Unicoi County Commission gives employees more funds for health insurance

The Unicoi County Commission approved funds to help cover the cost of county employees’ health insurance premiums during a meeting on Monday, May 21. Pictured from left are commissioners, Todd Wilcox, Kenneth Garland, Jason Harris, Marie Rice and John Mosley. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner & Keeli Parkey

Despite a small turnout of its members for its Monday, May 21, meeting, the Unicoi County Commission had a quorum and decided to follow the recommendation of the county’s Employee Benefits/Salary/Policy Committee, passing a motion for the county to cover the cost of the 6 percent premium increase with United HealthCare coverage, in addition to supplying a $300 monthly supplement for employees choosing family coverage.

After the committee compared BlueCross BlueShield plans with those of United Healthcare, members recommended that the county stick with United HealthCare due to the lower cost it would have for employees.

“I think they will be happier staying with United than going with BlueCross because of the six percent increase,” said Todd Wilcox, Unicoi County commissioner and chair of the committee.

Wilcox made a motion to continue with United HealthCare, and it was seconded by County Commissioner Jason Harris before it passed with Wilcox, Harris, Kenneth Garland, John Mosley and Marie Rice voting in favor.

With the 6 percent increase, the price of the monthly premiums that the county was paying for each employee will increase from $520 to $551.

“Since 2014, there haven’t been any increases in premiums and we looked at that back and forth,” Wilcox said.

Based on the current number of employees with county insurance, it is estimated that the changes will cost the county approximately $60,000.

“We need to keep moving forward and improving our insurance,” said Wilcox.

• • •

Monday’s vote came a few days after the county’s Employee Benefits/Salary/Policy Committee met and recommended that the county provide additional funds to assist employees with the cost of their health insurance. The committee, which is chaired by Commissioner Todd Wilcox and includes commissioners Jason Harris and John Mosley, met at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Friday, May 18.

During the May 18 meeting, Jon Manful, a representative of Mark III Employee Benefits, presented the committee, as well as the other commissioners, officeholders and county employees in attendance, with a recent history of the county’s health insurance.

According to Manful, the county-funded 100 percent of employee individual health coverage and contributed $170 per month for employee family coverage during 2010-12.

In 2013, Manful said, the county’s contribution to individual coverage was capped at $520 per month and continued funding the $170 a month for family coverage.

In 2014, the $520 for individual coverage continued. The County Commission also chose to fund $1,111.82 per month for employee family coverage. This meant that employees who chose family coverage only paid $300 per month for health insurance.

The following year, the county continued the $520 contribution for individual coverage, but provided no additional funding for family coverage. In 2016-17, the county provided a $520 contribution for individual coverage and family coverage; employees were required to pay the difference for the plan they chose.

“Employees have had to pick up any additional premium cost for individual or family coverage,” Manful said. “Plan design changes have also been made to keep benefits and premiums competitive.”

Manful also presented the committee with insurance options for 2018-19. He said that UnitedHealthcare (UHC), which is the county’s current health insurance provider, first came back with an increase of 9 percent for the coming year; however, the company later reduced the renewal increase to 6 percent. Manful described this as a “ very fair renewal.”

Manful also shopped the county’s insurance coverage with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST), AETNA and CIGNA. BCBST presented a proposal that included plan modifications. Neither AETNA nor CIGNA agreed to issue a quote.

With UnitedHealthcare and BCBST the only options on the table, Manful then discussed each plan with the committee. The following are the renewal premiums, which vary depending on the deductible and out-of-pocket costs in the respective plan, offered by UHC:

• Individual – Plan 1: Goes from $577.55 in 2017-18 and will increase to $614.79 for 2018-19. If the county continues to fund $520 per month for individual coverage, county employees will have to pay $94.79 per month – a monthly increase of $37.24 over the $57.55 they paid last year. Seventy-two county employees were on this plan in 2017-18.

• Individual – Plan 2: Goes from $482.24 per month in 2017-18 and will increase to $508.23 in 2018-19. Because the county funds up to $520 per month, employees on this plan do not have to pay a monthly premium. Four county employees were on this plan in 2017-18.

• Individual – Plan 3: Increases from $423.57 in 2017-18 to $450.79 in 2018-19. Because this is also less than $520, employees, six of whom were on this plan in 2017-18, do not pay a premium.

• Family – Plan 1: Will increase from $1,408.45 in 2017-18 to $1,449.09 in 2018-19. With the $520 paid by the county per month, employees who choose this plan would have paid $888.45 per month in 2017-18 and $979.09 per month in 2018-19. No county employees were on this plan in 2017-18.

• Family – Plan 2: Will increase from $1,176.48 with the employee responsible for $656.48 per month to $1,239.74 with the employee responsible for $719.74 per month. No employees were on this plan in 2017-18.

Family – Plan 3: Will go from $1,055.60 with the employee paying $535.60 per month in 2017-18 to $1,099.94 per month with the employee paying $579.94 in 2018-19. There were six employees on this plan in 2017-18.

The 2018-19 UHC plans offer the same benefits as the previous year.

The employee contributions for premiums offered by BCBST for 2018-19 were as follows:

• Individual – Plan 1: $138.20 per month.

• Individual – Plan 2: $50.49 per month.

• Individual – Plan 3: $0 per month.

• Family – Plan 1: $1,194.60 per month.

• Family – Plan 2: $966.13 per month.

• Family – Plan 3: $268.58.

A total of 93 employees had some form of insurance in 2017-18. With the county paying $520 per month for each employee, health insurance last year cost the county $580,320.

After some discussion, the committee decided that staying with UHC would be the best option for the employees in 2018-19. The members then had to decide how much the county should contribute for each employee.

Manful said the 6 percent increase with UHC would move the $520 paid by the county per month per employee to $551.20.

“If the county bumps up the contribution on those 93 employees, that would give you a total of $615,139,” Manful said. “It would be an increase for this upcoming budget year of $34,819. Again, the county has not increased any of its share toward the cost of healthcare since 2013. There has been no additional funding from the employer’s side since then. It’s all had to be done in plan design modification or passing on additional cost to the employees.”

Wilcox suggested that the county provide an additional $200 per month supplement for employees who wanted to have family coverage.

“I would definitely like us to do something to help families,” Commissioner Loren Thomas said. He later said that family insurance coverage for county employees “has been totally unaffordable for several years.”

Mosley suggested a $300 supplement per month on family coverage. Commissioner Gene Wilson also expressed support for providing additional assistance to employees choosing family coverage.

Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey expressed concern during the meeting about the high cost of family coverage. Bailey said she has family insurance through the county and that paying such a high price for the insurance is a burden for employees.

“How many people here cannot afford family insurance?” Bailey asked. “Right now, I pay over $900 out of pocket between my premium and my HSA (health savings account). So, I literally pay every single thing until I get to almost $6,000. I just think there are a ton of people here that that’s not something they can do. The fact that we have almost 100 people with insurance coverage and only six can afford family care – that’s shameful, I think. I know there are more people in the county who need family coverage and it’s not a possibility for them. I am fortunate that I can pay that much.”

The committee considered paying $551.20 per month per employee on individual coverage, then capping the total paid per month by employees with family coverage at $300 per month. The $300 cap for family coverage was determined not to be financially feasible; so, the committee decided to recommend that the county provide an additional $300 supplement to go along with the $551.20 provided for individual coverage to employees choosing family coverage. For example, an employee who chose UHC family coverage on Plan 3, instead of paying $580 per month, they would pay only $280 thanks to the $300 supplement.

“This way we are helping both employees with individual and family coverage,” Wilcox said.

The committee, – Wilcox, Harris and Mosley – unanimously voted to recommend that to the full commission.

Town of Unicoi BMA hears audit report

In addition to hearing about the town’s audit, the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen also heard about grants and a new fee scheduled for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. Pictured from left, Alderman Roger Cooper, Vice Mayor Doug Hopson, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Alderman Jeff Linville and Alderwoman Kathy Bullen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The findings of the most recent audit on the Town of Unicoi’s finances were presented during the Monday, May 21, Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.

Travis Bishop, audit manager with the accounting firm Rodefer Moss, said the Town of Unicoi was given “the best they could give,” despite a few minor issues he said the town is working to correct.

“There were a couple of issues that we noted as material weaknesses during the audit,” Bishop said. “I feel like they are doing a very good job to address these issues.”

The first issue he noted was the result of the town’s inadequate documentation for adjusting its journal entries. The second issue he found stemmed from the lack of an employee compensation policy.

“We noted employees were allowed to acquire compensation time and carry that out for an indefinite period,” said Bishop.

He recommended the town establish a compensation policy and change payroll procedures to where time sheets are approved by employees’ supervisors to prevent incorrect pay.

The last recommendation was related to the segregation of duties, which he said is a common finding.

“A town this size will always have those issues,” he said.

Bishop reported that tax revenues were stagnant and down $11,000 from the previous year, with no growth in revenue from sales, beer or liquor taxes.

However, he said total revenues actually exceeded expectations and exceeded expenditures by $170,000.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen inquired as to what the increase in revenues could be attributed to, and Bishop said it was due to grant money and debt service, with approximately $341,000 in grant funding.

Alderman Jeff Linville made a motion to approve the financial statements and supplementary information of the audit. His motion was seconded by Bullen before it unanimously passed.

• • •

In other business, the board discussed matching funds for the ARC POWER Grant, which is being used for the Town of Unicoi Buffalo Valley Connector Trail and Bike Route. The connector trail runs from the Pinnacle Fire Tower trailhead and goes down to the Town of Unicoi Visitors Center and across the street to Maple Grove Restaurant. The bike trail follows Unicoi Drive down to Erwin Town Hall.

The grant provides about $300,000 and requires $128,815 in matching funds for a total project cost of $428,815.

“We don’t need to be spending $128,000 on a trail,” said Bullen. “We’re putting the cart before the horse. As far as I’m concerned, we need somewhere for people to spend their money and we need another school resource officer.”

Alderman Roger Cooper was also concerned that this was not the best use the town could find for the $128,000 and vocalized his frustrations with not having a school resource officer at Unicoi Elementary.

The resolution authorizing the town to provide matching funds was passed, with Mayor Johnny Lynch, Linville and Doug Hopson voting in favor. Bullen and Cooper voted in opposition.

• • •

The board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the Town of Unicoi to apply for a USDA Rural Business Development Grant. The grant will be administered through the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and provides rural areas with monies for entrepreneurial training programs. The grant does not require a local match and covers the costs for entrepreneurs to attend various training programs.

• • •

The board amended the agenda to hear from Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, about a new fee schedule for the kitchen. The new fee schedule would waive the initial consultation charge, require only a $200 facility deposit and a $50 application and training fee.

The rate for non-member hourly rental would be $25 per hour, $15 for members hourly and $50 hourly for exclusive use.

A new business package would be offered at $300 a month for up to 25 hours, a basic membership at $400 a month for up to 25 hours, and $750 a month for up to 50 hours.

The new fee schedule was unanimously passed by the board.

• • •

The board also approved the Town of Unicoi’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2018-19. Under the proposed budget, revenues total approximately $2.2 million and expenditures approximately $2.7 million. Revenue from local taxes is estimated at $848,000, and the proposed debt service totals $356,219.20. The portion of the budget dealing with the Mountain Harvest Kitchen projects that the venture will break even, with both proposed revenues and expenditures of $452,552.47.

The budget was approved with Lynch, Hopson, Linville and Bullen voting in favor. Cooper voted in opposition.

UCHS students race solar go-kart at Bristol Motor Speedway

The UCHS students with their solar-powered go-kart at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Contributed photo)

By Danielle Jones

On May 7, students from schools all around the Tri-Cities went to Bristol Motor Speedway to test their skills and work ethics by racing solar go-karts. This STEM project (Science Technology Engineering Math) helps students utilize the skills they have learned in their career and technical classes.

