TDOT: Interstate construction halted for Easter Holiday

From Staff Reports

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

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

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

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

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

Citizens hear legislative update from lawmakers

By Brad Hicks

Legislators answered questions for an audience last Friday during the Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast. Pictured, from left, are State Rep. John Holsclaw, Jr.; State Sen. Rusty Crowe; U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, Lana Moore, representing U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander; and Jill Salyers, representing U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Legislators answered questions for an audience last Friday during the Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast. Pictured, from left, are State Rep. John Holsclaw, Jr.; State Sen. Rusty Crowe; U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, Lana Moore, representing U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander; and Jill Salyers, representing U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, dished out information on a myriad of topics during the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast, held on Friday, March 31, in Erwin.

Legislators present, speaking before the crowd packed into Erwin Town Hall, addressed issues ranging from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget and the matter of the state gas tax.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe opened Friday’s breakfast by expressing his concern about the country’s economic growth. He said recent recessions have been followed by job growth. Roe said after President Bill Clinton took office following the recession of the early 1990s, 420,000 new businesses were formed from 1992 to 1996. The nation was also experiencing a recession prior to President George W. Bush’s election, but after Bush took office, 400,000 businesses were formed between 2000 to 2006, Roe said.

However, such business creation was not realized following the “steep recession” of 2009, Roe said. He said between 2010 and 2014, only 167,000 new businesses were formed.

“That’s millions of jobs that never got created,” Roe said.

The congressman added that 20 of the nation’s 3,100 counties accounted for half of the new businesses in the U.S., and 60 percent of counties experienced a net business loss.

But Roe said Trump is looking to “turn over the economic engine.” Roe said Trump wants to roll back some of the regulations that have stifled job growth. He said complying with often unnecessary and redundant regulations costs American businesses $1.9 trillion annually.

While tax reform, which some officials feel may aid with business growth, has been discussed, Roe said the health care debate is not over.

Republican lawmakers have been working to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but a bill that would have accomplished this was pulled last month by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan before it was to be voted upon by lawmakers.

Roe said the ACA was supposed to lower costs and increase health care insurance access, but he said costs have instead “gone through the roof,” adding cost of insurance is the largest hindrance to many maintaining it. Roe said one-third of the 12 counties he represents in the first congressional district have no option to buy health insurance on the current exchange.

“Then what are you going to do? Are you going to fine people to buy something that is not even there? Well, you can’t do that,” Roe said. “Knox County, the third largest county in our state, has no option to buy health insurance on the exchange, so it’s not a matter of do we do something, we have to do something.”

Roe said addressing health care is vital.

“The reason it’s important is by repealing the Affordable Care Act, the Obamacare taxes, you lower the tax base when we do tax reform,” he said. “What that means is we’re not going to make as much of a reduction in both individual tax rates and corporate tax rates if we can’t get healthcare passed.”

Health care was a primary topic of conversation for those present at the Legislative Breakfast. Lana Moore, field representative for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, said continuing to operate under the ACA is a “big problem” for Tennessee, as many across the state have no options to purchase insurance through the exchange.

Last week, Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker introduced the “Health Care Options Act of 2017.” This proposed legislation would alleviate the options issues in the interim if no legislation to repeal the ACA is passed, Moore said. The bill would allow those living in counties with no health insurance options on the exchange to use their Obamacare subsidies to purchase approved plans outside of the exchange. The legislation would also waive the ACA requirement that those failing to purchase a specific health care plan would be fined once it has been certified that there are no options on the exchange.

“So that would provide some temporary relief there,” Moore said.

The proposed legislation would provide “temporary authority” and, if passed, would remain in place through the end of the 2019 plan year. Moore said there are approximately 230,000 Tennesseans who purchase their insurance through the exchanges.

“So that’s a lot of people that are impacted very directly by this legislation,” she said.

Jill Salyers, field director for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, said Corker had a conversation with Trump after the repeal legislation was pulled and “stands ready” to work with the administration and colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to “fix the broken healthcare system.”

“Sen. Corker is still committed to resolving the current issues that are driving up healthcare costs, limiting choices and causing the exchange market to spiral downward,” Salyers said. “But, in the interim, in the meanwhile, he believes that we have to take steps to insure people in places, as has already been said, like Knoxville, where more than 34,000 individuals receiving subsidies under current law will have zero options in 2018. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to purchase health insurance off the exchange in the individual market.”

Both Moore and Salyers also advised those in attendance to keep an eye on the federal budget. The president’s currently proposed budget calls for cuts to programs such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, Impact Aid and Community Development Block Grant funding, which could adversely impact communities like Unicoi County.

“Impact Aid is a big deal for Unicoi County, and Sen. Alexander has been committed to making sure that those dollars are not decreased,” Moore said. “So I’m not saying don’t be concerned, but rest assured that he will be working on that and looking at that.”

Salyers said lawmakers realize the importance of programs such as the ARC.

“Remain concerned, remain vigilant, watch and contact us,” Salyers said. “I encourage you to reach out to us when there are issues that you’re concerned about, and rightfully so on the budget.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe said Tennessee’s budget is also on the minds of state lawmakers.

“Thank goodness we have to balance our budget in Tennessee,” Crowe said. “And I think Phil would probably support some of this. We’ve voted in the House and Senate to have a Convention of the States, to join those states that want to change our Constitution to mandate that Washington, D.C., has to balance their budget. He fights for that every year. We just can’t get it done unless you have a law that says you have to do it.”

Crowe also said those in attendance should keep an eye on the state gas tax issue. Gov. Bill Haslam is seeking to fund state transportation projects by increasing the taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. Crowe said fuel taxes have not increased since 1989.

State Rep. John Holsclaw said Haslam’s gas tax proposal has seen the proposed increase decrease recently in committee, adding other changes could take place before it comes up for a vote.

Holsclaw said state lawmakers are working on legislation to bring broadband access to Tennessee’s rural areas. He said he and Crowe are also working on a bill that would suspend the licenses of nurses and practitioners who fail drug tests and are unable to quickly provide prescriptions.

Holsclaw’s “hands-free” bill will be back up for consideration this year. Holsclaw said the bill was “massaged” in the State Senate and, if passed, would prevent drivers from talking on cell phones while driving through school zones unless the phones are set to hands-free mode.

“So we’re attacking a lot of different things,” Holsclaw said.

The Legislative Breakfast was sponsored by Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

Erwin BMA hears economic development update

Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, and Tamera Parsons, an independent consultant engaged by the local EDB, spoke to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, and Tamera Parsons, an independent consultant engaged by the local EDB, spoke to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Erwin officials on Monday received an update on a plan currently being developed to help guide local economic development in the near and distance future.

Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, and Tamera Parsons, an independent consultant engaged by the local EDB, were on hand at Monday’s meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen to apprise the board on where the development of the Joint EDB’s strategic plan stands and what information has been gleaned thus far from efforts to form the plan.

Parsons advised the board the process of the plan’s development has been broken up into three phases. The first phase, she said, involves assessing where Unicoi County is as a whole in terms of economic development and identifying what the county is capable of doing on this front. The second phase entails forming a strategy to help determine the future direction of local economic development. The third phase involves thorough implementation planning to realize the outlined economic development goals, Parsons said.

The strategic plan is currently in its first phase, but Parsons said work on this portion of the plan is “winding down.” One component of this phase, according to Parsons, will be the collecting of public input.

Another component of the initial phase of the strategic plan was to complete a SWOT analysis, in which area officials had the opportunity to identify Unicoi County’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A SWOT matrix was previously sent to officials across the county’s three governments and other officials to seek their input, and a summary of the SWOT analysis was provided to the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen during Monday’s meeting.

Strengths identified by officials included the citizens of the community and their strong work ethic, the area’s low crime rate, the county’s schools, Unicoi County’s history and culture, the county’s access to Interstate 26, the local natural beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation, local broadband access, and improvements made to the downtown districts of the county’s two municipalities.

Identified weaknesses included a lack of branding for Unicoi County, a decreasing number of jobs, comparatively smaller overall revenue, a feeling of idleness with the county, a lack of businesses outside of the towns of Erwin and Unicoi, and slow movement to take advantage of tourism, local assets and other opportunities, and a lack of tax base in the incorporated parts of the county.

