 meeting. Prior to that meeting, town officials received a letter from Joey Lewis, co-owner of the Valley Beautiful Antique Mall in downtown Erwin. In his letter, Lewis wrote that it was time to renew the lease on the sign, and he sought the town’s financial assistance.

As Lewis explained in his letter and during Monday’s meeting, the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, which had traditionally paid half of the lease amount to the state to maintain the sign along I-26, would no longer be providing funding for the sign.

“The sign had been up since 2003 and different antique merchants downtown had always paid for half and then the Chamber paid for the other half,” Lewis said Monday. “The Chamber told me they had voted that they could no longer give any funding towards the project. That’s why I proposed it this way.”

Because the state had not received any indication from the Chamber as to what it intended to do with the sign, the sign was taken down on March 15, Lewis said. 

The board was set Monday to consider appropriating $701.50 for the sign, which represents around half of the cost of the one-year lease, but Alderman Mark Lafever moved that the Town of Erwin cover the entire $1,403 for the lease.

“I’ve thought about it since the last meeting, and I feel like the downtown antique district sign is not going to benefit one person,” Lafever said. “It’s going to benefit all the people down there, and it’s going to benefit the town in return.”

Lafever’s motion was unanimously approved, and the funding for the sign would be spent during the current fiscal year. The alderman added he would like to eventually see the downtown antique district sign redesigned to match other signage the town is working on for its downtown district.

The town will provide a check to the Chamber of Commerce for the sign, which the Chamber will then provide to the state, Lewis said. Lewis said state officials advised once that payment has been received, the sign can be reinstalled within two weeks.

• • •

Also discussed during Monday’s meeting was a proposal previously presented by Eugene Brackins, owner of Brackins Machine Shop. Brackins’ business has outgrown its current location on Casey Jones Road, and he previously approached the town to see if it could offer any help. The two sides discussed the possibility of allowing Brackins to set up shop within the town’s Public Works building through a lease agreement while Brackins would look to sell his current building for $1.2 million.

Brackins told the board he was hoping to secure a larger facility that would allow for expansion, as he is set to begin parts production within the next three weeks, with work increasing in the next two to three months.

“I’d rather go ahead and be setting up into a place to where I could set up my production lines and everything else and begin instead of having to try to move right in the middle of when business is ramping up,” Brackins said.

But, as officials discussed Monday, this move is unlikely to happen.

“Since our discussion with Mr. Brackins, we have found out that we cannot lease the building, the Public Works building, without having to go back and pay taxes. We would no longer be tax exempt,” said Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley.

Rosenoff said the current Erwin Public Works building was paid for utilizing a portion of a $1.3 million loan taken out through the Tennessee Municipal League’s Municipal Bond Fund. That loan was taken out in 2009, and the town has another 16 years to pay on it.

Rosenoff said he recently presented TML officials with the Brackins scenario and, among the issues they pointed out in their response, was that the Public Works building is considered a “public project.” Because of this borrower of Municipal Bond Funding may not use the facility except for public purposes.

Leasing the Public Works building to a private person or entity, Rosenoff said, could result in the loan becoming taxable.

Also present at Monday’s meeting was Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County. Engle said there are several local properties, including one on South Industrial Drive, currently available for lease.

“There are other properties in the county, long and short, that would be available for lease that would not encumber the city in the way that this Public Works deal would,” Engle said. “I would encourage the city to explore another lease option on another privately-held piece of property, if possible.”

Engle added the EDB could assist Brackins by marketing his current shop, including marketing the property through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Hensley suggested that Engle, Brackins and other officials continue discussions to explore possible resolutions.

In other business, the board approved adoption of an update to the town’s building codes to bring these codes in compliance with the state’s minimum codes. The town had been operating under the 2006 codes, but the state of Tennessee previously adopted the 2012 codes. Rosenoff said this required that the town update its codes to match those of the state.

“In so doing, the codes that we have are simply being updated,” Rosenoff said. “We did not go with the most restrictive in the codes. If the codes allowed for exceptions to be made, then we followed suit. We took a long, hard look mostly at Greeneville, Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, and so these are the minimum requirements of the codes that we have to adopt, not necessarily the maximum or most restrictive.”

Cool & Connected program offers Erwin direction

By Brad Hicks

The experts agree Erwin possesses a number of assets that place it ahead of the pack in terms of ability to draw businesses and professionals to its downtown district.

These experts now intend to help the town utilize what is perhaps its key asset – access to high-speed broadband services – to attract talented workers and enhance Erwin’s economy.

Last year, Erwin was selected to receive planning assistance through Cool & Connected, a planning assistance program that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “helps community members develop strategies and an action plan for using broadband to create walkable, connected, economically vibrant main streets and small-town neighborhoods that improve human health and the environment. Communities can combine broadband service with other local assets such as cultural and recreational amenities to attract investment and people, including young people, and diversify local economies.” 

Cool & Connected is sponsored by the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Through the Cool & Connected program, a team of experts was brought in to assess what Erwin has to offer, what could be done to bolster economic development, and to develop a plan of action to help the area accomplish its goals. 