The Perkins Reserve Grant distributed equal amounts of money to local schools to help modify and improve their solar go-karts from last year’s first annual event. Twenty local schools came together at Bristol Motor Speedway to see their hard work pay off.

Unicoi County High School students used their prior knowledge and class learning experiences to build and construct a solar-powered go-kart. Vocational school classes, such as mechanics and welding, pitched in a helping hand and joined together to modify and improve certain areas on the kart. Students had the opportunity to learn about how solar power works and what life in the workforce is like. Students also learned how the sun can be used as fuel instead of gasoline power engines for means of transportation.

At Bristol Motor Speedway, students gathered in the pits to see what NASCAR drivers endure in everyday life. Each of the 20 local schools had to test their solar go-karts in three categories – appearance, speed and endurance. Timekeepers and lap counters were also students. They were responsible for letting the drivers know what lap they were on, when to pit, and how their timing was improving. The students in the pits had the experience of switching out drivers and helping the go-kart run at its best.

When all categories were completed, the results of the race were revealed to anxious students. In the speed category, Hampton High School won first place, Clinch School won second place and Elizabethton High School won third place. In the Endurance race, first place went to Greene Technology Center, second place went to Clinch School, and Johnson County High School took third place. Unicoi County High School came in close in fifth place out of 20 schools.

Students are now making plans and brainstorming new ideas for next year’s upcoming race. It was certainly a learning experience for students and teachers to know what life for NASCAR drivers and pit crews are like every day.

They also had the opportunity to know how the workforce operates. It was a race for many students that had an impact on their life and it’ll be a memory that will never be forgotten.

Grant program helps new businesses open in downtown Erwin

Lee Brown, left, and Tyler Engle present Sharee Perciful with a check. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Participation by local entrepreneurs in the Cool & Connected Downtown grant program through the Appalachian Regional Commission, Erwin Utilities and the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County has led to the development of two small businesses that are opening their doors in downtown Erwin.

The grant program provided a nine-week Co.Starters business training curriculum that taught participants about all of the ins and outs of starting a small business. At the end of the nine weeks, the two participants were presented with $4,000 in grant assistance, a year of support from the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and a year of gigabit broadband from Erwin Utilities/Erwin Fiber.

“It’s a nine-week business development course and it covers all kinds of topics from legal concerns that someone may have when starting a business to accounting, marketing and finally putting everything together to create a business plan,” said Tyler Engle, executive director for the Unicoi County Economic Development Board. “It was a pretty big time commitment from the folks involved and to my knowledge this was the first time we’ve ever offered La Co.Starter class in Unicoi County.”

After completing the program, Sharee Perciful has now opened What’s the Scoop Ice Cream shop at 214 S. Main Ave. Jan Bowden will be opening Union Street Gallery in July or August – an art gallery featuring metal and glass fusing and cutting, which will be located at 100 Union St.

Perciful and her family, who recently moved to Erwin from North Carolina in hopes of starting a business, said the class was wonderful in terms of allowing her and her husband, Kenneth Perciful, to gain a broader view of their business while also evaluating the needs of the community. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on May 9 for What’s the Scoop. The ice cream shop offers an array of flavors, including an allergy-friendly option and a board game cafe. 

“Being a previous business owner, we felt pretty knowledgeable, but it really allowed us to evaluate the needs of the community a little bit deeper,” Perciful said. 

She also said the classes allowed them to start slowly and pace themselves, enabling them to focus on customer service as their main priority. 

“My husband said ‘it’s not a race, it’s a marathon, and not to take it full force, but to take it slow and steady’,” she said.

The classes included guest speakers, which Perciful said allowed her to hear invaluable testimony on the mistakes and successes of other small business owners and narrow down the specific needs for her own business. She added that it was invaluable being able to develop a relationship with Bowden throughout the classes and connect with another new business owner in the process.

“We see the community as having been in kind of a stagnant place, as far as new business coming in, and we didn’t want to feel like the only new kids on the block,” Perciful said. “We wanted to be inspired by growth around us also.”

Bowden and her husband, Vince Bowden, recently moved from Ohio in hopes of starting a smaller art gallery than they previously had in order to focus more on individual customers and interacting with the community. In addition to offering instructional classes at their studio, Union Street Gallery will showcase Jan Bowden’s glass fusing, plasma cutting and metal work, as well as her husband’s welding work, with many of their creations including recycled material.

“We’re not focused on just one item and I thrive on interacting with the public and that’s why I’m really excited to be in downtown Erwin,” said Jan Bowden. “One of the things that was wonderful about the Co.Starters class is it was instrumental in helping me to focus on the startup costs and how to break even and eventually make a profit.”

The Co.Starters class allowed the Bowdens to determine if they were on track with their business model, while also putting them in the right mindset to complete necessary tasks to bring their business to fruition.

“Some of the most useful topics were determining your breakeven point and seeing examples of what would be feasible in terms of making decisions on whether your idea can translate into a business where you make money,” said Bowden.

Engle said he is pleased to know that both What’s the Scoop and Union Street Gallery are two local businesses that are off to a strong start after the business owners participated in the class.

“Both an ice cream shop and an art gallery were on our focus list, so when we went into the Co. Starters, to get both of those businesses through this grant, we were really, really pleased,” he said. “We hope to do another cohort later on this year somewhere in Unicoi County. Obviously, the parameters of this grant were focused on downtown Erwin, but we would like to be able to offer it to everyone in Unicoi County next time so more people are eligible.”

UCHS students create show for Alzheimer’s Tennessee benefit on May 14

From Staff Reports

On Monday, May 14, the Unicoi County High School drama department will host a fundraiser event for Alzheimer’s Tennessee at the school. The fundraiser starts at 5 p.m. with a hot dog supper, live music and information provided by several local health care agencies. Vocalists performing include Larry Pate, Gary Amos and Ernie Phillips from the Landmarks Quartet.

At 7 p.m., the advanced drama students will perform “Remember When” a one-act play they created about the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s. The short play tells the story of a family caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s and focuses on how the disease changes the patient as well as family members and caregivers. 

The play is a collection of monologues and short flashback scenes. The cost of the event is $10 for adults and $5 for students and includes the meal, music and play. Tickets can be purchased at the Register of Deeds office in the Unicoi County Courthouse, UCHS main office or at the door on the event day.

“At the beginning of April, I had a conversation with a small group of advanced drama students regarding doing one more performance for the year,” drama instructor Lori Ann Wright said. “Earlier in the school year, we had discussed doing a play surrounding the concept of memory and keys. The original idea was for a family to find a box of keys in their grandmother’s attic and for each key to have an individual story – for each key to represent a special moment in the grandmother’s life.

“I mentioned the keys concept again and gave the students the opportunity to see what they could do with it. A few days later they came to me with the idea of switching a box of keys to a memento box and focusing the story on a family trying to extend the fading memory of a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Several of the students involved had experience with Alzheimer’s or dementia in some way; some had relatives that suffered or passed away from the disease and one student actually lost his grandmother from Alzheimer’s while we were creating the script. I also had a student in our CTE nursing program that connected with the health care perspective as she works daily with patients with memory issues.”

Wright also said that while the students felt a strong connection to the story, they were and still are worried about how their work will be received.

“This is a very difficult and personal subject,” Wright said. “Their goal is to educate the public about Alzheimer’s, honor those patients suffering from the disease and pay tribute to the families caring for their loved ones. I think the story they’ve created does just that, but since no two patients manifest the disease 100 percent the same way and every family deals with it the best they can in their own way, our story may not be an exact replica of an audience member’s experience. The students relied on their research and their own experiences to create the show.”

The students knew they wanted to donate the profit from the show to Alzheimer’s Tennessee and mentioned that to Debbie Tittle when inviting her to the play, according to Wright.

“Mrs. Tittle wanted to help and thus the food and music portion of the event was added,” she added. “Debbie also introduced us to Tracey Kendall Wilson, the regional director of Alzheimer’s Tennessee, and they both came to the school and helped the students gain some perspective on the script. Debbie and Tracey have really just jumped in to help the kids and make the event about education and awareness as well as a fundraiser for Alzheimer’s Tennessee. They have been a wonderful source of information and encouragement. They also helped by arranging the event sponsors and our vocalists.”

Students participating in the event will be Savannah Delffs, Ashley Watson, Kaitlyn Rogers, Chevelle Benton, Lucas Swinehart, Elizabeth Sutphin, Madison Nicholson, Michael Harrington, Garrett Manuel, Brandolyn Thomas, Zach Thompson, Emma Ledford, Eli Macintosh, Carson Moore, Bailey Robinson and Danny Lowery.

“This project means there’s hope,” Delffs said. “We are hoping to bring change and awareness to a disease that affects so many lives. If doing this show impacts just one life, we have done something amazing.”

Wright said the students would like to thank the sponsors, singers and organizations participating in the May 14 event. These include Erwin Healthcare, Center on Aging, Sam’s Club, Larry Pate, Gary Amos, Ernie Phillips, Erwin Home Health, Prevention Coalition and Ballad Health.

Homeowners keep hopes alive for Buffalo Valley Golf Course

The excavation activity by the City of Johnson City to a portion of the Buffalo Valley Golf Course has ceased for the time being. However, many homeowners are concerned that the work is unnecessary and negatively impacting the course’s aesthetics and ultimately their home values. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After the Town of Unicoi withdrew its offer to the City of Johnson City to purchase Buffalo Valley Golf Course two weeks ago, homeowners passionate about seeing the course up and running again are exploring options to form a homeowners association or community organization with plans to ultimately manage and market the course.

“We’re calling this organization Buffalo Valley Golf Course Community,” said Steve Williams. “We’ve had so much outreach from citizens of the Town of Erwin and the county, that we didn’t want to create an organization that is exclusive to just the property owners.”

Recently, several golf course property owners and community members interested in supporting the course sat down at the Maple Grove Restaurant to discuss the payment of an attorney’s retainer fee to investigate the homeowner’s rights.

“The attorney is doing research at the courthouse to see if we have any restrictive covenants or property rights as it pertains to the original development,” Williams said.

Williams also said about 40 percent of the property owners attended the meeting at the Maple Grove Restaurant and he was surprised at the financial contributions people were eager and prepared to make to cover the attorney’s costs.

“The ones (homeowners) that couldn’t be there, they did even contact us and let us know they had prior engagements,” he said. “We even had people from the adjacent subdivisions attend. They’re concerned about their home values too and what’s going to happen. What we got from the meeting is pretty much people want to move forward with the retainer fee from the attorney.”

Such a high percentage of those that attended the meeting were willing to contribute towards the attorney’s fees that Williams said he and Brandy Bevins, another homeowners leading efforts to protect the course, were unprepared to accept and collect all of the funds.

However, Williams said they have since been able to collect about 80 percent of the retainer fee already after compiling the contributions of about 16 people.

“We have some people that have contributed that aren’t even in the neighborhood,” he said. “Pretty much everyone’s agreed that we either need to revitalize the existing homeowners association or at the very least go ahead and create a homeowner’s association.”

During the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Committee meetings that transpired prior to the Town of Unicoi making an offer on the course, the homeowners originally presented a plan that centered on the town purchasing the property, and the homeowner’s entering a lease agreement to manage and market the course.

“Our business model was sort of created around that, but we have a plan B, sort of, in place,” said Williams. “We had favorable terms with the Town of Unicoi, but now we will just have to find an investor.”

Williams said regardless of who ends up purchasing or investing in the course, the homeowners’ and community stakeholders’ main priority is that they are able to participate in the operations and management of Buffalo Valley, contrary to what he says they experienced when the City of Johnson City ran the course.

“The City of Johnson City actually came in and almost pushed the citizens of Unicoi County in terms of what the fees are,” he said. “They increased membership fees for Unicoi County or gave discounts to City of Johnson City citizens. That’s a huge reason why all of the core members left and there were only three members left. It looks bad when people say the golf course wasn’t doing good, but that’s what happens when you basically shun your core members.”