Opportunities, which are areas that the county could work to take advantage of, included tourism, local infrastructure, the outdoors and natural beauty of the area, the county’s location relative to surrounding towns and cities, regional med-tech services, and regional efforts related to economic development.

Threats, which are items Parsons said could impact the county’s ability to reach its goals if unaddressed, included the feeling of passivity and idleness, the fact that communities neighboring Unicoi County have a “growth mentality” and a plan, an aging workforce, a “revenue bleed,” meaning money that could be spent locally is being spent in surrounding areas, and availability of medical services in Unicoi County.

Parsons said the second phase will help identify short- and long-term economic development goals for Unicoi County. The third phase, she said, will help identify specific actions and activities are needed to meet the short-term and long-term goals.

Parsons said there is a “short and very aggressive” timeline for putting the plan together. She said the EDB hopes to see Phase I completed over the remainder of this month and throughout April.

“This is kind of where you have to slow down so you can speed up later,” Parsons said of the first phase. “If you do a really good job here and have a really good foundation, we should be able to move quickly in the next two phases.” 

Local economic development officials hope to begin the second phase of the plan in May, during which time a strategy will be formed to achieve short-term and long-term priorities. It is hoped that the third phase will get underway this June.

The expected outcomes of the work to develop the strategic plan, Parsons said, include the development of a short-term and long-term economic development vision for the county, the development of a tangible strategic plan that can serve as a checklist for these goals, and an action plan to communicate the strategic plan and its progress with officials and the public.

“I think that our end result is going to be very pleasing to all three governments and the (Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County),” Engle said of the strategic plan.

The strategic plan has been a topic of conversation during recent meetings of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County. At that panel’s January meeting, Engle said the combination of the strategic plan and a comprehensive land use plan would provide the county with better direction on how it should proceed the moves related to economic development in upcoming years and over the course of the next two decades.

At the local EDB’s March meeting, it was announced that the state approved the use of $10,000 in Governor’s ThreeStar money the county received late last year for the development of the strategic plan.

• • •

The Erwin BMA on Monday also approved the road closures that will allow the second Erwin Great Outdoors Spring Festival to be held in downtown Erwin. That event is set to take place on May 6.

Jamie Rice, president of the RISE Erwin group and the town’s communications specialist, said Main Avenue from First Street to the corner of Love Street and Elm Avenue would need to be closed for the event. A stage will be placed at the intersection of Tucker Street and Main Avenue.

Rice said the street closures will begin around 5:30 p.m. on May 5 and continue through 6 p.m. on May 6 for the vendors along Gay Street up to Elm Avenue. The block around Capitol Cinema will remain closed until around 8 p.m. on May 6, as the local chapter of Trout Unlimited will be sponsoring a showing of the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at the theater on that date. 

“We are going to extend the music and the food and the beer garden until 8 p.m. on Saturday evening per the request of a lot of feedback from community last year that they wanted it to go a little bit later in the evening,” Rice said.

• • •

Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff also discussed proposed amendments to the town’s code pertaining to alcoholic beverages. The first pertains to the downtown area. Currently, there is a provision in the town’s code that prohibits a permit for the sale of beer to be issued to an individual or establishment located within 200 feet of “any established church or school building.” Previously, Erwin officials had discussed the possibility of amending this code in the downtown district, which would allow breweries or restaurants serving alcohol to set up shop in the downtown area.

The second proposed amendment pertains to special events in which organizers wish to serve alcohol in open areas.

“Currently right now, there is some language in the code that says the board has discretion, we’ve talked about it quite often that we really need to put it in the code specifically,” Rosenoff said.

Rosenoff said he will draft the proposed amendments into ordinance form to present to the town’s Beverage Board at a later date.

• • •

In other business, the BMA approved:

• The closure of a section of Gay Street from the corner of Main Avenue to First Tennessee Bank as part of the Unicoi County 8th Grade Banquet, which will be held at the Bramble on May 19 from 5:30-10 p.m.

• The reappointment of Sarah Shults as Erwin’s municipal judge for a one-year term.

• A lease agreement between the town and the Unicoi County Family YMCA for management of the Fishery Park swimming pool for this calendar year. Per the agreement, the town will pay $23,000 to the YMCA for management of the pool. Mayor Doris Hensley said it would cost the town around twice this amount if the town had opted to manage the pool itself.

• A bid from Bowman & Sons Construction to complete the improvement of a culvert near the intersection of Church and Union streets. The bid is for $24,988, which includes labor, materials and equipment. Rosenoff said the company was the only one of the three submitting bids to meet the minimum requirements outlined in the bid specifications. Erwin Public Works Director Riki Forney said the town did budget for the project, adding Bowman & Sons will have 45 days to complete the work once the company has been issued the notice to proceed.

Erwin Utilities receives loan for infrastructure improvements

This map shows waterlines which will be replaced through a low-interest loan acquired by Erwin Utilities. (Map contributed by Erwin Utilities)

This map shows waterlines which will be replaced through a low-interest loan acquired by Erwin Utilities. (Map contributed by Erwin Utilities)

By Brad Hicks

Erwin Utilities’ acquisition of low-interest loan funding to complete major infrastructure improvements is now official.

On Wednesday, March 22, Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau announced that the Town of Erwin was among three communities and two utility districts to receive more than $14 million in low-interest loans for water and wastewater improvements through Tennessee’s State Revolving Fund Loan Program.

“The State Revolving Fund Loan Program helps citizens enjoy a better quality of life by assisting communities with current and future infrastructure needs for improved environmental health,” Haslam stated in a release issued by TDEC announcing the loan awards.

Erwin received two loans totaling $2 million through the SRFLP for a distribution system improvements and water meter replacement project. One of the loans is for a total of $1.5 million. This award is made up of a 20-year $1.125 million loan and $375,000 in principal forgiveness that will not have to be repaid. The second award is a 20-year $500,000 loan.

The interest rate of each loan is 1.24 percent.

Matthew Rice, Erwin Utilities’ director of water and wastewater, said the funding will be used by Erwin Utilities to replace approximately 26,000 linear feet of existing waterlines on more than 15 streets throughout town, as well as to install several pressure-reducing stations in different areas.

Rice said the lines set to be replaced have a history of failures and are small-diameter lines of galvanized metal that may be prone to leaks. The lines that have outlived their useful lives will be replaced with either PVC or ductile iron pipe, Rice said.

“We know that, ‘Hey, on this street we’ve had three or four leaks in the last five years, so there’s a history of problems on this street, so it’s time to go ahead and replace this pipe that is probably past its useful life because it’s 80-years-old or so,’” Rice said.

The goal of the project, Rice said, is to reduce water main breaks and leaks, which will in turn improve system performance and increase reliability.

“That is really the biggest thing – more reliable service for our customers,” Rice said. “The lines that we’re working on are streets where we’ve had kind of a history of leaks and line failures where customer service has been interrupted.”

Erwin Utilities maintains a GIS database of past leaks and water main breaks, Rice said. The data was used to identify the biggest priorities for water main line replacements. The ideal approach, Rice said, is to replace the most problematic lines first.

Erwin Utilities previously identified 35 waterlines as priorities in need of replacement, Rice said. The $2 million received through the SRFLP will be used to replace 20 of these lines.

The waterlines included in the SRFLP project are those located along: Old Highway Road, Temple Hill Road, Elliot Avenue, Brinkley Road, Martin Creek Road, Mountainview Road, Adams Street, Parker Street, Monroe Street, Norris Street, Fish Hatchery and Spring Street, Higgins Avenue, Love Street, Hill Avenue, Crosswhite Lane, Roberts Street, North Main Avenue, and Balsam Drive.

Rice said the lines included in the project were already included in Erwin Utilities’ five-year capital improvement plan, meaning the utilities provider was planning to use its own crews to replace them in the future. But, Rice said, Erwin Utilities has limited resources and would not have been able to replace all the lines at once.

“When we were offered this really low-interest money with a principal forgiveness, it’s actually more cost-effective for us to go ahead and put it out for bid and get a contractor in here to do it,” Rice said. “With the principal forgiveness grant money and such a low interest rate, it’s better for us to go ahead and get it done now rather than string it out over the next seven years or so.”