Local officials feel the “outside-the-box” thinking provided by the experts will help guide Erwin in the right direction.

“We’ve seen great reduction in industrial jobs, and we’ve had great loss with the railroad,” Erwin Utilities General Manager Lee Brown, who also chairs the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, said during an April 4 presentation on the Cool & Connected program. “The past is not going to be the future, but broadband, in my opinion, is our future and we’ve got to understand how we’re going to embrace that and how we’re going to use that to drive our community where it needs to be.”

Erwin was one of the 10 Appalachian communities to be selected for the program in 2016. The announcement of these community partners was made in August. Through the program, Erwin was to receive planning assistance to “construct a comprehensive marketing plan for the downtown broadband connection to attract young professionals, visitors and investors,” according to the EPA.

“We were one of the smaller cities that was awarded but, certainly, from our estimation, we are well-prepared to implement the recommendations of the team, the technical assistance from the team that was provided through the grant,” said Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

Broadband access in Erwin’s downtown district is offered through Erwin Utilities’ Erwin Fiber service. Erwin Utilities, Engle said, did all of the “legwork” to apply for the Cool & Connected program.

A workshop, which was led by the experts that will be offering assistance through Cool & Connected, was held at The Bramble on April 4. This session was held to provide local officials and stakeholders ideas on how they can make broadband access work for the community and to begin developing a course of action.

Staff members from Smart Growth America, a national organization that researches, advocates for and leads coalitions to promote smart growth practices in communities across the country, was brought in through the Cool & Connected program. According to Smart Growth America’s website, smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods and community engagement.

“Of all the places we have visited doing this particular work, Erwin may have the greatest promise and the greatest potential of any community that we have visited thus far,” John Robert Smith, senior policy advisor for Smart Growth America  and former Meridian, Miss., mayor, said to those in attendance for the April 4 workshop.

The development of actionable community plans will help the town meet this potential, Smith said. A plan is needed because, as Alex Hutchinson, economic development specialist with Smart Growth America, pointed out the landscape is changing.

Hutchinson said the national economy has shifted to one that is more knowledge-based, adding investors have gone from “chasing smokestacks” to chasing top talent for their companies. This, he said, is due to the retirement of “baby boomers” coinciding with the rise of the millennial generation, which now makes up the largest segment of the workforce.

Erwin’s population of baby boomers falls in line with the state average, but the number of millennials is lower than surrounding cities and the state average, Hutchinson said. 

Because millennials have different preferences than the generations before them as far as types of transportation and occupations, employers have changed the way they have responded to the workforce, according to Hutchinson.

And broadband may by the key to boosting the local millennial population, Hutchinson said. He said 47 percent of millennials desire to live in a traditional urban setting, only 12 percent prefer a suburban setting, and 40 percent would be happy to reside in small-town rural areas so long as broadband access is available, something Hutchinson said Erwin is able to accommodate. 

Deborah Watts with Broadband Catalysts, a consultancy organization, told those gathered at The Bramble that broadband is being utilized as a revitalization tool, adding studies have shown areas with poor access will realize population reductions.

“People will leave to find broadband and move to a place to live and work with good broadband,” Watts said.

Smith said Smart Growth America encourages tech companies, big businesses and corporations to locate within downtown districts. He said research has show 500 large employers, research firms and tech firms across the country have moved out of office parks and into downtown districts within the past five years.

The reason for these relocations, Smith said, is so that these companies can chase “bright, young workers.”

Smith said a 30- to 40-year vision and commitment is needed from local officials so plans can be handed off to future generations. As Erwin moves to rediscover itself after the loss of CSX, he said the community must be able to ask and answer three questions: “Who were you in the past?,” “Who are you now?,” and “Who do you aspire to be?”

Those in attendance for the April 4 workshop were broken up into groups and asked to come up with ways broadband could be used in accord with long-term land use and other community plans, to support economic development efforts, to market Erwin as a “connected” community, to enhance local quality of life, and how the community could educate its citizens on using broadband.

Another workshop was held on April 5. This session was held to allow local stakeholders to further discuss topics such as business and redevelopment ideas and ways to enhance downtown Erwin.

Engle said the technical assistance team brought in through Cool & Connected will use information obtained from the two workshops and a trio of upcoming follow-up sessions to develop an actionable plan. This plan, which could be completed by the end of the current fiscal year, will then be presented to local officials and stakeholders.

“That’s the whole reason that the technical assistant team was here was to help our local stakeholders understand ways in which broadband, specifically Erwin Fiber, can be used to enhance downtown Erwin and, more broadly, Unicoi County,” Engle said.

Engle said a long process still lies ahead before locals receive and are able to implement the team’s recommendations. However, he said projects discussed during the recent brainstorming sessions are accomplishable.