Williams said when he first moved into his home on the golf course, he was essentially deterred from becoming a member by a Johnson City pro shop employee.

“We never felt like we were a part of the process or membership before,” said Williams. “We want to turn that around.”

Before the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Community moved forward, Williams said they are currently waiting to hear back from their attorneys on what legal rights they are entitled to.

“Then we will go from there,” he said. “We need to protect these approximately 216 lots. We need to protect our neighborhood. … We’re trying to find out how is the best way to go about protecting the integrity of the subdivision.”

The excavation work that was being carried out by the City of Johnson City near the tee box by Lakeview Drive, which according to City of Johnson City officials was to address drainage issues, has ceased but could potentially resume as talk has circulated that there may be plans to designate the area as a wetland.

Williams maintains that there were no drainage issues in the area and was initially concerned that the City of Johnson City began the work before acquiring a permit from TDEC or the Town of Unicoi.

Johnson City has since obtained a TDEC permit and was in the process of obtaining a permit from the Town of Unicoi, but Williams said the homeowners sent a letter to the town asking that officials rethink issuing the permit due to concerns that it could negatively impact property values and the landscape of the course.

“I asked Town of Unicoi officials to think about issuing that permit and the potential impact it could have for the property owners,” he said.

Williams said the permit has not been issued to Johnson City yet and overall he is optimistic about the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Community and their hopes to see Buffalo Valley as a flourishing golf course. He said there has been an outpouring of community support.

“People have told us, ‘whatever we can do to help you, just let us know’,” he said. “Any potential buyer will know they have the community support behind them. We want to make sure this organization is not just for the homeowners, but the main thing is that it is an entity moving forward that allows the whole community to participate.”

For more information, or to get involved with the Buffalo Valley Golf Course Community, contact Steve Williams at 423-8248 or Brandy Bevins at 220-7952.

Boone returns to UCHS to perform with Sideline

Pictured is Troy Boone, mandolin player for the popular bluegrass band Sideline. The former Unicoi County High Bluegrass Band member is returning to his hometown to play on Friday, May 4. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Troy Boone, a native to Unicoi County and mandolin player with the chart-topping bluegrass band Sideline, is returning to his hometown for a benefit concert with the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band on Friday, May 4.

Boone received his first instrument, a banjo, at the age of seven. Shortly after, he switched to electric guitar and played rock and punk rock until he discovered a love for bluegrass music in high school.

“I got bit by the bluegrass bug,” he said. “Both sides of my family are musically talented and we always used to have a family reunion every year where a jam session was really the highlight.”

During Boone’s senior year at Unicoi County High School in 2012, he and classmate Craig Shelton were instrumental in forming the school’s bluegrass band.

“I noticed Craig and Lincoln Hensley were playing bluegrass one day and I said ‘shoot y’all, I can bring my mandolin tomorrow’,” Boone said.

After running the idea by Lori Ann Wright, Unicoi County High School drama teacher and instructor to the high school bluegrass band, the group became a reality.

“It’s pretty cool it’s still a band and it’s great to see youth in my hometown still interested in bluegrass,” said Boone.

Boone described Wright as a patient and enthusiastic mentor and said he and his high school friends always knew they could be themselves while in her classroom.

“I’ll always remember the lessons she’s taught me,” he said. “I think the world of Lori Ann.”

Wright said Boone was always actively involved in the performing arts during his time at the high school. She said Boone performed in the high school’s production of Grease, Footloose, Charlotte’s Web, and the Jungle Book.

“Troy is one of those people that bring a vibrance to any production, whether it’s a drama show or playing mandolin and singing bluegrass like he does with Sideline,” Wright said. “Watching Troy perform really is a joy for the audience because you can see he absolutely loves what he’s doing.”

After high school Boone began pursuing a bachelor’s degree in bluegrass music at East Tennessee State University.

“I like my mama’s cooking too much and didn’t want to move away for college,” he laughed

He described the bluegrass program as an incredible experience with professors that connected with students as if they were friends.

“It’s a wonderful program for beginners or seasoned musicians,” Boone said.

While he was studying at ETSU, Boone recorded a solo album “First Impressions” with a group of his college friends. He said since recording that album, many of the featured musicians have gone on to become performers.

Before coming on board with Sideline, Boone started the bluegrass band Dreamcatcher and spent two years traveling with them.

“That kind of washed the green off of me a little bit, although the schedule was nowhere near as busy as Sideline’s schedule,” he said.

After discovering Sideline was in need of a Mandolin player, Boone contacted the band and impressed the band members at two auditions, which earned him a spot as an official band member in January 2017.

“When I found out Sideline needed a mandolin player I was so excited about picking with guys I had grown up with,” Boone said. “But it was very funny because my first audition I was getting over a very, very bad cold and I couldn’t sing at all.” He said despite his vocal limitations, the band members were very respectful and granted him a second audition once he was able to use his voice.

“I guess they liked me because they gave me the job and I’ve been very, very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve been having a blast ever since. It’s surreal to be on the road and in a band, especially with guys of this caliber. I definitely give the glory to God.”

Aside from Boone, the other member of the Sideline band include: banjo player Steve Dilling, bass player Jason Moore, guitar player Skip Cherryholmes, guitarist and vocalist Bailey Coe and fiddle player Daniel Greeson.

“The guys in Sideline have really taken him in and are showing him the ropes,” said David Boone, Troy’s father.

Since Boone began touring with Sideline, the band has traveled to Canada, Mexico, California, Maryland, Florida, Chicago and New York.

“We played right outside of New York City … a 45 foot Prevost tour bus can be pretty intimidating,” he said. “It’s definitely a wild experience traveling and I can’t say enough about how fortunate I am to travel with these guys … we’re all in it together.”

“It’s wonderful, me and his mother we try to follow him as much as we can,” his father said. “We went to Raleigh for the CD release party. We’ve gotten to meet so many people and he’s doing a really good job.”

A few singles have already been released from Sideline’s current album, “Front and Center,” which dropped on April 27. So far, “A Song For Winter’s Night” with Cherryholmes singing lead and “Thunderdan” with Boone singing lead, have become popular singles from the album.

“Everyone was saying they felt it (Thunderdan) would do good, but it was still a shock because I’ve never had a song go to number one on a bluegrass chart,” said Boone. “I remember waking up to my dad calling and telling me it had reached number one.”

With this being his first record with the band, Boone described the recording process as a lot of fun and said the other members of Sideline continue to offer him constructive criticism that helps him grow as a musician.

“Steve and the guys have really put me in a position to be a vocalist,” he said.

Even with his busy tour schedule, Boone still tries to make time for the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band and taught a workshop with some of the students a few months ago.

“It’s really important to me to see this band at the high school continue on,” he said. “I’m gone a lot and I don’t get to be as involved as I’d like.”

He said he still has high school bluegrass players contact him from time to time asking for helpful advice, which he says he is always eager to give.

“That comes from someone always being there to help me,” Boone said. “The bluegrass family is really close-knit.”

Wright said the UCHS Bluegrass Band is excited to be opening for Sideline, and she added that Boone has proven to be a valuable mentor with great leadership skills to offer youth that are interested in Bluegrass

“As one of his previous teachers, I am excited for his upcoming concert,” said Wright. “For an educator, there is nothing better than seeing a student living his passion and fulfilling his potential.”

The UCHS Bluegrass Band has had quite a bit of success as well, including two former students that now play professionally, four that are enrolled in the bluegrass program at ETSU and more headed that way, two ETSU Honors College recipients of performing arts scholarships in bluegrass, and an alum that recently played on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

On May 4 at 7 p.m., the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band will be the opening act for Sideline’s performance at the high school auditorium. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Adult tickets are $15 and children’s tickets are $5. Tickets can be purchased at the UCHS main office.

Following their May 4 performance, Sideline will perform in Woodford, Virginia, at Mr. B’s Bluegrass Festival on May 5. For more information about Sideline and their upcoming tour dates or locations, visit http://www.sidelinebg.com/index.html.

“As long as I’m able, I hope to be playing music one way or another,” said Boone.

Retail specialist to Erwin BMA: ‘There’s a lot of promise here’

Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, far right, addresses the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen during the panel’s meeting on Monday, April 23. In addition to hearing from a retail specialist, the board also voted to update the town’s beer ordinance to include craft beer. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

During the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen Meeting on Monday, April 23, the board heard a report on a Unicoi County joint retail study and approved an ordinance to amend the current municipal code on alcoholic beverages to allow craft beer enterprises in Erwin.

Adam Chandler, an economic development consultant with the company Retail Attractions, reported on the findings of the joint retail study. In his report, he focused on retail leakage, the I-26 corridor, a secondary retail market and strategies for recruiting national retail.

“I was brought here to find out where Unicoi County is at in regards to retail development, and what kind of retail there could potentially be here,” said Chandler.

The categories with the most retail leakage, or money being spent elsewhere, was from motor vehicles and parts dealers, food and beverage stores, non-store retailers and general merchandise.

“A large majority leaks north into Johnson City,” Chandler said. “I would say 85 percent or more is going across the county line into Washington County.”

However, he highlighted the I-26 corridor and regarded the six Unicoi County exits as a “huge plus” moving forward with retail development.

As far as secondary retail, which he defined as the strip of development between the Food Lion and Tractor Supply, he said the town should focus on ways to improve the overall aesthetics of the area.

For strategies to recruit national retailers, he suggested gathering information on the most likely land parcels that can be purchased, making use of experienced and reputable brokers and matching market data with compatible users.

“What people really care about is the land and the real estate,” he said.

Chandler concluded his remarks by saying that, along with working to overcome declining population numbers and recruiting hotels, the county should focus on recruitment and cultivations for exits 36, 37 and 40. Ongoing planning and development of exit 37 should continue with a focus on regional and local retailers according to Chandler.

“There’s a lot of promise here,” he said. “I think it can get a lot better.”

• • •

As a followup to a recommendation by the Erwin Beverage Board, the board unanimously approved the ordinance to amend the current municipal code for alcoholic beverages, specifically dealing with beer. The ordinance now allows craft beer, which was previously restricted, within the city limits of Erwin.

“This would, for instance, allow for a brewery, a tap room, not just in the downtown area, but for them to do business in the Town of Erwin,” said Glenn Rosenoff, city recorder. “This opens the door for that kind of business that has been an example of retail leakage.”

Alderman Mark Lafever made a motion to approve the resolution, and it was seconded by Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz before it unanimously passed.

• • •

In other business, the board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a capital outlay note not to exceed $350,000 for the purpose of purchasing police vehicles, fire protection equipment and gear, and street department trucks and equipment.

The board also unanimously approved a lease agreement in the amount of $23,000 between the Town of Erwin and the Unicoi County YMCA regarding the operations of Fishery Park swimming pool for the calendar year 2018.

Unicoi County CTE students recognized for competition results

Above, Mrs. Garland’s cosmetology class was recognized during the April 17 Unicoi County Board of Education meeting for their success in recent CTE competitions at the state and regional level. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The meeting room of the Unicoi County Board of Education was filled to maximum capacity during its April 17 meeting as the board recognized several Unicoi County High School students for their performances at recent CTE (Career Technical Education) competitions.

“We’re so fortunate to have these CTE competitions,” said John English, director of schools. “I want to say how much we appreciate both our students and our faculty.”

Kaitlin Rogers was recognized for earning first place in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) state competition for pin designs. Rogers has earned a graphic design scholarship and will be attending East Tennessee State University.

Several cosmetology students earned awards at both the state and regional level. Jaylyn Lane and her model Breanna Clawson earned first place at the state level for cosmetology and makeup application and job demonstration. Lane will represent Unicoi County at the SkillsUSA National Competition this summer.

Kailyn Marchant earned fifth place at the state in cosmetology. Nicole Bailey and her model Chloe Powers earned first place in nail art at the regional level. Allie Smith earned second place in evening style at the regional level. Isabella Yates and her model Holli Ollis earned third place in esthetics at the regional level.