Rice said Erwin Utilities has essentially completed the line upgrades along Adams and Monroe streets, so one or two lines from the priority list may be moved up to be included in the SRFLP project. Erwin Utilities intends to use its own personnel or a different funding source to eventually complete improvements on the lines identified as priorities but not included in the SRFLP project.

“The way this project shook out, we kind of had to cut off somewhere,” Rice said. “We couldn’t fix all the lines in this project that were indicated as a priority. We’ll continue to work down our list and work on the other streets, but it might be in the next five to seven years before we actually get to all the streets that are on the list.”

Last year, Erwin Utilities submitted its project plan to the state. According to an assessment released by the state last year to garner public input on the proposed project, “no incremental increase” in the charges of Erwin Utilities customers would be required as a result of the project, as existing user charges are projected to be sufficient to repay the loans.

“That’s still where we’re at, and that gets back to we were already planning to do these projects,” Rice said. “We were just going to do them over a little bit longer length of time using our own crews, so we had already kind of budgeted for that. But when the loan and the grant money came up, basically, our rates are sufficient to pay the debt service for the project instead of just paying cash for it as we go along over the seven-year period. We’re paying the low-interest loan.”

Rice said Erwin Utilities hopes to put the project out for bid soon, possibly this week, and hopes to open the received bids in late April. Erwin Utilities officials hope to see construction begin in May.

A nine-month construction time is projected for the undertaking, Rice said.

“It’s very doable,” he said. “We want them to kind of get in there and get after it and not drag it out any longer than we have to.”

Rice said Erwin Utilities wants to make residents aware that the work will involve digging up streets.

“Certainly when we’re replacing these lines it’s going to be a little bit of a mess during the construction, so customers in these streets will be affected by the construction for the few weeks that the contractors are there,” Rice said. “But, then, the idea is that we won’t be back there for another 80 to 100 years.”

In January, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved resolutions authorizing the financing of the project. Last week’s announcement of the SRFLP awards was made after state officials reviewed submitted loan applications.

According to the release issued last week by TDEC, Tennessee’s Clean Water SRFLP has awarded more than $1.7 billion in low-interest loans since its inception in 1987. The state’s Drinking Water SRFLP has awarded more than $294 million in low-interest loans since its inception in 1996.

Through the SRF Program, communities, utility districts, and water and wastewater authorities can obtain loans with lower interest rates than most can obtain through private financing, according to TDEC. Interest rates for loans can vary from zero percent to market rate based on each community’s economic index. Loans utilizing Environmental Protection Agency grant funds can include a principal forgiveness component.

TDEC administers the SRF Program in conjunction with the Tennessee Local Development Authority. The EPA provides grants to fund the program, and the state provides a 20 percent match. Loan repayments are returned to the program and are used to fund future SRF loans.

According to TDEC, the funding order of projects is determined by the SRF Program’s Priority Ranking Lists that rank potential projects according to the severity of their pollutions and/or compliance problems or for the protection of public health.

“Drinking water infrastructure is a priority for TDEC and the residents of Tennessee,” Martineau stated. “This Program enables local communities to provide this vital resource year after year.”

Board of Education suspends Capstone program, honors top teachers

Pictured, from left, are UC School Board Chairman Tyler Engle, teachers of the year Kelly Pate, Logan “Cane” Cannon and Elizabeth Watson and Director of Schools John English. The teachers were recognized for their honor. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Pictured, from left, are UC School Board Chairman Tyler Engle, teachers of the year Kelly Pate, Logan “Cane” Cannon and Elizabeth Watson and Director of Schools John English. The teachers were recognized for their honor. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Unicoi County Director of School John English said school system officials are exploring ways to make a good thing even better.

As this effort continues, a portion of the system’s policy pertaining to graduation requirements has been removed and a separate policy related to service learning hours has been suspended.

At its meeting on Thursday, March 16, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted unanimously to remove from the school system’s graduation requirements policy language requiring that Unicoi County High School students complete “a minimum of 100 hours of documented community service hours.”

In a separate measure, the board also unanimously voted to suspend the school system’s Capstone Project policy.

“We’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of months looking at our Capstone and our community service policies,” English said to the school board prior to its vote. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with you guys, we’ve talked with administration, we’ve talked with the staff at the high school, we’ve talked with students at the high school, so a lot of conversation in an effort to really take what’s a good thing – community service and Capstone for the kids – and see ways we can improve it.”

English added that much progress has been made on this front in the past few weeks. He said he has spoken with UCHS Principal Dr. Chris Bogart regarding the matter and received additional feedback during a recent meeting with UCHS staff who, English said, want to ensure students have “quality opportunities” for community service work.

English also said school system officials are in the process of working with community partners to bolster local opportunities.

In the meantime, completion of the community service hours will not be a requirement for graduation. Following the board’s vote, board member Garland Evely pointed out that completion of community service is no longer required by the state for high school graduation.

The now-suspended Capstone Project policy outlined the purpose of the Capstone Program and the three types of Capstone service opportunities available to students.

The policy, which also outlined how many of the 100 total service learning hours students are to complete each year they are in high school, further stated the four-year Capstone Program “would require each student at UCHS to donate a certain number of hours to the community each school year. This time would be completed outside of the school day and must be completed in one of the three approved ways. Students would be responsible filling out and collecting signatures for the appropriate paperwork as they complete their hours each year.”

Per the policy, students were also required to create and give a presentation about their Capstone experience.

English recommended the policy be suspended pending further review. He said school system officials will work to develop a new Capstone policy, which they hope to implement for the start of the 2017-18 school year.

“My recommendation there is to suspend that policy as we continue to work with the high school administration, to work with the community, and have something in place this summer that will replace this and be ready to roll out in August,” English said.

English also said he intended to meet with UCHS seniors on Tuesday to discuss how the actions taken by the Board of Education on Thursday would impact them, as well as provide an announcement to UCHS freshmen, sophomores and juniors on how they will be affected.


The Unicoi County Schools 2016-17 district-level teachers of the year were also recognized during Thursday’s meeting.

“We’re very proud of all of our teachers, and we have teachers who work extremely hard, but these three this year were recognized by their peers and then selected by a community on top of that as the best of the best for us,” English said.

Kelly Pate, a first grade reading/language arts teacher at Rock Creek Elementary School, was named the district’s Pre-K through 4th grade teacher of the year. According to the school system’s website, Pate, a level 5 teacher, has presented at multiple conferences both inside of the school system and outside of it, has helped secure grants for both Rock Creek Elementary and her own classroom, and serves as parent liaison at her school. She is helping to organize “Literacy Days,” a project that integrates writing and STEM activities offered to students throughout the year.

“She is very special, dedicated to kids, loves kids,” English said. “When you pop in her classroom every day, there’s engagement by her kids, first-graders, and that’s not always easy to do.”

Logan “Cane” Cannon, an eighth grade math teacher at Unicoi County Middle School, was named the district’s 5th through 8th grade teacher of the year. He is active in the community as a volunteer for Relay For Life and the Special Olympics. Cannon also works with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club’s study hall to help students with homework.

“We began offering Algebra I to eighth graders now in large part for his leadership and initiative,” English said of Cannon. “He’s taken that on, does a fabulous job.”

Elizabeth Watson, who teaches English at UCHS, was named as the school system’s 9th through 12th grade teacher of the year. Watson is assistant volleyball coach, tennis coach, student council sponsor and serves UCAdvance, a blended learning program combining online and traditional classwork. She provides after-school tutoring and works as a summer school teacher for English I, II, III and IV.

“She pushes her kids in the kind of inspiring way that makes them go further than they thought that they could, and she’s just phenomenal,” English said of Watson.

English said all three of the district’s teachers of the year are in the school system’s new Teacher Leader program.

The three educators recognized as the district-level teachers of the year will now move on to the regional teacher of the year competition.


English also addressed the decision to close schools this past Friday and Monday due to decreased attendance attributed to ongoing flu and stomach virus.

English said attendance was lower than usual on Monday, March 13. Schools were out March 14 and 15 due to inclement weather, but English said when classes resumed on March 16, attendance was down even further than earlier in the week.

“We saw a major uptick in staff,” English said. “I think we had seven custodians out today with flu or stomach virus. We had five bus drivers who couldn’t drive their routes because of the sickness. It’s hit our staff and certainly our students, so the hope over a long weekend is that those staff, families and students that are well can stay well. The ones that are sick can have a chance to recover and get better and, hopefully, we can get back in Tuesday and get our numbers back and the kids in the flow and finish out the year strong.