“The ideas floated during that workshop weren’t unrealistic things,” Engle said. “They were rooted in reality and every idea was time bound and was also budget bound, so we were able to put actual numbers to seven or eight ideas that came out of that workshop, which is really exciting. So when we present the findings of the Cool & Connected downtown initiative, we’ll be able to say, ‘This idea is going to cost X number of dollars and will take X months,’ which is really an exciting thing, I think.”

The plan provided through the Cool & Connected program associates directly with the local economic development board’s ongoing strategic plan and the planned comprehensive land use plan.

“Being able to have these recommendations from a team of nationally-recognized experts, I think, ties in and correlates with our local objectives of stimulating local economic development and enhancing the prosperity of everybody in Unicoi County,” Engle said.

Director for Mountain Harvest Kitchen hired

By Brad Hicks

The Town of Unicoi has found the person who will be responsible for the management of its Mountain Harvest Kitchen.

Lee Carella Manning officially accepted the position of Mountain Harvest Kitchen director on Monday, April 17. Town of Unicoi Recorder Mike Housewright announced Manning’s hire during Monday evening’s meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Manning will begin her work with the town one month from now, Housewright said. Manning earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biological Science from Florida State University and her Master’s degree in Food Science from the University of Georgia. She has prior experience as a research assistant and instructor, served as a search and development flavor lab manager for Bell Flavors & Fragrances from 2015-16, and is presently employed as packaged foods coordinator for Home.Made from Scratch.

“We’re very excited to have her onboard,” Housewright said following Monday’s meeting.

Housewright said Manning will be paid an annual salary of $60,000. He also said Manning and her husband, who currently live in Georgia, are looking to purchase a home in the Unicoi area.

Alderman Roger Cooper asked if Manning had visited the Mountain Harvest Kitchen facility. Housewright responded that she had, adding that Manning was impressed by what she saw.

“She was extremely impressed, enough so that she was willing to pack up her family and move up here,” Housewright said.

Housewright also provided the board with an update on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. He said construction of the facility is expected to be complete within the next two to three weeks. A bid previously let out for equipment for the facility was recently awarded to the Asheville-based FRS, a company offering commercial kitchen equipment and restaurant supplies. This equipment, Housewright said, will allow the kitchen to become operational.

The Mountain Harvest Kitchen project was first envisioned around a decade ago. Town of Unicoi officials have viewed the project as a business incubator, as users will be able to sell the food prepared or produce canned within the facility. The kitchen, once complete, is set to include a dry storage area, walk-in freezer and office space along with food processing areas with commercial-sized equipment, a research and development lab, and a receiving area.

Entrepreneurial training opportunities, as well as demonstrations and other classes, will also be offered to kitchen users.

• • •

In other business, the board on Monday approved its audit for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The audit, completed by Rodefer Moss & Co., noted two findings. The first finding stated that accounting entries at the end of the fiscal year were not properly recorded. In his response to the finding, which was noted in the audit report, Housewright acknowledged the material finding. Housewright wrote the town began a software conversion after the end of the year and had to close the books before additional accruals could be made.

“The town did not have all the necessary information at the time the books were closed to properly record all accruals,” the response states. “For future years, the Town will ensure all transactions are properly recorded and all accruals have been recorded before the year is closed.”

The second finding – one also noted in the prior fiscal year’s audit – pertained to segregation of duties in the municipality’s accounting. In his response, Housewright acknowledged the finding and attributed it to the town’s small staff size.

The board also voted unanimously to award its annual interstate mowing contract to former alderman Mark Ramsey. The board, in 2014 awarded a mowing contract with Ramsey, and that contract allows the board to approve year-to-year renewals.

The one-year contract will take effect on July 1. Per the contract, Ramsey is to complete six mowings and 12 trash pickups along Unicoi’s portion of Interstate 26 during the year.

According to the contract, the town is to pay Ramsey $49,000 for his services. Housewright said the agreement will be funded with pass-through money the town receives each year from the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

TDOT: Interstate construction halted for Easter Holiday

From Staff Reports

The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) will suspend all interstate construction work this Easter weekend in anticipation of increased holiday travel.

TDOT crews and contractors will stop all road construction work that requires lane closures beginning Thursday, April 13, at 6 p.m.through Monday, April 17, at 6 a.m. This will provide maximum roadway capacity to motorists expected to travel across the state this holiday weekend.

Motorists will still encounter some long term lane closures on construction projects that will remain in place. While lane closure activity will be stopped, some workers may be on-site in construction zones and reduced speed limits will still be in effect. Motorists are urged to adhere to all posted speed limits, especially in work zones, for their own safety. Slower speeds are necessary in work zones due to the temporary layout of the roadway and will be enforced.

From your desktop or mobile device, get the latest construction activity and live streaming SmartWay traffic cameras at www.TNSmartWay.com/Traffic. Travelers can also dial 511 from any land-line or cellular phone for travel information, or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TN511 for statewide travel.

As always, drivers are reminded to use all motorist information tools wisely and Know Before You Go! by checking travel conditions before leaving for your destination.  Drivers should never tweet, text or talk on a cell phone while behind the wheel.