From the culinary department, Whitney Mullet earned second place at the state level for restaurant service, Laura Withers earned fourth place at the state level for commercial baking and Isabella Thomas earned seventh place at the state for culinary arts.

Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) winners included Elizabeth Sutphin and LeAnna Hager, who earned first place at the regional and state level for their forensics team. Sutphin and Hager will be attending nationals in Dallas, Texas, this summer.

Also, Cierra Potter won fourth place in regionals for public speaking. Mikkayla King earned fifth place at regionals for medical reading. Garrett Manuel earned fourth place at regionals for medical math. Zoie Stout qualified for state with the healthcare issues exam. From the welding class, Max Clouse earned first place at the region.

• • •

Chris Bogart, principal of Unicoi County High School, gave a program update for the high school that recapped key events and successes of the past school year and also looked ahead to new plans in store for the students and faculty.

“One of the first things we did this year, and we did it with teachers as well, is to really start focusing on goals,” Bogart said.

Each homeroom had students put goals on paper before they were placed on a visual goal board. The students were tasked with defining a personal, professional and technology related goal.

“It’s been a really good visual reminder for students,” said Bogart.

Each week, Bogart said he sent out a Monday memo with a question related to their motto of “pride, passion and purpose.” The teachers used the Monday memos for writing assignments or class discussions.

“What does it mean to take pride in something? What are you most proud of in your life? Why is it that you like what you like?” Bogart said, giving examples of questions he asked.

A school climate survey at the high school had more than 500 responses from students and asked students to rate the accuracy of questions about their high school experience on a one-to-five scale.

When asked if students felt that their teachers take time to listen, teachers care about them and have confidence in them, and the administration treats students with respect, all areas scored over a four.

“Those were some of the highest scoring aspects of the survey and that says a lot about our staff and the connections they are making with their students,” Bogart said.

Areas where Bogart said they can improve are with the relationships students have with one another, and that is something he says they will continue to work on.

Faculty and staff helped select 30 high school juniors to serve as P3 (pride, passion, and purpose) mentors to incoming freshman. The mentors will work to establish a sense of community, build relationships and convey the P3 motto with the freshmen.

“Our goal is for them to inspire and keep accountable those incoming freshman and really just show them the ropes,” Bogart said.

They are also looking to organize into career academies to increase student motivation. The academies will be broken up according to the arts, automotive, manufacturing and services, STEM and humanities divisions.

Bogart said this will help create real world connections with what the students’ future aspirations are.

The following events were hosted through the high school this year: a ninth grade ice cream social to start the year, a 9/11 ceremony, homecoming luncheon, senior summit to discuss life after high school, supporting all cancers week, Harry Potter week, multiple career trips and a visit by U.S. Congressman Phil Roe. 

• • •

Also during the meeting, the Unicoi County School System received a donation from its district partner Nuclear Fuel Services. The donation allowed for the purchase of four complete classroom sets of calculators, worth approximately $3,380.

“The donation has made a tremendous difference,” said English. “NFS has been and continues to be a wonderful partner with the school system.”

• • •

The board recognized Kay Peterson, who is retiring as a faculty member at the Unicoi County Middle School after 21 years of service.

“She made an impact every single day and she’s been a big part of our school system,” said English. “She is so dedicated and we will miss her dearly.”

• • •

In other business, the board unanimously approved tenure for the following teachers: Patience Erwin, Brandi Foltz, Summer Hughes, Amanda Cook, Alicia Keplinger, Kerry Miller, Christy Miller, Kelly Pate, Christol Edney, Amy Engle, Jamie Harris, Cindy Petty and Elizabeth Pleasant.

The board also unanimously approved a budget amendment in the amount of $2,028,091.76 to the original general purpose budget for 2017-2018.

The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are being replaced at Unicoi County Elementary School and Love Chapel Elementary School and are reflected in the budget amendment, as well as the second phase of the reroofing project at Unicoi County High School.

“Those three capital projects make up $1,870,000 of that amendment,” said English. “We are absorbing those costs without asking the county to fund any part of that.”

School officials say food is safe despite recent incidents

Cafeteria workers at Unicoi County Middle School prepare a lunch consisting of broccoli, teriyaki beef, macaroni and cheese, cheese sticks and carrots. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On April 9, a few students reported mold on muffins they were served during breakfast at Unicoi County Middle School. The muffins were not actually baked at the school, but were instead pre-packaged and supplied by the food vendor Sky Blue with an expiration date of December 28, 2018.

“We would never intentionally serve a kid something like that, but I think you have a reasonable expectation if you go to the store as a consumer and you buy a box of anything and the expiration date is eight months from now, you assume the product is going to be okay,” said John English, director of Unicoi County Schools.

The system’s food service also recently drew criticism for what was reported to be a molded biscuit served at Unicoi County High School.

The Friday before the incident, Unicoi County Middle School received a visit from the Tennessee Department of Health, which inspects each school twice a year. Unicoi County Middle School was awarded a health score of 98, losing two points due to the location where a spray nozzle on the hose of the dishwasher was stored.

“We feel like that speaks to the quality of our food service, not these isolated incidents,” said English. “I don’t think it was negligence at all on the food workers part.”

English added that to his knowledge only a very small number of muffins were affected, and the schools are still finding ways to combat potential issues with food distributors, such as carefully inspecting each food item.

“We had 453 kids we fed that morning,” said Maggie Fair, food service supervisor for Unicoi County Schools. “The only ones we got back were from seventh grade, so evidently it was just one case.”

As two cafeteria workers served the students, Fair said the mold could have easily gone undetected, not only due to the large volume of students being served, but also because the muffins were chocolate chip muffins that possibly didn’t show the discoloration very distinctly.

According to Fair, 75 percent of the food served at Unicoi County schools comes from a vendor or distributor and 25 percent is cooked in-house.

“We probably have one or two menu items a week that we make like tacos, spaghetti or chicken casserole … so there’s really not a lot,” Fair said. “Most of it is just we heat and serve. We work really hard and we put out close to 1,000 meals a day at the middle school between breakfast and lunch.”

Since the incident occurred, Fair has met with all cafeteria managers to reiterate the importance of trying to thoroughly inspect any food supplied by vendors in the future. She said from now on workers are now snapshotting and filing expiration dates of all pre-packaged food items.

“As difficult as it may be, we’re looking at trying to make sure we have some kind of look at all pre-packaged items we serve,” said English.

The Sky Blue company has reportedly apologized and reimbursed the school system for the muffins because the package indicated they were well within the expiration date.

“We’re getting financial credit back for the product, but the damage has still been done,” said Fair.

Sky Blue is one of several distributors used by the Unicoi County School System, which is in a buying group with 14 other counties in East Tennessee, all of which supply their school cafeterias with food from the same vendors.

“It’s not just our system,” Fair said. “We have to go by bids and they have to meet special specifications. We also have to meet guidelines, for instance, all of our grains have to be 50 percent whole grain.”

Based on state and federal regulations, the schools are required to meet specific standards for the amount of fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, starches, milk and meat served for each student. For example, for grades sixth through eighth, students must be served at least five cups of fruit during breakfast throughout the week and almost four cups of vegetables during lunch throughout the week.

Aside from the recent 98 health score rating for the middle school, Unicoi County High School received a 99 health score in February, Temple Hill Elementary School received a 100 in March, Rock Creek Elementary School received a 100 in March, Love Chapel Elementary School received a 100 last September and Unicoi Elementary School received a 100 last August.

“I would put my kitchens up against any restaurant in the Tri-Cities,” said Fair.

Ambulance discussions continue

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch addresses the Ambulance Committee during a meeting last week. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Discussions on how to resolve the inadequate ambulance service perceived by local officials in Unicoi County continued in the April 11 meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.

The committee further explored the possibility of creating a county-run ambulance service, placing the service back out for bid, and whether or not it would be prudent to find and purchase property where they can construct a building to house ambulances.

“I think everyone here agrees we need a good ambulance service,” said Jason Harris, Unicoi County commissioner and Ambulance Committee chairman.

Unsatisfactory service including reported long wait times and not enough ambulances with the county’s current contracted provider MedicOne, has prompted leaders throughout the county to explore either creating a service or finding another service for Unicoi County residents.

Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox said he investigated the number of times MedicOne has been unavailable and violated their contract, requiring Washington or Carter County ambulances to respond to Unicoi County calls.

“They’re still having violations … I called Washington County and got a copy of all the violations from 2017, and there’s 84 from Washington County, and I’m still waiting to hear from Carter County,” Wilcox said. “March 26 was the most recent violation.”

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said after speaking with the First Tennessee Development District, there is still a good possibility that Unicoi County could utilize the $440,000 Community Development Block Grant that was allocated to the Town of Erwin to purchase their own ambulances.

“They would have to have about two months worth of surveys to determine that,” Lynch said. “It’s kind of the same process in the county as there was in the city so they can justify us getting the ambulances. It sounds like it’s still doable.”

Lynch also stated that the county had received the letter for the bond from MedicOne, indicating the service seemed stable until the contract expires next April.

Harris said if the county plans to place out request for proposals to allow other ambulance services to place bids, he felt it needed to be sent out this month.

“The right choice if we’re going with the request for proposal is to get it out early … I just don’t know how we’re going to do a service on our own,” Wilcox said.

“I agree the request for proposal might be the best route for right now,” Lynch added.

The current contract the county has with MedicOne has been described as weak in terms of being able to hold the ambulance service provider accountable for violations of the contract.

After speaking with the county attorney about drafting a well-composed request for proposal, Lynch said they had concerns of including more specific language.

“We feel like the more language we have in there the less bids we are going to get and the higher they are going to be,” he said.

Harris suggested a contract that would allow the county to withhold a portion of any contracted company’s subsidy if there was unsatisfactory service or a contract violation.

Unicoi County commissioner and Ambulance Committee member Kenneth Garland said he felt a reliable ambulance service was the most important thing the commissioners could give to Unicoi County residents.

“We’re going to have to make a decision,” Garland said. “I’m for getting a piece of land and building a building for the ambulances, first thing.”

Garland said he would support borrowing money for the land if it was required and cautioned the committee to not wait for a grant they may not receive.

“We can’t sit around and wait for something we may not get,” Garland said. “A year passes by pretty fast.”

Wilcox said, with or without a building, he felt putting it back out for bid was the best option. He said he checked on Lifeguard ambulance service provider based out of Nashville and American Medical Response based out of Knoxville and received positive feedback on both companies.

“These are big established companies we should look into,” Wilcox said. “We need a vetting process to ensure we get something better this time around.”

Garland was concerned that placing the service back out for bid could land the county in the same position they are in currently with an unsatisfactory service.

“If you do your own service, you can bankrupt the county,” Wilcox responded.

Garland said he has never seen a contracted ambulance service perform well in Unicoi County during recent decades.

“MedicOne was a great service from 2010 to 2014, but it changed when their subsidy dropped from $180,000 a year to $132,000 a year,” said Loren Thomas, Unicoi County commissioner.

Garland said regardless of whether the county creates its own service or contracts it out, they should look for a centrally located piece of property to construct a building for the ambulances.

“I’m not against trying to find a good location and buying some property … property can be bought in a day or two,” Harris said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice also mentioned that already having a piece of property could be appealing to ambulance service providers, possibly requiring the county to pay a lower subsidy.

Harris recommended holding another Ambulance Committee Meeting before this month’s Unicoi County Commission meeting and said he would continue looking over the request for proposal with the county attorney.

The next meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will be on Friday, April 20, at 1 p.m. in the Unicoi County Courthouse.

Erwin Great Outdoor Festival returning May 5

By Kendal Groner

On Saturday, May 5, Erwin will once again celebrate its love for the natural world during the third annual Erwin Great Outdoors Festival. The event will take place in downtown Erwin, and from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m., participants can enjoy an array of outdoor themed activities, music and several vendors.