“That decision wasn’t made lightly, but we certainly felt like that was in the best interest of our families and our students and our staff.”

UCHS Mock Trial team takes case to Nashville

Members of the Unicoi County High School Mock Trial team, along with coaches and teachers, pose in Nashville, where they competed in the state event this past weekend. The team is made up of junior varsity members. (Contributed photo)

Members of the Unicoi County High School Mock Trial team, along with coaches and teachers, pose in Nashville, where they competed in the state event this past weekend. The team is made up of junior varsity members. (Contributed photo)

By Brad Hicks

Hadley Gruber, a straight-A student with aspirations of one day attending medical school, stood accused.

The 17-year-old Gruber was charged with the crimes of aggravated assault and elder abuse. These charges stemmed from an incident that allegedly occurred while Gruber volunteered in the medical program at the Mapleleaf Manor nursing home.

It would be up to a jury to determine whether the young Gruber would be tried as an adult or his case would remain in the jurisdiction of a juvenile court.

While this case is fictional, the preparation and practice turned in by the Unicoi County High School Mock Trial team was very real.

The team took everything it had gleaned from hours of study, rehearsals and other competitions to Nashville this past Saturday to compete in the Tennessee High School Mock Trial state competition. And, although the team placed outside of the top ten, its coaches could not be more proud of the students who took part.

“We had a great time,” said Lois Shults-Davis, who served as one of the coaches for the UCHS Mock Trial team. “It was fun, fun, fun.”

A trip to the state capital is nothing new for the UCHS Mock Trial team. This was the team’s fourth consecutive year making it to the state competition. Two of the three prior years, the team placed seventh in the state.

To earn a spot in the state competition, a mock trial team must win at the district level. The team from UCHS did just that by winning the day-long regional competition held at the George Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough on Feb. 25.

In what some may consider a surprise, it was the UCHS Mock Trial junior varsity team that bested the local varsity team in the district-level competition.

“Our junior varsity this year was phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal,” Shults-Davis said.

But Shults-Davis quickly added the varsity team had its share of mock trial stars. In fact, the UCHS junior varsity and varsity mock trial teams finished first and second, respectively, at the regional competition held in late February. The difference between first and second place, Shults-Davis said, came down to a single performance point.

“The varsity did not lose a ballot to any other school,” she said. “The only ballots they lost in the regional were to the junior varsity.”

When tryouts for the UCHS Mock Trial team were held last year, there was such a high number of students interested in participating that it allowed for the formation of both a varsity team and junior varsity team.

At the district competition, students on both of the UCHS teams received special recognition in the awards ceremony. First-place attorney was awarded to Steven Szucs, second-place attorney to Rachel Lynch, first-place witness to Daniel Bess, third-place witness to Chase Erwin, most valuable player for varsity to Lynch, and most valuable player for junior varsity was awarded to Brandolyn Thomas.

Additional members of the junior varsity team were Emily Casey, Joseph Greene, Ethan Kistler, Lucas Swinehart and Adam Tilley, who acted as attorney. Other witnesses on the junior varsity team were Emma Ledford, Dakota Ollis and Megan Todd.

Additional student attorneys on the varsity team were Alex Carter, Brenna Jones, Leanna Hager, Matthew Szucs and Elizabeth Sutphin. Varsity witnesses included Jones, Olivia Brackens, Christian Leon and Kaitlyn Rogers.

Because the junior varsity team prevailed at the district level, it was that squad that went to Nashville this past weekend. Shults-Davis said 15 students, made of the junior varsity team and several alternates, traveled to the capital for the state competition.

The Tennessee High School Mock Trial state competition is put on by the Tennessee Bar Association. In late November, the TBA submits to mock trial teams across the state the “problem,” or the basics of the case, which they will be arguing. It is then up to the mock trial team members to develop their own theories on the case, with some guidance from team coaches. Students portraying attorneys write their own questions, as well as opening and closing arguments, while students playing witnesses prepare their own responses.

Preparation for the upcoming competitions began in December, with students working to prepare these arguments, their roles, cross-examinations and other aspects of the case.

“Of course, they can coordinate,” Shults-Davis said. “They can work together on that. And, then, they get to the place that they can actually do a trial.”

The team has also turned in a lot of practice time since then.

“I’m proud that our teams over the years have started practicing earlier and earlier, and they really get into this,” Shults-Davis said.

Shults-Davis said coaches for the UCHS teams feel it is important to leave this work to the students rather than scripting the case for them.

“We figure that the real benefit of this to our youth is that they have the opportunity to develop creative thinking, that they can develop the ability to learn and that they can do anything they choose to,” Shults-Davis said.

In Nashville, UCHS students were given a tour of the state capitol building. The team also had the opportunity to practice a portion of their case on the floor of the state congress, as well as perform a mock debate of a bill going through the legislature.

Shults-Davis said the local team managed to win a couple of rounds. In its final round, the UCHS squad was bested by the team that would go on to finish third in the state competition, Shults-Davis said.

Still, Shults-Davis said the students enjoyed the trip and performed well. She said the coaches are “as proud of them as we can be.”

“For me, the reality is if our kids don’t understand how our government works, what happens in the legal system, then they’re not very well prepared to be voters and citizens,” Shults-Davis said.

“This gives them the opportunity to see how it really works and it also helps them, gives them the opportunity to develop themselves. And that’s what we’re most proud of. Some of the things we see with these kids, it is just phenomenal what they do,” Shults-Davis continued.

Along with Shults-Davis, other coaches for the UCHS Mock Trial team were Debbie Lonon, Sarah Shults and UCHS staff members Thad Higgins and Chad Roller.

Erwin Beverage Board approves new wine sale permits

By Brad Hicks

Bottles are already on the shelves at one local grocery store, and the number of stores in Erwin offering wine to their customers is set to soon increase.

The Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen, on Monday, March 13, approved granting permits which will allow the Roadrunner convenience store located at 519 Jonesborough Road and the Scotchman convenience store located at 1500 N. Main Ave. to begin selling wine.

With the approval of the permits, the number of stores within the town limits offering wine will increase to three. In January, the Erwin Beverage Board approved a permit allowing the Food Lion grocery store on North Main Avenue to begin selling wine. That store has since begun offering wine to its customers.

The three stores that have been issued permits by the town since the beginning of the calendar year represent the first three stores in Erwin to receive them since a referendum allowing for the sale of wine in retail food stores within Erwin’s municipal limits passed.

Voters residing within the limits of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi passed referendums during the November 2016 election to allow the sale of wine in retail food stores located within the limits of their respective towns.

In Erwin, more than 1,400 voted in favor of the referendum with around 650 voting against it.

A law permitting the sale of wine in grocery stores across Tennessee was approved by state lawmakers in 2014, and the law went into effect on July 1, 2016. While the law legalized the sale, it was left up to each county or city to have a local option election authorizing the sale of wine in retail food stores. Because of this, those wanting to see wine in their local grocery stores were required to collect signatures on petitions calling for a referendum to be placed on the ballot.

The referendums for voters in both the towns of Erwin and Unicoi appeared on the ballots because petitions that circulated prior to the November election received the required number of valid signatures.

The referendum petition distributed around Erwin received a total of 157 valid signatures. The number of signatures required on the petition was equal to at least 10 percent of the number of people in Erwin who voted in the 2014 Tennessee gubernatorial race. A total of 130 valid signatures was required in Erwin for the referendum to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Erwin Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said Monday that Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson had conducted background checks of both the Roadrunner and Scotchman stores and had found no issues with the board’s approval of the permits.

Both Roadrunner Markets and Scotchman convenience stores fall under the ownership umbrella of GPM Investments. Mike Emmons, vice president of operations and acquisitions for GPM, said employees at both local stores are “certified responsible vendors,” meaning they have received training on selling alcohol. Emmons said that training will be maintained and any new employee must undergo the training before manning a register.

The Beverage Board on Monday also approved the issuance of beer permits to the Roadrunner Market stores located at 519 Jonesborough Road, 1415 N. Main Ave., and 1068 N. Main Ave.