“RISE Erwin (community organization) wanted to find a way to bring more attention to Unicoi as an outdoor tourism destination. We thought with the Appalachian Trail and Nolichucky River, we have all these natural assets and we really wanted to promote that,” said Jamie Rice, RISE Erwin president and communications coordinator for the Town of Erwin.

Rice said they chose to host the festival on this particular weekend because a surge of hikers will be coming off of the Appalachian Trail as they make their way to Damascus, Virginia.

“It takes about 10 days to get from Erwin to Damascus and all of those hikers are trying to get to Trail Days, an event held in Damascus,” said Rice. “We really tried to plan some hiker-friendly things for them to do when they’re in town. That way when they leave Erwin they can have a great experience and spread the word as they go up the trail.”

Some of the festivities will include a kids’ zone, live animal demonstrations, food trucks, a craft beer tent, and several unique vendors.

“A lot of events in the kids’ zone have been sponsored by local businesses or organizations,” Rice said.

The Appalachian Christian Service Camp will be providing an archery course, North Ridge Community Church in Erwin is supplying a climbing wall, and the FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter at Unicoi County High School will have a petting zoo set up.

Children will also have the opportunity to do target practice with a pellet gun, fish in a catch and release trout pool, and have their faces painted.

“Bays Mountain is coming and they will be bringing a bunch of native live animals and doing show and tell demonstrations all day,” said Rice. “Kids can hold snakes and see the big birds of prey. All of our vendors have to be outdoor related or nature inspired. We have some people bringing plants to sell, Scott’s Strawberries will come, and even people who make jewelry from seeds … just really unique things that are nature inspired.”

Overmountain Trout Unlimited, the local Trout Unlimited chapter in the Tri-Cities, is showing the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at Capitol Cinemas starting at 2:30 p.m. the day of the festival. The nature film includes beautiful scenery and showcases people fishing all over the world.

“It (International Fly Fishing Film Festival) travels all over the world, and we’re so lucky that this Overmountain chapter here in our region wanted to come to the festival again and have the show here for the Tri-Cities,” Rice said. “They will also be giving away prizes. They are actually giving away two all expenses paid passes to send two Unicoi County girls ages 12-15 to trout camp in the Great Smoky Mountains for a week.”

Five musical performers will be playing at the festival, with the Ripple kicking off the music scene at 11 a.m, followed by Folk Soul Revival at 1 p.m., the Unicoi County High School Bluegrass Band at 3 p.m., Annabelle’s Curse at 4:30 p.m., and 49 Winchester at 6:30 p.m.

Rice said as if all of that wasn’t enough, the 2018 herd of baby elephant statues will also be making a debut during the festival as part of the Erwin Trunk Project.

“We want to get people outside and together as a community to become more healthy and see the natural beauty around us and take advantage of it,” she said. “We want people to get excited about being outside … whether it’s digging in your garden, hiking on one of the trails, fishing or whatever it may be.”

Roe shares legislative update during visit to Record office

Prior to stopping by The Erwin Record on April 3, Congressman Phil Roe was welcomed as the guest speaker at the Erwin Kiwanis Club’s weekly meeting at Erwin Town Hall. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Congressman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) stopped by The Erwin Record on April 3 to discuss his achievements as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and share his support for the Omnibus Spending Package that was signed into law the previous week.

Roe represents the First Congressional District of Tennessee which includes Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, Washington, Jefferson, and Sevier counties.

During the visit, he spoke about three pieces of legislation that became law in 2017: the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017; the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act; and the Harry G. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act.

The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, came about as a response to the 470,000 disability claims that have been backlogged, bringing the process to a “grinding halt” as Roe described it.

“It has taken years to get a lot of veterans’ claims adjudicated and evaluated,” Roe said. “If you have a disability claim it can take three, four, five … maybe even 10 years.”

The bill gives three lanes for a veteran to have their claim evaluated in a timely manner. Roe said there is a pilot program going on that has allowed many veterans to have their claims evaluated after having to wait for many years.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is based off of Roe’s VA Accountability First Act, and creates a streamlined and efficient process to remove, suspend, or demote a VA employee due to poor performance or misconduct.

Roe said along with expanding protections for whistleblowers, the law ensures due process for appealing disciplinary actions and prevents the VA from removing any employee with an open whistleblower case with the Office of Special Council.

What Roe described as potentially the most important bill he has passed since being in Congress, is the Harry G. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the Forever GI bill.

“The GI bill was written by Mr. Colmery after WWII; he sat down and wrote it by hand,” said Roe. “He is an American Legion and I thought we should name this bill, since he’s the one that wrote it, we should name it after him. He still has some family members living and they were very, very pleased we were able to do that.”

Roe said when he received the GI bill in 1975-1976, he was required to use the educational benefits the bill provided within 10 years or he lost them. The new post 9/11 GI bill gave veterans 15 years to utilize those benefits.

“After that it sunsetted,” explained Roe. “What this does is it allows you to use those benefits forever.”

Another change the bill made was affording post 9/11 Purple Heart recipients 100 percent eligibility while also providing more funding for reservists and guardsmen, dependents, surviving spouses and surviving dependents.

“Now if you get wounded in service for this country you get the GI bill, Roe said. “Student Veterans of America found that 52 percent of folks who are getting out of the military use that now  as opposed to 49 percent.”

Roe said another impressive statistic was that over 70 percent of those utilizing the GI bill are able to graduate on time.

“Not only is it a great benefit, but people are actually getting stuff out of it,” he said.

Other pieces of legislation that Roe continues to work on include the Choice Program and the Department of Veterans Affairs Family Caregiver Program.

The Choice Program allows veterans to seek non-VA care if they are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days, or if they live over 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

“We know the VA can’t provide all of the medical services that our veterans need,” Roe said. “About 36 percent of all healthcare that the VA provides is non-VA care. There are seven ways that occurs and we are going to consolidate that into one way so it’s clear how a veteran can go outside of the VA to get healthcare.”

The Caregiver Program will expand the caregiver benefits for pre- and post-9/11 veterans who are disabled.

“Let’s say the spouse stays home to take care of them, then how are they going to live?” questioned Roe. “Disability benefits that the veteran would have, that’s not enough to keep them where they need to be, especially if they have children. We also provided caregiver benefits for them.”

Lastly, Roe is working on a strategic review of VA assets that will create an unbiased, non-partisan panel to examine Veterans Health Administration assets.

“I’ll give you an example of why the VA has to change,” Roe told The Erwin Record. “Hospitalization peaked in American in 1981, we had the most people we have ever had admitted per capita. Population has grown 40 percent since then and we have 10 percent less people in a hospital as we did then.”

Roe said the decline in hospitalizations was from the growing number of outpatient treatments, but also added that there has been a loss of about 1,500 hospitals for issues such as short staffing and inability to provide services.

“VA is going to have to get right sized, and they’re beginning to do it,” he said.

He also mentioned the implementation of an $18 billion electronic health system, what he said will be the largest implementation of any electronic health system in the world.

“I want to stick around and try to help them get that going,” Roe said.

• • •

Roe also spoke on his support for the Omnibus Spending Package, which he said earned his support because of lowered tax rates, increased military spending and diversion of funds to address the opioid crisis.

“It lowered the tax rate for everyone … in the First Congressional District, the reason it’s important, 30 percent of the people make less than $25,000 a year,” said Roe. “We reduced the lowest tax rate from 10 percent to zero, but every single person got a tax cut with this.”

It also increased the standard deduction to $24,000, and Roe said these things were done to help boost the income of middle income people.

“On the corporate side, we had the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world,” he said. “We dropped the rate from 35 to 21 percent, and the average in the world is 22 percent. It makes us competitive in the world.”

Roe said the bill also allows someone to capital expense in year one, any investment that is made, and encourages overall economic growth. Along with repatriation of money overseas, which Roe said has allowed companies to bring billions of dollars back to the U.S. economy, the bill offers $4 billion to tackle the opioid epidemic.

“We realize you can’t arrest and incarcerate your way out of it,” Roe said about the opioid epidemic.

In 2016 alone, there were a total of 16,031 opioid related deaths in Tennessee according to Roe. 

“We’ve got to use education – starting in elementary schools – about the dangers of these drugs,” he said. “If you’re treated more than five days with opioids, at least for the data of Tennessee, 10 percent will still be on some opioid a year later. If you get two prescriptions filled, you have a 30 percent chance of still being on opiods a year later.”

The $4 billion in funding will come as grants to the state and Roe said that already in this area there has been talk of an inpatient treatment facility. He said expanding treatment options will be a key component in addressing the epidemic.

The Omnibus Spending Package will also increase military spending by $70 billion dollars, which Roe says is still 20 percent less that what was spent in 2008.

“I wish we didn’t have to spend a nickel on it, but it’s a dangerous world and we have underfunded our military drastically in the last seven or eight years,” said Roe. “This will help get us back up to where we need to be.”

In 2017, Roe said for those on active military duty, four times the amount were killed in training accidents as opposed to actual combat.

“Our equipment is old and worn out, and we have to refurbish that,” he said.

Roe also spoke on President Trump’s attempt to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program instituted by an executive order from President Barack Obama that protects children brought to the U.S. illegally. 

“We are going to get that done,” said Roe. “I think there are people who want to get DACA done, me being one of them, and there are people who don’t want to get DACA done for political reasons.”

Roe said he believes it will be corrected to three things: more funding for the border wall; ending chain migration; and stopping the VISA lottery.

“That makes no sense to have 55,000 people, and you just draw their name out of a hat and they get to come to the country … I think you need to have some merit basis to come here,” Roe said about the VISA lottery. “There is no other country in the world that allows even the number of legal immigration we do in this country.”

He said 40 percent of people who are residing in America illegally originally came on some sort of VISA, such as a student or work VISA.

“We are going to vote on a bill in the House pretty soon,” Roe said about potential immigration reform.

Improvements to Fishery Park top Erwin BMA’s wish list

The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen sat down on March 23 and March 24 to discuss strategic plans for this year. One of the town’s main focuses will be on the revitalization of Fishery Park. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

On March 23 and 24, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen held its yearly strategic planning work session where they discussed potential plans and projects for this year, many of which focus on strengthening communications and improving the aesthetics of the town.

“Once we get into our budget workshop, we’ll see what we can afford to do this year and what we can do in phases, as well as what needs to be put on a 10-year plan,” said Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley. “The thing that took the most time in our discussion was revitalizing Fishery Park, there’s so much maintenance that needs to be done on the park.”

Hensley said the project could become very expensive, and they are looking into repurposing some of the areas at the park, which was originally constructed in the 1980s. Since it was built, the town has been doing what Hensley described as “patchwork” at the park; however, those have become recurring costs almost each season.

Any repurposing or renovations that are done at Fishery Park will focus on the tennis courts, men’s baseball fields, women’s softball fields, and drainage problems the park has been having. 

“We thought it would be best if we just take a look at it and kind of redid the whole thing to make it more usable long term,” Hensley said. “At the end of our discussion we decided we would hire an engineer to do a study of Fishery Park and then make a recommendation of what is best.”

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen is gathering information on cost estimates to complete the work at Fishery Park.

• • •

There was also discussion about starting a Vacant Building Enforcement Program to address problems with dilapidated buildings in downtown Erwin. A fee would be attached to any building left vacant for over a year.

“In looking at the dilapidated areas too, we kind of expanded into the residential areas and we are getting an inventory of those areas that have become dilapidated and need some attention,” said Hensley. “There’s not many in Erwin because our taxpayers really take care of their property and take pride in it, but there’s just a few homes that have set empty for several years and need some attention.”

She said once they get an inventory of those locations, they will get a price estimate of what it will take to clean up those areas.

To continue improving the aesthetics downtown, Hensley said they want to maintain the landscaping work they have done at the Erwin exits.

“We proposed to contract with a landscape company to handle our landscaping,” she said. “Instead of using our street department personnel to do all of the landscaping work, we thought it would be better just to contract that out.”

Another potential project to improve the aesthetics of the downtown area is the installation of a bike trail with a trailhead inside the Town of Erwin.

“There’s been a lot of requests for a bike trail, and I know biking is really popular in this area,” said Hensley.

The board is currently compiling request for proposal quotes from contractors in order to complete a sidewalk program that will fill in empty segments and extend them into residential areas.

“This is something I think we can give back to the property owners, and hopefully once we get them in shape and in good repair they will be able to maintain them,” said Hensley.

• • •

In order to encourage more communication with taxpayers, Hensley said town officials are looking to start a quarterly newsletter along with publishing a monthly newspaper article highlighting activities and work being done in the town.

“That’s something we felt was important,” Hensley said.

The Town of Erwin is also looking to hire Jamie Rice, president of the young professional group RISE Erwin, as a full-time communications director.

“We will probably give her a new title once she goes full time because she has a lot to do,” Hensley said. “We also went over her budget and some of her goals for the year.”

In addition to developing a marketing plan for the town, some of Rice’s goals for the year include becoming a Main Street Community, developing a new website for the town, growing the farmers market, recruiting a new business downtown, and having more hiker friendly features such as signage and shuttle services.

Encouraging involvement from the youth in the area is another important initiative for Hensley, and she says she would like to meet with the student council at the Unicoi County High School on a quarterly basis.

“I would like to familiarize them with local government and also get them excited about doing events and projects inside the town,” she said.

Other items of importance the Town of Erwin will focus on this year include updating the personnel handbook and health care plans, resurfacing Harris Hollow Road and Temple Hill Road, and working to implement parts of a retail strategic plan, a tourism strategic plan, and a comprehensive land use plan.

Some of the town’s immediate needs include a new fire truck, police cars, and new trucks for the street department.

Entrepreneurs describe Mountain Harvest Kitchen as ‘great’ resource, facility

Users of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen are pictured participating in a Culinary Knife Skills Workshop class. Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, said workshop seats are limited and have been filling up quickly. New classes are continually being offered at Mountain Harvest Kitchen, and anyone interested in taking a class can pre-register online or by calling the kitchen. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Since it opened in August 2017, along with regularly hosting classes and assisting businesses that are already established, the Mountain Harvest Kitchen has facilitated the development of four new food businesses in the area.

Lee Manning, director of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, said that when individuals looking to start a food business visit the kitchen, they typically start with an initial consultation and orientation that provides an overview of the equipment, processing capacity, and services the kitchen provides. Some of the amenities that the certified commercial kitchen provides include two food processing areas, a research and development lab, a receiving area, a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, dry storage and office space.

“A lot of the times I am working with people in the idea phase and they really want to know what’s here, and a lot of that conversation is focused on the regulatory requirements to get started such as business and food product licensing,” Manning said.

The consultations Manning has with clients of the kitchen include everything from developing business plans, sourcing materials and equipment, and sometimes even finding a business location.

“It really depends on the client and where they are in their business growth,” she said. “We let the client drive the conversation based on their needs.”

Nathan Brand, chef and owner of Orchard Mason, a small restaurant in Downtown Johnson City, was able to open the doors to his business in early November after utilizing the kitchen.

“It’s been pretty wonderful and a great resource,” Brand said about the kitchen. “We cooked off a lot of large pieces of meat for larger events and things like that. We have also been able to teach classes there.”

Brand, along with his business partner Kevin Masters, taught a food and beer pairing class at Mountain Harvest Kitchen, which Brand described as an exciting, hands-on class that allowed him to connect with people in the area, some of whom would become his customers.

“That really helped us get going,” Brand said. “Some of those people that came to the classes are our biggest fans, and it really helped us to launch our business and get our name out there.”

Originally from Athens, Georgia, Brand has cooked for well-known chefs such as Hugh Acheson and Peter Deale. Brand first met Manning and her husband, who are originally from Athens as well, before Mountain Harvest Kitchen was opened.

“We really hit it off, and I followed the progress of the kitchen,” said Brand. “Lee and I became friends and I got the pleasure of working with her. She is such a great leader for that space.”

Brand described the marketing assistance he received from Mountain Harvest Kitchen for the Orchard Mason as invaluable, and he said that it provided him with a platform to get his name out into the community.

“It’s always been a dream,” Brand said about opening his own restaurant. “It’s really the most practical path for a chef unless you can find a really high paying job as a head chef. Creatively, it’s also a really exciting project to start your own restaurant.”

For Manning, assisting new businesses such as Brand’s to prosper and develop is an exciting journey.

“The goal is not to have them working here permanently, but to get them to a place in their business where they can be financially stable in their own place,” Manning said.

With everything served on vintage china, The Orchard Mason serves breakfast and lunch with menu items comprised of local, artisan ingredients.

Offering vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, Brand says some of their most popular items are avocado toast on local artisanal sourdough bread and the Tennessee lunch that includes two cheeses and 100 percent beef salami from Greenback, Tennessee.

“We focus on showcasing the best that East Tennessee has to offer,” he said. “There are so many special products we have that you can’t buy anywhere else. As someone new to the area it’s a thrilling experience to hunt down those products and serve them with my own hands, it’s very rewarding.”

Along with a master’s degree in food science and food safety, Manning has worked in food manufacturing, quality assurance, a flavor lab, and with companies of various sizes. Her diverse background in the food industry allows her to assist a wide range of clients, with many having different end goals for their time spent at the kitchen.

“Everyone has a different goal,” said Manning. “Some people have a sellable manufacturing business, but others may want more of a homesteading farming adventure.”

With the help of Mountain Harvest Kitchen, Maren Close, who has seven years of baking experience, was able to start Lazy Lady, a bakery that specializes in pastries and breads made from scratch with local, organic ingredients.

After completing a baking and pastry program at A-B Tech, Close traveled to San Francisco to expand her culinary knowledge and experiment with pastry making before she returned to Johnson City to start her business.

“I come from a long line of bakers and cooks, so moving back to Johnson City to start my baker is following my roots, as my mom would say,” Close said.

Close currently sells her products at the ETSU Farmers Market and Jonesborough Farmers Market, with aspirations to open a retail location this fall.

Since she began utilizing the kitchen, Close says it has been a great resource where she was able to take the first step in starting her business by baking all of her products there.

“It’s a great facility with a lot of space for businesses that need space to work out of, but don’t have their own commercial kitchens,” she said. “It’s given me the opportunity to work on new products and do recipe development. Lee (Manning) also has a lot of connections to people that want to support small businesses in the area.”

Some of the products Close has already begun selling include scones, banana bread, cookies, galettes and hand pies. However, she ultimately wants to sell a wider assortment of things such as specialty cakes, pies, muffins, morning buns, croissants, and several bread varieties.

“The equipment at Mountain Harvest Kitchen is great, and it gave me access to better equipment that isn’t offered anywhere else unless you have outfitted your own kitchen,” she said. “As a baker, they have several different overs: a double decker convection oven, combi steam oven, a great Bakers Pride pizza bread oven, and a separate prep room with specific equipment for doing pastries and baked goods.”

Manning said the kitchen can be a great stepping stone for those looking to start their own food businesses, but it has also benefited already established businesses by providing a large working space and offering educational classes.

“It’s really exciting and I think a lot of times people don’t really know what it takes to be in the food business,” Manning said. “We want to paint a realistic picture of what the food service industry is like and I think that’s the best service we can give people.”

• • •

Upcoming classes at the Mountain Harvest Kitchen include a Dining with Diabetes class on April 10 and 17; a Fresh Plate-Savor the Flavor class on April 17; a Foraged Foods of Spring class on April 28; a Make Your Own Strawberry Jam class on May 8; and a Fresh-Plate Seasonal Salads Class on May 22.

The Fresh-Plate Seasonal Salad and Fresh-Plate Savor the Flavor classes will both be offered for free and lead by the University of Tennessee Extension.

Legislators share updates, plans during annual breakfast

Unicoi County citizens and officials received an update from the officials representing them in Nashville and in Washington, D.C., during the annual Legislative Breakfast held on Friday, March 23, at Erwin Town Hall. Pictured, from left, State Rep. John Holsclaw, State Sen. Rusty Crowe, Lana Moore, a field representative for Sen. Lamar Alexander, and Bill Darden, a field representative for Congressman Phil Roe. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Community members and stakeholders filled Erwin Town Hall for the annual Legislative Breakfast held on Friday, March 23.

Legislative remarks were heard from State Senator Rusty Crowe, State Representative John Holsclaw, and field representatives from the offices of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and U.S. Congressman Phil Roe. The remarks were followed by a question and answer session.

The representatives discussed highlights of the work they accomplished in 2017 along with new legislation and issues they are working on with the federal government.

Bill Darden, field representative for the office of Rep. Phil Roe was the first to speak, and began by discussing the work Roe has done as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“You hear time and time again that nothing is getting done in Washington D.C.,” Darden said. “That’s not the case with Roe.”

Darden mentioned the Accountability Act that Roe signed into law in 2017, that allows for the  termination of inefficient or incompetent Veterans Affairs employees. It provides a more streamlined process for removing employees due to poor performance or misconduct.

Next, Darden discussed the Forever GI Bill and the Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, two other bills Rep. Roe has recently worked on. The Forever GI Bill, enacted in 2017, allows veterans to choose how and when they utilize their education benefits.

Darden said the GI Bill has been “changed significantly” and said that previously there were many times where veterans could not access their education benefits after 20 years.

“People can now access it forever,” he said.

The Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, or the Choice Act, took effect in 2014, although Darden says Rep. Roe continues to work on it.  The Choice Act allows veterans to seek non-VA medical care if they are unable to secure an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days, or they live over 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility.

“It’s not perfect, but the congressman continues to tweak it so veterans can get care,” said Darden.

According to Darden, Rep. Roe has also been “front and center” with President Donald Trump’s agenda on tax reform and protection of the nation’s border.

•••

Next, attendees of the breakfast heard from Lana Moore, field representative for Sen. Alexander.

Moore again touched on the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which included a provision to repeal the Affordable Care Act requirements and lowered individual and corporate tax rates. She said this was the first time in decades to have major tax reform legislation.

Sen. Alexander has also been very active as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Moore said 13 bills have come out of the committee that are now public law. The committee has been responsible for confirming presidential nominees and has held 32 oversight hearings.

Moving forward this year, Sen. Alexander has plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which would streamline student loans. There has also been discussion about simplifying the FASFA form, which is a requirement for all college students seeking any type of financial aid.

“It can be cumbersome,” said Moore. “It can really become a deterrent.”

Moore said there has been bipartisan consensus about the FASFA form and said progress is being made to simplify it.

The opioid epidemic is also a key focal point for Sen. Alexander in 2018, and along with diverting health resources to address the health crisis, he held the sixth hearing on the opioid crisis where attending governors testified about what measures they have found to be successful or unsuccessful.

“Most people would agree the federal government isn’t going to solve the problem,” said Moore. “Most of the answers are going to come from the local communities.”

This year, Sen. Alexander introduced the National Parks Restoration Act along with the Music Modernization Act. The National Parks Restoration Act is intended to address the $11.6 billion in National Park Service maintenance backlog. Using revenues from energy production, the act will help rebuild waterways, trails, campground, roads, and buildings in parks across the nation. The Music Modernization Act will allow songwriters and producers to see greater payouts from their works.

“It’s long overdue,” Moore said. “It will revolutionize the way songwriters are paid.”

•••

State Sen. Crowe began by saying he is primarily focused on lower taxes, less government intrusion, more personal responsibility, and faith and family.

“If you just approach all of the issues in that way … it works,” Sen. Crowe said.

He reported that Tennessee has the lowest taxes in the nation as percent of personal income, and said that along with food taxes being reduced 30 percent, the Hall Income Tax is being phased out.

Manufacturing taxes have been cut and there are no longer insurance and gift taxes. Sen. Crowe said the state government has been shrunk by 10 percent, and there has been a balanced budget the last two years with no debt.