Although beer was already sold from each of these stores, the Board’s issuance of beer permits for the stores was necessary due to ownership of Roadrunner Markets recently changing hands.

In February, Richmond, Va.-based GPM Investments announced an agreement to acquire Mountain Empire Oil Company, Inc., which operates as Roadrunner Markets. The sale included all 92 Roadrunner Markets stores, as well as seven quick service restaurants, located in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee.

UCMH nursing home earns 5-star rating from CMS

From Staff Reports

The long-term care facility at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital recently received a 5-star rating from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Pictured, from left, are members of the staff: Barb Ambrose, CNA; Lisa Edwards, CNA; Karen Gingras, MDS coordinator; Sherry Gaddy, RN; Tammy Edwards, administrator; Julie Hickman, RN; Deb Baker, DON; Crystal Schmidt, RN; Chris Clark, LPN; Rachel Tilson, LPN; Debbie Wainwright, office coordinator. (Contributed photo)

The long-term care facility at Unicoi County Memorial Hospital recently received a 5-star rating from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Pictured, from left, are members of the staff: Barb Ambrose, CNA; Lisa Edwards, CNA; Karen Gingras, MDS coordinator; Sherry Gaddy, RN; Tammy Edwards, administrator; Julie Hickman, RN; Deb Baker, DON; Crystal Schmidt, RN; Chris Clark, LPN; Rachel Tilson, LPN; Debbie Wainwright, office coordinator. (Contributed photo)

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has recognized Unicoi County Nursing Home with a 5-Star overall rating.

The 46-bed unit is Unicoi County Memorial Hospital’s (UCMH) long-term care facility, and offers patients a comforting environment with high quality care, according to a press release issued by Mountain States Health Alliance, the health system that owns UCMH.

“I’ve lived here for over a year now, and it feels just like home,” said Kent Masters, resident of Unicoi County Nursing Home. “I like all the activities – especially playing ball – and the people here. They’re like my family now. It really is a great place to live.”

In addition to a 5-Star overall rating, Unicoi County Nursing Home also earned a 5-Star rating for staffing. The facility’s administration director, Tammy Edwards, attributes the 5-Star rating to team members always going the extra mile for residents.

“Unicoi County Nursing Home has the best team of caregivers, and everyone has been instrumental in helping us reach this milestone,” said Edwards. “We strive to give our residents 5-Star care, and it is certainly rewarding to have achieved this recognition.”

CMS created the 5-Star rating system to help consumers, their families and caregivers compare nursing homes more easily. The organization collects information through various methods, including onsite inspections, resident assessments and staffing levels. CMS’ Nursing Home Compare website contains information for all 15,000-plus Medicare- and Medicaid-participating nursing homes and allows anyone to compare information about nursing homes.

The site features a quality rating system that gives each nursing home a rating of between 1 and 5 stars. Nursing homes with 5 stars are considered to have “much above average” quality, and nursing homes with 1 star are considered to have quality “much below average.”

“Our long-term care provides the best possible care for our residents,” said Eric Carroll, administrator of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. “This honor is earned through many years of continuous high quality. It is not one we take for granted and we will work extremely hard to retain it.”

Tennessee celebrates Weights and Measures week

From Staff Reports

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is celebrating Weights and Measures week March 1-7, 2017. This year’s theme, Tradition and Technology Drive U.S. Standards for Trade, highlights the rapidly advancing technologies used to ensure fairness in the marketplace.

“Consumers and businesses alike should get what they pay for,” Commissioner Jai Templeton said. “We value our highly trained Weights and Measures inspectors who provide a crucial service for all Tennesseans.”

TDA is responsible for ensuring the specifications, tolerances and other technical requirements are met for weighing and measuring devices at 10,348 locations across Tennessee. These devices include 99,535 fuel pumps, 18,729 scales, 767 bulk meters, and 536 liquefied petroleum gas meters.

Inspectors also check signage, advertisements and price computations to make sure consumers are not misled. Additionally, they verify that the fuel being sold to drivers meets quality standards.

“If a discrepancy is found, our inspectors work with the retailer and provide guidance in fixing the problem,” Weights and Measures administrator Ed Coleman said. ”We will re-inspect to make sure the issue was corrected.”

The Tennessee Metrology Laboratory maintains and houses the primary standards of mass, volume and length for the state. A new metrology lab, which is under construction and on track to be completed by mid-September 2017, will include the most current equipment and testing capabilities.

Weights and Measures Week is celebrated each year to commemorate John Adams signing the first U.S. weights and measures law on March 2, 1799. Tennessee is a member of the National Conference on Weights and Measures. NCWM has developed national weights and measures standards since 1905. The organization works hard to keep pace with innovative advancements in the marketplace.

State officials, meteorologists promoting preparedness for Severe Weather Awareness Week

From Staff Reports

Tennessee’s Severe Weather Awareness Week is Feb. 26, to Mar. 4, 2017, and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), and the National Weather Service (NWS) are asking Tennesseans to make severe weather planning and preparedness a priority.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Severe Weather Awareness Week proclamation is online at:

“One of TEMA’s priorities is to help Tennesseans have access to information to ensure they can prepare for any variety of man-made, natural, and technological hazards or disasters,” said TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan. “While severe weather, especially tornadoes, can occur any time in Tennessee, they are most common during the spring months of March, April, and May. We want Tennesseans and our visitors to pay attention to and understand the weather, ensure they have multiple ways to receive severe weather warnings, and have a plan to get  themselves and their loved ones to safety when severe weather warnings are issued.”

TEMA will be hosting a Facebook Live event at 10 a.m., CST, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as part of the agency’s effort to help Tennesseans understand the hazards and threats of severe weather.  TDH and NWS representatives will also participate in Facebook Live session

NWS Awareness and Education Events

NWS offices in Nashville, Memphis, Morristown, and Huntsville, Ala. are planning a series of education and training events, using each day of Severe Weather Awareness Week to focus on a different severe weather threat. Information on the NWS activities is available

“Although it seems the past two springs have been relatively quiet as far as severe weather, all Tennesseans know that it’s not if we’re going to see severe weather, but merely when,” said Krissy Hurley, warning coordination meteorologist at NWS Nashville.

A highlight of the week will be the statewide tornado drill NWS will conduct at 9:30 a.m., CST, on Wed., Mar. 1.  The drill will also include a statewide test of NOAA weather radios.

Be Ready, Make a Plan, Have a Kit

TDH urges Tennesseans to make emergency plans now before a flood, tornado, or other threat is imminent, so they have time to decide what actions they should take to protect themselves.

“Like the slogan says: be ready, make a plan and have a kit. We want to be proactive don’t we, taking a little time before a weather emergency is coming to start thinking about what we need to do to protect ourselves and the people and places we love?” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “That way we are ready whether we ‘saw it coming’ or not, and isn’t that the best way to keep everyone safe?”

TDH recommends thinking about the weather events in your area or while you travel and making a plan before the crisis comes. It is best to write it down but at a minimum, talk with your family about where you’ll meet, how you’ll communicate and where to go if you need to evacuate or can’t return home. Put an emergency kit together so you’re ready in the event of severe weather.

The most important preparedness tip for severe weather is to stay informed to its potential.  Listen to NOAA Weather Radio, watch TV or listen to the radio for weather updates and warnings.

Other severe weather awareness tips and resources include:

  • Never venture into high water, either on foot or in a vehicle.
  • If you’re outside and hear thunder, go indoors immediately.
  • Go to a basement or an innermost, first floor room in your home if you’re told to take shelter during a tornado warning.
  • Know the location of and route to your office or building’s tornado shelter.
  • Never try to outrun a tornado.
  • Have an emergency plan ready at places where your family spends time – work, school, daycare, commuting and outdoor events.
  • Emergency plans should include where to meet, and who family members should check in with, if you are separated from family members during a severe weather emergency.

At a minimum, emergency preparedness kits should include one gallon of water per-day, per-person, and per-pet, for three to five days. The kit should also have enough non-perishable food for each family member, and pets, for three to five days.

Other items that every kit should include:  flashlight, battery-powered radio, extra batteries, first aid kit, personal hygiene items, cell phone charger or solar charger, and copies of important family documents.

It is also very important that emergency kits contain extra supplies of medications, especially for those with chronic health conditions.