“Tennessee is in great shape,” Sen. Crowe said. “We’re still saving dollars. We have the largest Rainy Day Fund we’ve had.”

Locally, Sen. Crowe said Rocky Fork State Park is on track for completion and he expects it to be an amazing attraction once it is finished.

He said the Tennessee Department of Transportation met March 1 to ensure there were no environmental problems with the road systems. The design for the new visitor’s center at the park is also underway.

“We’re about two years away from being actually finished,” Sen. Crowe said.

A total of $475,000 is still needed to finish the water lines in the area, but with help from grant funding, Sen. Crowe says it will all be accomplished.

Sen. Crowe said he was “so pleased” the Town of Erwin received an additional $500,000 to render the former Morgan Insulation Property site ready for a new investor.

On the topic of the ambulance services in Unicoi County, Sen. Crowe said he is hopeful that plans will come to fruition to establish the county’s own ambulance department, and took note of the Community Development Block Grant the Town of Erwin was awarded to purchase new ambulances.

“That’s a very unusual grant to be given for those sorts of things,” he said. “I’m really proud of the city and county getting together to try and work that out.”

The merger deal between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health Systems, now known as Ballad Health, is generating close to $400 million dollars that is going back into the community according to Sen. Crowe.

The new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital is now only five months away from substantial completion.

“Knowing the corporate staff that’s working on this, I know they’re going to try and keep as much of the specialty and physician staff as they can,” Sen. Rowe said.

Lastly, Sen. Crowe mentioned two bills he sponsored pertaining to the confidentiality of open records. The first of the two bills was related to Ballad Health, whose records have been closely monitored by the state since the two health care systems merged.

“What we had to do is close some of the records as they are now,” Sen. Crowe said. “When this information goes to the state, it all becomes open record again. To keep Ballad Health on an even playing field, we have to maintain that proprietary information is confidential.”

The other bill protects the proprietary, trade secret, and marketing information of the clients of business incubator services such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Unicoi.

Sen. Crowe concluded his remarks by stating that the issue of medical marijuana, preventing and preparing for active shooter situations, and the opioid epidemic remain tough issues for the state.

•••

Rep. Holsclaw began by remarking that one of his main goals was to increase voter turnout in Tennessee, which currently has the lowest voter turnout in the nation.

He said he was honored to serve as chairman of the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee. Rep. Holsclaw said the Subcommittee was efficient and conservative.

“Tennessee has the lowest debt of any state in the nation,” said Rep. Holsclaw.

He reported that Tennessee’s unemployment rate has remained low, and is currently around 3.4 percent.

“You have to hide if you don’t want a job,” Rep. Holsclaw said.

The Broadband Accessibility Act that passed in 2017 was sponsored by Rep. Holsclaw and has the purpose of increasing broadband accessibility and services.

He also reported that Governor Bill Haslam recently proposed an additional $30 million to improve school safety across the state.

“We have to do something to protect our vital resource and our future, which are our kids,” Rep. Holsclaw stated.

On the topic of healthcare and the opioid crisis, Holsclaw said electronic monitoring is being utilized to regulate opioid prescriptions, and there has been a push in attempts to close pill mills.

He also reported that the Tennessee House of Representatives approved a bill for Tenncare recipients who are able bodied to now have work requirements.

•••

Following the remarks of the representatives, event attendees were encouraged to participate in a question and answer session facilitated by Trent White, a Unicoi County High School student.

Concerns were raised by local citizens concerning Tennessee’s marriage law, the gas tax, cell phone usage while driving, and medical marijuana.

Sen. Crowe said there was an issue with a loophole in Tennessee’s marriage law that allowed judges to grant marriage certificates without a legal age limit. Sen. Crowe said he felt there should be a requirement for parental involvement if those requesting marriage are under 18. He said they are currently trying to amend the bill to require a minor to be at least 17 and have an affidavit of parental consent and display maturity along with self sufficiency before being granted a marriage certificate.

The money from the gas tax, which was increased four cents in 2017, is going to cover road work and bridges. Sen. Cowe said the Unicoi County Highway Department could begin receiving as much as three times what they have been in state funding.

One local citizen was concerned about the dangers of cellphone usage while driving. Although texting and driving is illegal, Rep. Holsclaw said the topic is a “hot button” for him and he is currently looking at a bill that would allow law enforcement to issue fines for general cell phone usage while driving.

“Unlike drunk driving, everyone has a phone … the statistics are alarming,” Rep. Holsclaw remarked about cell phone use while driving.

Sen. Crowe said the medical marijuana issue has been a difficult topic for him. He said after sending letters to agencies such as law enforcement, correctional facilities and substance abuse clinics, he has been advised to not support medical marijuana. However, he says the comments and concerns he has received from individual citizens pleading for medical marijuana have been authentic and heartfelt.

The Tennessee bill for medical marijuana has currently been amended to decriminalize use for those with one of the 15 qualifying conditions. The medical marijuana would not be permitted to be smoked, but would be allowed in forms such as patches, ointments, or tinctures if it was recommended by a physician.

Rep. Holsclaw said he felt people can often fail to differentiate the difference between legalizing recreational versus medical marijuana, and emphasized that the bill would only decriminalize marijuana for medical use.

“Federally, it’s still a schedule one drug,” said Sen. Crowe

Holsclaw said he intends to vote on any medical marijuana bills according to what the expressed interests of his constituents are.

The legislative breakfast has been held in Unicoi County for over three decades and was sponsored by Ballad Health and Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

Unicoi County Commission rejects move to central accounting

Commissioner Glenn White, second from right, discusses his opposition to the proposed move to a central accounting system during the March 26 meeting of the Unicoi County Commission. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Kendal Groner

In its Monday, March 26, meeting, the Unicoi County Commission failed to pass a resolution adopting the County Budgeting Law of 1957, which would have created a centralized system of accounting.

Unicoi County operates under general accounting laws, with various county departments performing their own accounting and financial management duties. The Budgeting Law of 1957 entails three separate acts that includes the Unicoi County Highway Department and county offices and brings them under one financial management system. The 1957 acts call for the creation of a finance committee, established purchasing laws and purchasing agent, and a budget and finance director.

Last month, County Commissioner Glenn White said he had favored adopting the County Budgeting Law of 1957 to improve efficiency, but has since had a change of opinion.

“I think it’s a want not a need,” White said. “I believe it is an extension of government that will cost the county $100,000.”

White was referencing the undetermined cost to hire a finance director, and also stated that he felt the county should be focused on addressing the ambulance issue before diverting funds elsewhere.

“I don’t like that if you get into it, you can’t get out of it,” said White. “We’re not giving the next group of commissioners a chance.”

Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes was concerned with the timeliness of having to go through a purchasing agent to make emergency purchases for equipment that isn’t functioning properly.

“I’d like to see a little more research done … but whatever (the commission) decides, I’ll go with,” Haynes said.

According to Rick Hall, county government consultant with County Technical Advisory Services (CTAS), a provision could be included in the purchasing policy to allow for emergency purchases.

County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice felt that making the move to central accounting could improve efficiency, and also noted that very few counties still operate under general accounting laws.

“Most of the other surrounding counties either have the 1957 act or a finance director,” she said.

The amount of time spent on the budget was mentioned by County Commissioner Bridget Peters; however, she said she felt uneasy approving anything that the officeholders were not on board with.

“There’s pros and cons to everything,” she said. “But I’m interested in the officeholders’ comments … I hate to adopt something you all don’t feel comfortable with.”

Mitzi Bowen, Unicoi County clerk, agreed with White by voicing her opinion that the county’s top priority should be addressing the issue of inadequate ambulance services.

“The biggest thing I see, if we had a finance director, this process with the ambulance service would be easier,” said Rice. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said he favored the 1957 acts because he felt it would remove politics from the budgetary process.

“Government is politics,” White replied.

Garland added that he felt the commission needed oversight with their spending and felt that money had been “thrown away.”

“I think we’ve done a good job and the county mayor is doing a good job,” White said. “We’ve brought the fund balance from $60,000 to over $1,000,000 this year.”

Rice mentioned that it could make the transition period easier for any new commissioners from the upcoming election if there were a finance director in place.

“I don’t want to box them in though,” White said.

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said that if they continue under the general accounting laws, the mayor’s office will need at least one additional employee to manage the workload.

“Are you all ready to do that, because it’s coming,” Lynch asked.

Garland made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Todd Wilcox to approve the resolution for the Budgeting Law of 1957. The motion failed with commissioners Loren Thomas, John Mosely, Glenn White, Bridget Peters, and Gene Wilson voting in opposition. Commissioners Jason Harris, Todd Wilcox, Kenneth Garland, and Marie Rice voted in favor of the resolution.

Peters made a motion to table discussion and voting on adopting the Purchasing Law of 1957 and the County Fiscal Procedure Law of 1957, the corresponding acts to the Budgeting Law of 1957. The motion passed, with only Thomas, Mosely, and White voting in opposition.

• • •

Also during Monday’s meeting, Unicoi County resident and mayoral candidate Johnny Day addressed the panel with information on the ambulance issue that has been a pivotal concern for the county in recent weeks.

“I want to say up front that I don’t have any financial interest with any ambulance services,” Day said.

He shared his findings after looking for the best ambulance services in the nation that might be willing to provide services to Unicoi County. He spoke with several associations, once of which was the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and looked at their list of nationally accredited providers.

He spoke with Jessie Wallace, county executive for Humphrey County in Waverly Tennessee, who has conducted extensive background over the years on ambulance service providers.

Day said he came across the ambulance service provider known as Lifeguard Ambulance Service which is stationed in Birmingham.

“They are very interested in providing services here,” Day said. “They have offices all over the place, one is in Knoxville. They have three people that would love to come and talk to you folks.”

Lifeguard provides services to Lamar and Forest counties in Mississippi and Day said that those two counties are ecstatic over their services.

“Response times are excellent they say,” said Day. “I don’t think it’s costing us anything to have their high-level folks come and sit down with you … estimates on running our own service are low.”

Rice said they believed Lifeguard was going to bid the last time the county accepted bids for ambulance service providers; however, when it came time to place a bid they failed to do so.

“I don’t know what changed, but they are excited to come up,” said Day.

Rice said they can discuss the option in upcoming Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meetings which are open to the public.

• • •

Erwin resident Charlotte Banner approached the commission regarding excessive speeding taking place in the Martin’s Creek community where she is a resident.

“We’ve got a petition up and we would like to have some speed bumps put up there,” Banner said.

Banner said speeding has increased since a garage opened in the area that is run by several young boys.

“They disregard the speed limit,” she said.

Banner said the speeding has been excessive, and law enforcement has been called multiple times; however, it has been difficult to catch the speeders in the act.

“Somebody’s going to get hurt … I implore you to do anything you can to help the situation,” she said.

Both Wilson and Thomas attested to the fact that there is excessive speeding taking place that poses a danger to the county.

Haynes said that speed bumps were an option as long as they were state regulated. He said he would contact the state traffic control office and look into the matter.

• • •

In other business:

Mayor Lynch recognized Public Health Week with a proclamation. Public Health Week begins the first of April, and the theme for this year is “healthiest nation 2030, changing our future together.”

The board adopted a resolution to request unclaimed balance of accounts remitted to the state under the Unclaimed Property Acts.

The board adopted a resolution to require County Board of Equalization members and it’s county board hearing officers to complete annual continuing education.

The board adopted a resolution to support state legislation repealing the provision that reduces the commission retained by the county register of deeds.

Board of Education honors teachers

Three Unicoi County educators, from left, Leslie Franks, Alexa Renfro and Lori Ann Wright, were chosen as the Teachers of the Year for their respective grade levels. All three were recognized by the Unicoi County Board of Education last week. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Kendal Groner

The hard work and dedication of three Unicoi County educators was recognized with system teachers of the year awards during the Tuesday, March 20, meeting of the Unicoi County Board of Education.