Online Preparedness Resources

A number of websites provide resources to help with the creation of emergency plans.  The website, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control,, have information, fill-in-the-blank documents, and other resources to help individuals and families assemble the basic components needed for personal emergency plans.

The U.S. Small Business Administration has emergency preparedness information for businesses  The Ready website also includes a workplace preparedness section at


Uncorked: Food Lion receives first wine permit

By Brad Hicks

The first permit to allow the sale of wine in a retail food store located within the town of Erwin has been issued.

On Monday, Jan. 23, the Erwin Beverage Board, which is made up of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen, unanimously approved a permit which will allow the Food Lion grocery store located on North Main Avenue to begin stocking its shelves with wine.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley made the motion that Food Lion be granted the license to sell wine, with Aldermen Mark Lafever seconding.

Voters residing within the limits of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi passed referendums during the Nov. 8 election to permit the sale of wine in grocery stores located within the limits of their respective towns.

In Erwin, more than 1,400 voted in favor of the referendum with approximately 650 voting against the referendum.

State lawmakers in 2014 approved a law permitting the sale of wine in Tennessee’s grocery stores. That law went into effect on July 1, 2016. But, while the law legalized the sale, it was up to each county or city to have a local option election authorizing the sale of wine in retail food stores. Because of this, those wishing to see wine in their local grocery stores were required to collect signatures on a petition to get the referendum on the ballot.

The referendums for voters in Erwin and the Town of Unicoi appeared on the ballots because petitions disseminated before the November election received the required number of valid signatures.

The petition distributed in Erwin prior to the November election garnered a total of 157 valid signatures, exceeding the necessary mark. The number of signatures required on such petitions was equal to at least 10 percent of the number of people in each municipality who voted in the 2014 Tennessee gubernatorial race. A total of 130 valid signatures was required in Erwin for the referendum to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot for voters residing within the municipality.

The referendum permitting the sale of wine in retail food stores located within the Town of Unicoi passed on Nov. 8 with around 1,000 voting in favor of the measure and approximately 500 voting against.

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen has not yet had to consider the issuance of a permit to allow the sale of wine for retail food stores located within that town’s limits.

Lawmakers announce progress to reopen office

From Staff Reports

Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Representative John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton) announced on Monday, Jan. 23, that the Departments of General Services and Human Services have been working diligently over the past several months to create a new lease space to help citizens easily access services in Unicoi County.

The lawmakers are receiving regular updates regarding the lease execution, construction of the space and the eventual opening of the office, according to a press release issued by Crowe’s office.

“We are very pleased that we are finally seeing progress to get these offices relocated in Unicoi County,” said Senator Crowe. “This will be a tremendous help to our local citizens who seek access to services through the Department of Human Services.”

The contract for the space leased was approved Monday at a meeting of the State Building Commission at Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

The lawmakers said new space plans have been designed to co-locate the Department of Human Services and the Tennessee Highway Patrol staff in Unicoi County into a renovated office space. Although this process has taken several months, state officials believe that the new office will meet the requirements of these agencies.

“We have been advised that these offices will be completed and ready to serve citizens as soon as possible,” added Rep. Holsclaw. “The state is doing all it can to minimize the timeline. I am hopeful the new office can be up and running soon.”

New laws taking effect Jan. 1 impact variety of items

By Brad Hicks

The rolling of the calendar to 2017 brought with it a number of new laws in the state of Tennessee.

New legislation that took effect Jan. 1 impacts everything from handgun permits to the alcohol content of beer that can be sold and manufactured in the state.

Several new state laws pertaining to handgun permits took effect on Jan. 1. One reduces the fee of a lifetime handgun carry permit from $500 to $200 for existing permit holders. First-time applicants will be required to pay a one-time fee of $315.

The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam in April 2016.

The age required for some seeking a handgun carry permit was reduced in a law that took effect on New Year’s Day. This law lowers the age for receiving a handgun carry permit from 21 years of age to 18 for persons having been honorably discharged or are retired veterans of the U.S. armed forces or service members on active duty status.

Another handgun permit law now in effect reduces the fee for a lifetime handgun carry permit for certain federal, state and local law enforcement officers. According to the law, the fee will be reduced to $100 for retired law enforcement officers who served at least 10 years prior to retirement and were Peace Officer Standards Training-certified or acquired the equivalent training and retired in good standing “as certified by the chief law enforcement officer of the organization from which the applicant retired.”

Per the law, the applicant must have been a resident of the state of Tennessee on the date of his or her retirement and a state resident on the date the permit application was submitted.

A new law now in effect affects the sentencing for those who commit vehicular homicide while under the influence. Per the law, if this crime involves the use of drugs or alcohol, the defendant will be ineligible for probation.

Under state law, a criminal defendant is generally eligible for probation if the sentence imposed is 10 years or less. However, there are certain offenses that render defendants ineligible for probation despite the sentence, such as aggravated sexual battery, certain drug offenses and aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor.

The new law added vehicle homicide caused by the driver’s intoxication to the list of offenses that render a defendant ineligible for probation.

Like most of the laws that took effect on Jan. 1, the new vehicular homicide legislation was signed by the governor in April 2016.

A law allowing for the sale of high-gravity beers in grocery stores throughout the state and eliminating the additional licensure requirement for the manufacture of higher alcohol beers by breweries in Tennessee also went into effect with the new year. This legislation essentially redefined “high content alcohol beer” as those having an alcoholic content of more than 5 percent by weight to an alcoholic content by weight of more than 8 percent.

This increased the state’s alcohol by volume limit from 6.2 percent to 10.1 percent. Higher gravity beers were available for purchase across the state prior to the law taking effect, but only at package stores and restaurants or bars with liquor licenses. Brewers previously had to obtain a distillery license to manufacture beverages more than the state’s 6.2 ABV limit. Breweries will also be allowed to sell the higher alcohol content beer they manufacture under the new law.

The legislation redefining beer actually passed in 2014 and was signed by the governor in May of that year.

Tennessee high school students will now be required to take a U.S. civics test before graduation, according to new legislation.

Per this new law, high school students will be required to take a U.S. civics test during their high school career. This test is to be prepared by the local education agency (LEA) and is to be composed of 25 to 50 questions from the 100 questions making up the civics test administered by the U.S. citizenship and immigration services to those seeking to become naturalized citizens.

Under the law, the LEA may prepare multiple versions of the test for use in different school and at different times. Students may be allowed to take the test as many times as necessary to pass, with a passing defined as the students answering at least 70 percent of the questions correctly.

The law as originally presented was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2015 and it was initially set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2016. However, the legislation has undergone several amendments since it was originally proposed.

Initially, the test was to be composed of 100 questions and its passage would have been a requirement for graduation. Passage of the test was originally defined as a student answering 60 percent of questions correctly.

With the amendments, passage of the test will not be required for a student to graduate. A student with an individualized education program under which the civics test is determined to be “an inappropriate requirement for the student” shall not be required to take the test, according to the law.

If all students in a senior class required to take the civics test and receiving a regular diploma pass the test, that school will be recognized on the  Department of Education’s website as a “United States Civics All-Star School” for that school year.

Among other new state laws that took effect on Jan. 1 is eliminating the requirement that a person’s driver license be suspended for an additional period if he or she is convicted of driving on a suspended or revoked license.

Under previous law, those convicted of driving on a suspended license were subject to an extension of the original suspension period. Per the new law, the court will be given to issue a restricted driver license contingent on the person with a suspended or revoked license participating in a payment plan for fines and costs.

More stringent sentencing is now in place for those who rob pharmacies in order to obtain controlled substances. A new law creates a new sentencing factor for those who commit the offenses of robbery, aggravated robbery or especially aggravated robbery on the premises of a licensed pharmacy in order to obtain, sell, give or exchange a controlled substance, controlled substance analogue or other illegal drug.

New federal rules set for livestock

From Staff Reports

With the coming of the new year, livestock producers will have new federal rules to follow when feeding their animals.

Beginning Jan. 1, a licensed veterinarian must approve and supervise use of certain medications in livestock feed.

“Antibiotics are vitally important for fighting illness and maintaining livestock health,” state veterinarian Dr. Charles Hatcher said. “However, we must make sure that drugs don’t develop resistance. These new rules will move us toward the elimination of antibiotic use for production purposes, while still allowing producers to use prescribed antibiotics to treat and control disease.”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will require producers to have a veterinary feed directive (VFD) in order to feed certain antimicrobial drugs. Before a producer can obtain a VFD, their licensed vet of record must examine and diagnose the livestock in question. Producers must then provide the VFD to their feed manufacturer or supplier. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture routinely inspects feed manufacturers. Any mills that mix antimicrobials into livestock feed will be required to show proof of the VFD during inspection. Extra-label use of a VFD drug in an animal feed for weight gain or feed efficiency is prohibited.

More information is available at

Pending home sales 23 percent higher than November 2015

From Staff Reports

A gauge for residential home sales continued to show some seasonal slowing in November. At the same time, it was 23 percent higher than new pending sales for November last year.

The Northeast Tennessee Association of Realtors reports there were 562 new pending sales in the 11-county region monitored by NETAR’s Trends report in November, down from 641 in October and up from 457 November last year.

New pending sales include accepted offers on single-family, townhome and condominium properties in Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi counties in Northeast Tennessee and Washington, Lee, Scott and Wise counties in Southwest Virginia. Sales typically close in 45 days to two months after signing.

The National Association of Realtors said last week that its pending sales index fell 2.5 percent from October. Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economists, blamed the decline on a recent jump in mortgage rates combined with rising prices and a tight inventory.

NETAR President Marsha Stowell said the local market has 5.6 months of inventory is November. That’s the number of months it would take to exhaust active listing at the current sales rate.

“New listing were 6 percent better than November last year following two months of decline,” she added. The total active listings for November was down 21 percent from last year. “This time of the year we typically see about 4,000 active listings.”

In November, there were a little over 3,000 active listing in the region.

Stowell said the mortgage rate increases have not blunted demand all that much.

November’s average listing price was $234,000 compared to $210,000 November last year. The average sales price as a percentage of the average listing price in November was 95 percent, down from 96 percent in September and October.

Carter Railroad Museum features region’s best

Just one of the many exhibits on display at the Carter Railroad Museum. (Contributed photo)

Just one of the many exhibits on display at the Carter Railroad Museum. (Contributed photo)

From Staff Reports

On Saturday, Dec. 31, East Tennessee State University’s George L. Carter Railroad Museum’s monthly Heritage Day will showcase both Appalachia’s biggest steam engines and most colorful diesels. The exhibit is titled “Precision Transportation: Norfolk & Western and Norfolk Southern Glory.”

In 2012, Norfolk Southern railroad, once the Norfolk and Western, devoted a group of new locomotives to its corporate past. These engines were painted in historically-derived schemes similar to the ones featured on the predecessor lines, like the Interstate, Southern, Wabash and Central of Georgia.

The model trains running at the museum will include steam engines from the past and the Heritage-style modern diesels.

“The museum has honored this company, which still runs trains through downtown Johnson City, since the start of the Heritage Days program,” noted event coordinator Geoff Stunkard. “This was a great way to bring them to the forefront and should be a fun activity as New Year’s Eve entertainment for the family.”

The George L. Carter Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and members of the Mountain Empire Model Railroaders (MEMRR) club are developing the program on the club’s large 24×44 1:87 HO scale layout, one of four model lines that are housed in the museum. 

The Carter Railroad Museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. The museum can be identified by a flashing railroad crossing signal at the back entrance to the Campus Center Building. Visitors should enter ETSU’s campus from State of Franklin Road onto Jack Vest Drive and continue east to 176 Ross Drive, adjacent to the flashing RR crossing sign.

To learn more about the museum, visit Visit to learn more about MEMRR, which helps demonstrate and maintain the model layouts, museum exhibits and other projects.

For more information about Heritage Day, contact Dr. Fred Alsop, museum director, at 439-6838 or  For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 439-8346.

United Way campaign exceeds fundraising goal

Lee Brown, Unicoi County United Way president, reports on campaign success. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

Lee Brown, Unicoi County United Way president, reports on campaign success. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Mission accomplished.

Unicoi County United Way President Lee Brown announced during Thursday’s United Way Victory Luncheon held at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center that the local United Way had not only met, but surpassed its loftier fundraising goal for its 2017 campaign.

The Unicoi County United Way has received donations and pledges totaling $139,066 for its 2017 fundraising campaign, Brown said. This is well above the $120,000 goal the organization had set for the campaign.

“Each year, the community rises to the occasion and, again, produces a successful United Way campaign,” Brown said. “This year is no different.”

On Oct. 18, the Unicoi County United Way kicked off its 2017 fundraising campaign. The $120,000 goal set for the campaign is up from the $105,000 goal the organization set for its 2016 campaign.

Last year was a record-setting year for Unicoi County United Way, as the organization raised nearly $148,000 during its 2016 campaign. This amount – the most ever raised during an annual campaign – prompted the local United Way Board to increase the goal for the 2017 campaign.

“Our board made a big leap of faith this year in raising our campaign goal from $105,000 to $120,000,” Brown said. “Typically, we’ve been a very conservative board and never made a jump quite of that nature. But we felt confident that our community would once again rise to the occasion and produce great results.”

The majority of the funding raised during the 2017 campaign -– $116,820 – will be provided to local nonprofit organizations to help them better serve the citizens of Unicoi County. Those set to receive this funding are:

• Children’s Advocacy Center of the First Judicial District – $2,000

• Change is Possible (CHIPS) Family Violence Shelter – $5,000

• Clinchfield Senior Adult Center – $25,000

• Unicoi County Public Library – $12,500

• Col. J.F. Toney Memorial Library – $5,000

• Contact Ministries, Inc. – $4,000

• Erwin Little League – $3,000

• Monroe Foundation – $2,500

• Second Harvest Food Bank – $5,000

• Sequoyah Council of Boy Scouts of America – $2,000

• Tennessee Rehabilitation Center – $5,000

• Unicoi County 4-H Club – $3,320

• Unicoi County Family YMCA – $12,000

• Unicoi County Health Department – $1,500

• Unicoi County Literacy Program – $2,000

• Unicoi County Shoe Fund – $5,000

• Unicoi County Student Backpack Program – $10,000

• Unicoi County Student Dental Program – $3,000

• Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) – $4,000

• Habitat for Humanity of Unicoi County – $5,000

David Erickson, who serves on the Unicoi County United Way Board, also presented $17,500 in additional funding. Erickson said some years, the Unicoi County United Way is able to provide additional organizations and projects with contingency fund appropriations.

“We have agencies that we help on a regular basis, but there are agencies that come to us with special requests throughout the year,” Erickson said. “So when there are funds available, it’s always good to be able to help those organizations, and this is one of those years we can do that.”

Those organizations receiving contingency fund appropriations were the Unicoi County Little League, which received an additional $12,000 to help complete a fencing project; the Erwin Kiwanis Foundation, which received $4,000 to support its annual Christmas Shopping Tour; and the Imagination Library, which received $1,500.

Brown said remaining funding from the 2017 campaign will be put toward upcoming projects and programs.

Erickson and Brown also recognized the Unicoi County United Way’s campaign partners. Those recognized were NN, Inc., Regal Beloit/Morrill Motors, Specialty Tires, Impact Plastics, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, Unicoi County Schools, Unicoi County Gas Utility District, Nuclear Fuel Services, United Steel Workers and Erwin Utilities.

Brown also expressed his appreciation to all who had made contributions during the Unicoi County United Way’s 2017 campaign. He said another successful year would not have been possible without the community’s direct support.

“Thank you to each and every one that has had a part in raising funds or just making your own personal contribution,” Brown said.

Brown concluded Thursday’s Victory Luncheon by quoting missionary Amy Carmichael, who once said, ‘You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.’

“Our community generosity displays what great love of community that we have,” Brown said. “It’s something that I don’t think you find everywhere else.”

State urges Tennesseans to heat homes safely

From Staff Reports

The Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) reminds Tennesseans to keep safety in mind as they heat their homes during the winter season. Residents are urged to use extra caution with the use of alternate heat sources, such as portable heaters.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of following safety precautions when heating your home during the colder months,” said Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance Commissioner and State Fire Marshal Julie Mix McPeak. “Employing just a few basic steps this winter can help ensure that your family is kept as safe as they are warm.”