Awards were presented to Leslie Franks of Love Chapel Elementary School, Alexa Renfro of Unicoi County Middle School, and Lori Ann Wright of Unicoi County High School.

“These folks are changing lives every single day,” said John English, director of schools. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

Leslie Franks has seven years of teaching experience, and is currently a district math collaborative leader, a cheerleading coach at the middle school, and has played a large role in developing the house system at Unicoi County Middle School.

The house system has proven to foster personal and community development. Franks uses formative assessment information to plan structural next steps and to ensure all students are progressing appropriately.

“Goal setting is a big deal for Mrs. Franks … she really pushes the students to go further than they think they can,” English said.

Alexa Renfro has four years of teaching experience and serves as the district level teacher leader on her school leadership team. She is a collaborative facilitator for middle grades and a member of the aspiring principal academy cohort between Unicoi County and Carter County. She is currently working to establish a mentorship program in the middle school to combat absenteeism, establish social supports, and aid academic growth.

“She has really made a big impact in a short amount of time,” said English.

Lori Ann Wright has accumulated 15 years of experience as an educator and is a SCORE TN teacher educator fellow and a mentor teacher to Milligan College. She is the chair of the Fine Arts Department and founding sponsor for the UCHS bluegrass band. She served as vice president of the Unicoi County Education External Teacher Education Council and fostered the development of the mock trial team at the high school. She was the recipient of the 2012 teacher of the year award and has been featured in Teach Magazine.

“The impact you have made … it continues way beyond when the students leave the classroom,” English said.

•••

The school board also recognized Alexis Harvey, recipient of the highly esteemed Niswonger scholarship, and the UCHS Bluegrass Band for their recent achievements.

Some of Harvey’s achievements include serving as section leader for the UCHS marching band, homeroom representative, a member of the National Honor Society, the book club, and the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) club. She is also a member of the track and field team, the Christian Student Union, and volunteered with Operation Christmas Child and Relay For Life. Harvey will be attending Tennessee Technical Institute for Electrical Engineering.

“I’m just very, very excited,” Harvey said. “I am so blessed to have received this. I’m excited to come back. … I love this community and I hope to continue representing Erwin well.”

The UCHS Bluegrass Band was able to attend the Danny Stewart Bluegrass Cruise in January. The band was able to raise $8,000 in less than two and a half months to cover the expenses of the trip.

The band had over 40 performances for the year and has played at the local farmer’s market, Unicoi County Relay For Life, several local venues, and the Feed and Seed in North Carolina.

You can visit the Unicoi County Bluegrass Band Facebook page to see videos of their recent performances.

•••

The Unicoi County Board of Education also unanimously voted to accept a bid in the amount of $196,100 from Morristown roofing to complete the second phase of the roofing project for the high school.

TDHA down payment assistance program still available

Ralph Perry, executive director of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, stopped by the Erwin Record Office to discuss a Down Payment Assistance Program available to some Unicoi County residents. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

One of the primary roles of the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA) is supporting financing opportunities for first time homebuyers of a low to moderate income status.

The THDA wants to remind interested homebuyers of an ongoing Hardest Hit Fund Down Payment Assistance Program that provides eligible borrowers purchasing homes within specific zip codes a $15,000 forgivable loan to put towards down payments and closing costs.

“This is the time people think about buying homes, and we thought this was a good time to remind people that this is still available,” said Ralph Perry, executive director of the THDA. “It should be available for much of this year, certainly during the homebuying season.”

Tennessee’s share of the Hardest Hit Fund was $80 million, and targets areas that are recovering more slowly from the last economic downturn.

Originally, when the Down payment Assistance Program began last year, 55 zip codes in Tennessee were approved for the program, but last October the THDA was permitted to include seven more.

“We are the only state that they let us target at the zip code level,” Perry said. “Last fall we got permission to add most of Unicoi County, the zip code that covers Erwin in particular.”

The local zip codes eligible for the program are 37660 in Sullivan County, and 37650 in Unicoi County. Forgiveness for the $15,000 loan begins in the sixth year of home ownership.

“If you stay in that home and with that mortgage for 10 years, you’ll never have to pay back a penny of that $15,000,” explained Perry. “Starting in the sixth year, we basically forgive 20 percent of it a year. This is not an incentive for someone to come in and buy a house, flip it and sell it next year.”

Perry mentioned the benefits of encouraging more homebuyers and stakeholders such as more civic engagement and money fueled back into the local economy.

Thus far, the THDA has been very pleased with how the program has been received, and Perry stated that the program has resulted in an enormous increase in mortgage production for the agency.

He said for 2017, mortgage production was 44 percent better than the previous year, and much of that improvement was attributed to their ability to offer the downpayment assistance.

“For example in Sullivan County, we did four times the amount of business in 2017,” Perry said.

In order to qualify for the Down Payment Assistance Program, a pre-purchase and post-purchase homebuyer education course must be completed. 

“We have found that people really appreciate the financial information,” Perry said. “It really helps prepare them for what they are going to go through in buying a home.”

Citing an academic study, Perry said homebuyers who participate in a homebuyer education program are 40 percent less likely to encounter financial difficulty such as delinquency or default.

“This is stuff most of us don’t learn in school,” he said. “It’s helpful information that really prepares you. We have it set up to where you can actually take most of it online and at your own pace. We have excellent counseling agents in the area, and once you go through the counseling it’s good for one year.”

Perry said he encourages any new homebuyer to participate in a homebuyers education program to help avoid any potential hiccups throughout the purchasing process.

Even if someone doesn’t qualify for the Down Payment Assistance Program, THDA still offers a Great Choice Home Loan with a competitive rate on a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage in addition to assisting with downpayment and closing costs. Those who qualify for a Great Choice Home Loan, can also apply for a Great Choice Plus second loan that provides up to five percent of the purchasing price.

“Even if you’re not in one of those zip codes, we can still help you with an amount equal to five percent of the purchasing price,” Perry informed. “So if someone is buying a $150,000 home, that’s $7,500 we can help you with on down payment and closing costs.”

For most families, Perry says it’s the closing costs and down payment that present the biggest financial obstacles. He said oftentimes homebuyers have good credit and they are bringing in enough income to cover their mortgage, but they underestimate the closing costs.

“They’re surprised to learn that there could be $3,000 to $5,000 in closing costs,” he said.

For Unicoi County, a family of two making up to $68,760, or a family of three or more making up to $80,220 qualify for the Great Choice Price Second Loan worth up to five percent of their purchase price.

“We run so many programs that help lower income folks that a lot of times that surprises a lot of people,” said Perry. “That can reach a lot of families. … It makes it that much easier for them to buy a home.”

For more information on the Down Payment Assistance Program, or any other programs provided by the THDA, please visit their website at www.thda.org.

Motion to establish interlocal agreement for ambulance services fails to pass Erwin BMA

By Kendal Groner

Despite recent attempts to determine a solution to the county’s reported unsatisfactory ambulance services provided by MedicOne, the future of the county’s ambulance services still remain uncertain.

“We have been discussing this for some time,” said Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley. “We actually started discussion on this before I retired as city recorder in the late 1990s.”

During the Monday, March 12, Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, a motion failed that would have approved the Town of Erwin to create a new Ambulance Service Department, forming an interlocal agreement among the three municipalities.

After the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met last week, they agreed to recommend to the Unicoi County Commission to provide $138,253 in funding for creation of a new ambulance service as proposed by the Town of Erwin.

The creation of the ambulance service had projected costs of $1,233,807. A total of $440,000 from a Community Development Block Grant, and $250,000 from the Hospital Foundation for the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance was available to fund the service.

Originally, revenues were projected at $885,120, with the Town of Erwin matching $115,000, and the municipalities splitting the rest of the costs. Based on population, Unicoi County would have been responsible for $138,253, the Town of Erwin would be responsible for $47,651, and the Town of Unicoi would be responsible for $27,779.

However, after collecting data on the number of ambulance calls over the last few years, Mayor Hensley projected revenues to run closer to $1,184,00, and added that the Hospital Foundation was willing to provide an additional $150,000 that could be paid back over a period of time.

“Over the past five years, it has averaged 3,700 calls a year,” Hensley said.

With 25 percent of ambulance calls being no pay calls, the other 75 percent of ambulance calls average $320 per call.

“The estimated income with the county’s contribution, with the foundation grant, we are going to come up with approximately $192,000 in excess of revenue over our anticipated expenditures,” Hensley said.

After looking at the number of ambulance calls that had to be answered by the Erwin Police Department or neighboring counties, along with the situations where family members had to transport individuals, Hensley said it was obvious that something needed to be done.

“I know we have talked about this being the county’s responsibility, but when I took an oath of office to serve as mayor, I vowed to do the best that I could for the welfare of our citizens at all times,” she said. “I think it is my responsibility to at least try to provide ambulance services to the county.”

However, Alderman Gary Edwards said he was unsatisfied with the proposed plans and felt the county should be contributing more.

“It’s not costing us anything,” Hensley replied. “Even our matching funds are paid for by the foundation.”

Alderman Gary Chandler also noted that he had spoken with several individuals that felt it was the county’s responsibility to address the inadequate ambulance services.

“A half a dozen times at least, I told them (Unicoi County) that if they didn’t do something we would,” Hensley stated.

Hensley also reminded the board that the funds for the Community Development Block Grant were only available to the Town of Erwin, and would go away if they weren’t used.

Alderman Mark Lafever questioned who would be responsible if revenues were not met, and asked if there would be a written agreement holding the other two municipalities responsible.

Hensley said there would be a written agreement drafted, however the Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch informed her he would not contribute to the service as he was already a part of the county.

Although additional money could also be saved if they found a suitable insurance clerk to handle the billing, according to Hensley.

“A call could also cost over $1,000,” she said. “It just depends on the type of call that comes in and the personnel that answers the call.”

Lafever was still concerned with raising taxes in the event the revenue stream fell short, and also mentioned that the Town of Erwin residents would be double taxed by paying both county and city taxes.

“So we will raise taxes to build tennis courts, but not an ambulance service,” Hensley asked.

Alderman Virgil Moore made a motion to approve the creation of a new Ambulance Service Department, but it failed due to lack of a second.

“I’d like to commend you for all of the work you’ve done mayor,” said Chandler. “I just think the county has dropped the ball.”

• • •

In other business, the board discussed the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s 2018 Local Parks and Recreation Fund Grant that could be used to improve Fishery Park.

“It seems to me the top priorities are tennis courts, and then two ball fields, bathrooms, and throw in the improvements to the basketball courts,” said Glenn Rosenoff, city recorder.

The town can request up to $500,000 for a $1,000,000 project in funding from TDEC, but the town is required to match 50 percent of the allotted funds.

Due to their condition, Rosenoff recommended the courts be demolished, and estimated the cost for all of the improvements to be around $1,000,000.

“My recommendation, since it seems TDEC likes improvement plans, is to go for the maximum of the grant,” he said.

However, Mayor Hensley was concerned that matching the full $500,000 for one fiscal year could be straining on the budget, and instead suggested splitting the project into two phases.

She suggested the town apply for one $500,000 project at a time, only requiring them to match $250,000, and noted that once one phase was complete, they could reapply for additional funds when grant applications were reopened in two years.

The price for six new tennis courts alone, would be estimated around $600,000, according to Rosenoff, and the lighting and fencing for the men’s field would be around $150,000.

“I get more complaints on the tennis courts than anything else in town,” Lafever said. “It would be nice to have solid numbers for each facility we are looking at … and then we can pick out what we can afford.”

Rosenoff said he would compile numbers for the cost of each project to present to the board in the called meeting before the April deadline for the grant application.

• • •

The board unanimously voted to approve the appointment of Tom Bradford to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board.

The board also unanimously approved the closing of a section of Gay Street from the corner of Main Avenue to First Tennessee Bank as part of the Unicoi County High School prom at the Bramble from Saturday, April 28, at 11 a.m. to Sunday, April 29, at 11 a.m.