Heating equipment is a major cause of home fire devastation. According to State Fire Marshal’s Office data, from 2011-2015, Tennessee fire departments responded to 2,572 home structure fires that involved heating equipment. These fires resulted in 53 fatalities. Heating equipment fires accounted for 8 percent of all reported home fires and 13 percent of all home fire deaths during that time period.

Some simple precautions can prevent most heating-related fires from happening:

• Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from heating equipment, like the furnace, fireplace, wood stove, or portable space heater.

• Never use your oven to heat your home.

• Have a qualified professional install stationary space heating equipment, water heaters or central heating equipment according to the local codes and manufacturer’s instructions.

• Have heating equipment and chimneys cleaned and inspected every year by a qualified professional.

• Remember to turn portable heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.

• Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters.

• Burn only dry, seasoned wood in fireplaces and woodstoves. Never burn garbage or use flammable liquids to start a fire.

• Make sure the fireplace has a sturdy screen to stop sparks from flying into the room. Ashes should be cool before putting them in a metal container. Keep the container a safe distance away from your home.

• If the pilot light of your gas heater goes out, allow 5 minutes or more for the gas to go away before trying to relight the pilot. Follow manufacturer’s instructions when relighting the pilot. Do not allow gas to accumulate, and light the match before you turn on the gas to the pilot to avoid risk of flashback.

Don’t forget to install smoke alarms on every level of your home and test them monthly. Develop and practice a home fire escape plan with everyone in your home. The plan should include two ways out of every room and a designated meeting place outside.

Tennesseans in need of a smoke alarm can utilize the SFMO’s online alarm form to request a free installation.

Official: Rain ‘may not signal end of the fires’

By Brad Hicks

Rain is in the forecast, but the wet weather may not quell the threat of forest fires within the Cherokee National Forest.

“I don’t want to minimize the fact that this rain is really good news, it’s just that it may not – and it would be nice if it did – but it may not signal the end of the fires,” said Peter Frenzen, public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. “That will just depend on what lands where.”

According to the National Weather Service, there is a 100 percent chance of showers today in Unicoi County, with a 50 percent chance this evening. There is also a chance of local showers forecast for both Saturday and Sunday.

Frenzen said about an inch of precipitation is predicted to fall throughout the northern portion of the Cherokee National Forest with the rain event occurring over the next day or so. But he said the impact this rainfall could have on dry conditions depends on just how much rain actually falls and the area receiving it.

According to a release from the Forest Service, the rainfall total from midnight Tuesday to late Tuesday morning for the Unaka Ranger District was 0.74 inches, and for the Watauga Ranger District was 0.82 inches forecasted to occur Tuesday afternoon.

“Fire officials are looking forward to more forecast rain through the end of week but, will wait and see how much actually falls and on how wide of an area,” the release states.   

Due to recent dry conditions, the Cherokee National Forest Watauga Ranger District went on “severity” in mid-October in anticipation of wildfires. Along with extended hours for Forest Service personnel responsible for monitoring potential and ongoing wildfire situations, the severity designation also leads to Forest Service districts receiving additional resources, such as out-of-state fire crews.

Frenzen said due to the recent dry conditions, a wildfire’s fuel – particularly the leaves, grass and wood found throughout a forested area – has gotten down to a “kiln-dried lumber” state, meaning it is even more susceptible to burning. Frenzen said a sustained period of rain is needed to dampen the natural fire fuel. He added even if the area receives “a good shot of rain” over the next few days, wood may quickly dry out, meaning the Cherokee National Forest would thrust back into a fire season once the rain passes.

In response to the dry conditions, the U.S. Forest Service earlier this month issued a fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest.

“The U.S. Forest Service is implementing a TOTAL FIRE BAN for the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee due to the extremely dry conditions, very high fire danger, and little chance of rain in the immediate forecast,” a notice issued by the Forest Service states.

The ban restricts the building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, charcoal or stove fire inside or outside developed recreation sites, and it restricts smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.

“The total fire ban was necessary because of current conditions and the potential for wild fire,” Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris stated. “I want to remind national forest visitors that this ban applies to all areas of the Cherokee National Forest, including developed recreation areas. Your understanding and cooperation is appreciated.”

Days after the Forest Service issued this ban, Gov. Bill Haslam issued one of his own. Haslam declared a regional ban on burning in 51 counties in response to the ongoing drought and wildfires throughout middle and east Tennessee. Unicoi County is among the counties listed.

“Effective immediately, residents in counties covered by the regional ban are not permitted to conduct any open-air burning,” a release announcing Haslam’s declaration states. “The ban includes campfires, and burning of brush, vegetation, household waste or construction debris.”

This ban will remain in effect until Dec. 15.

Frenzen said the fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest remains in effect. Depending on the amount of rain the area receives and how long it fell, both Forest Service and county officials will reassess the total fire ban.

“We’ll be watching how much rain falls where, and then looking at how that affects the fire severity situation, fire danger situation, and the Forest Service and the counties, as well, and will reassess as that situation changes,” Frenzen said.

But Frenzen urged citizens to continue to heed the fire and burn bans. Even with the rain, he said, the threat of fire will remain present.

“It appears the long-term outlook for this region is dryer than normal, so this rain event will certainly bring some relief, kind of like a pause in things, but it’s likely that eventually that will dry out again,” Frenzen said. “How soon that is depends on how many of these shower events you get and when dry air comes again to start drying it out again. But the feeling is that, at least in the long term, it’s not over.”

And the smoke that has recently descended upon Unicoi County may not be over.

Wildfires continue to burn throughout the region, including in western North Carolina and Gatlinburg. Unicoi County has seen and felt the effects of these fires. Smoke from multiple wildfires burning just across the state line in western North Carolina blanketed the county on Nov. 8.

Heavy smoke was again prevalent throughout the county on Nov. 23. Frenzen said that smoke was the result of wind coming up from the south, pushing smoke from fires burning in North Carolina and Georgia into the area. On both Nov. 8 and Nov. 23, the atmosphere was stable, Frenzen said, and which, along with a layer of cooler air, causes the smoke to be “capped” in the valley, leaving it with no place to go.

When the wind shifted to come out of the north and west, it pushed the settled smoke out of the area, Frenzen said. Winds are again coming up from the south but the atmosphere has changed, and it is now classified as unstable, Frenzen said, meaning there is a greater possibility for thunderstorms and strong winds. This may lead to smoke blowing through Unicoi County rather than lingering.

“So we may get smoke just kind of moving through like on a big conveyor belt,” Frenzen said.

And because wind can cause even the smallest of fires to spread quickly, officials will continue to monitor it.

“All eyes right now are on the wind,” Frenzen said. “That seems to be the big concern.”

Smoke in the region has led the National Weather Service to recently issue air quality alerts for the area.

Frenzen also offered some tips for those driving through heavy smoke. He said drivers should slow down and utilize their vehicle’s headlights. He said if visibility is greatly impacted by the smoke, drivers should pull over and activate their hazard lights.

Community invited to adopt children from ‘Tree of Hope’

From Staff Reports

The Unicoi County Clerk’s office is hosting its annual Tree of Hope program this Christmas season. The tree benefits children across the county, according to County Clerk Mitzi Bowen.

Children in need have been added to the tree and people are encouraged to stop by the clerk’s office and pick one of the ornaments off of the tree.

“This will be our 11th year sponsoring the Tree of Hope,” Bowen said. “We realize that everyone has difficult times in their lives and this is our way of helping them. It could be your neighbor, the person you sit by in church or maybe your best friend or family.”

Bowen’s office adopts out all of the children at Christmas time and Bowen said that the program has grown so much that program is now able to provide food boxes for each family.

“It’s unreal how much our little county will give,” said Bowen.

Each ornament has a particular child’s needs. People then go shop for the child and return the presents to the office to be presented to the child on Dec. 17. On each ornament pertaining to each child, it will have sizes for coats, shoes, pants and a toy that child likes.

The deadline to have all of the packages into the clerk’s office is the week of Dec 12. Pick up day for the families is Dec. 17. Donations can be contributed for the tree any time before then and may be taken to the county clerk’s office.

“I want to thank all of those who have donated this year,” said Bowen. “It’s amazing how heartwarming this little county is. So come one, come all, and adopt a child from the Tree of Hope and let’s make a lot of children’s Christmases magical this year.”