Unicoi BMA debates personnel issues

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen and Town of Unicoi County Mayor Johnny Lynch exchange words during a heated meeting of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen on Monday, July 16. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

With Unicoi Town Hall filled with concerned citizens, the July 16 meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Alderman included heated debates regarding a resolution addressing employee compensation as a result of miscommunication and the town attorney’s enrollment in the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).

The first resolution up for discussion dealt with “administrative errors” made from October 2017 through December 2018 regarding the representations of the cost of dependent health insurance benefits and included an additional increase of $5,445 to affected employee’s wages to cover the benefits cost.

Alderman Roger Cooper inquired as to whether there was any faulty or misleading information in the resolution and asked which specific employees were affected.

“The employees affected are any employee whose premium amounts were described to them to be less than what is actually charged,” replied Town Attorney Lois Shults Davis.

Cooper then turned to town City Recorder Michael Borders, who informed him that one current employee was affected.

“The resolution has false information and/or misleading information in it,” Cooper stated. “It should say affecting one current employee, not employees plural.”

Shults-Davis stated that the resolution was supposed to be written in a more generalized matter, in order to cover any additional employees that could have been affected.

At the request of Cooper, Borders delved into the history of the matter and shared that he discovered the town administration made an error in reflecting the cost of a dependent’s healthcare to an employee when he came on board as the town’s recorder.

“To add to what he’s telling you, our previous recorder (Mike Housewright), made some serious errors concerning his wife,” Cooper informed the crowd of attendees at the meeting. “As a result, there are several dollars he owes this town.”

He continued on to say that Lee Manning, Mountain Harvest Kitchen manager, has gotten stuck paying a “small amount rather than a large amount of money” and stated that the town is paying approximately $820 a month to supplement her insurance.

Cooper said he looked over the contract that Manning signed with Housewright, which Cooper said states that the employee pays 100 percent of spousal coverage.

At Cooper’s request, Shults-Davis attempted to contact Housewright over the matter, yet had not heard anything back as of the Monday night meeting.

“The information we have at this point is the misrepresentation is not a payment for the obligation under personnel policy of pay, but the information as to how much she was to pay,” Shults-Davis said. “That was given prior to accepting the job, uprooting a family, and moving to a new location. There appears to have been, based on the records we have so far, some reliance on misinformation, leading to a very significant life change.”

The resolution, as Shults-Davis explained, was intended to bring the matter to a close.

“She did sign it,” Cooper said about the contract.

Alderman Jeff Linville said she had relied on information “through no fault of hers” and added that to pay the high premium would have been a financial burden.

“She was told it was $40 every two weeks,” Linville said.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said although the intent of the resolution was broad, it was specific to one employee.

“This resolution contradicts itself,” Bullen said.”I almost feel like the town is being held hostage.”

Following Bullen’s remarks, Mayor Johnny Lynch gaveled her and stated she was out of line according to Robert’s Rules of Order.

“You accused the person of holding the town hostage … that’s a personal attack,” Lynch said. “You can apologize to the board or remain silent.”

“I’m entitled to voice my opinion,” Bullen responded.

Alderman Doug Hopson stated that he felt the town was “going to make the situation worse” if a remedy wasn’t agreed upon.

Linville made a motion to approve the resolution and it was seconded by Hopson before it passed with Linville, Hopson, and Lynch voting in favor. Bullen and Cooper voted in opposition.

• • •

The board moved on to discuss Shults-Davis’ enrollment in the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS), a topic that was requested to be brought before the board by Cooper, who stated that according to the town’s personnel policy and the TCRS employee handbook, only full-time employees could be enrolled in the system.

Cooper said back in 2013 a former town clerk entered Shults-Davis into TCRS as a part-time employee and stated that the town’s auditor recently caught wind of “questionable payments” by Shults-Davis into TCRS.

“I was looking at the billings and picked up that on every billing of Shults & Shults, that 13.23 percent was being deducted for TCRS,” he said. “In questioning TCRS on it, they told me that yes, the town does have Lois Davis as a participant in TCRS.”

Cooper said in going through the TCRS employee manual, that it lists specific eligible and ineligible employees. According to Cooper, contracted employees and those with a retainer fee, such as a town attorney, are listed as ineligible employees.

“At this point, the state has told the town to stop any more future payments to Miss Davis until they finish their investigation,” he said.

According to Cooper, no town records could be found that show the approximately $30,000 in premiums that he says have been paid by the town.

Shults-Davis said the resolution passed in 2013, also refers to elected officials, appointed officials, and also employees who do work “intermittently” or “periodically.”

She said a former alderman was interested in employee benefits on a number of fronts and felt that not only full-time, but also part-time employees were deserving of benefits, prompting Shults-Davis to do research of her own on the topic.

“My feeling was this is complicated …,” she said. “I began consulting with TCRS … at the conclusion of that what I reported to the board is they had not given me any additional information.”

According to Shults-Davis, it was believed by former city recorder Larry Rea that she was covered under the resolution and also shared that her paystubs clearly show the TCRS deductions.

“I’ve been a town attorney for 18 years,” she said. “There may have been a time when I was a contracted employee … the real question is whether the method and means by which you do your job is part of the town. This job, over 18 years, has become more taxing than it was in the beginning.”

She also voiced concerns that she says she has brought up in the past, concerning a “hostile work environment” in the town, which she cited as a contributing factor to the high turnover rate with city recorders.

“I wish you had brought these concerns to my attention before contacting Nashville,” Shults-Davis told Cooper. “I don’t know if this treatment to me is because of my age after 18 years of service to the town, or if it’s because I’m a woman, or it it’s because there’s this group that wants to control the outcome of the election and who sits on the board … certainly, that’s something voters have a right to know.”

Cooper said his concerns all stem from the fact that the register does not list her as an employee of the town, and added that he was just “bringing out history” and wanted citizens to be aware that a comptroller’s investigation was being held on the matter.

“Currently we are trying to get this settled … where are you going with this?” Lynch asked Cooper.

Cooper replied that the board and those in the town had a right to know what was going on.

Officials: County would need tax increase to fund requests

In their meeting last week, the members of the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee discussed how to address the nearly $1 million in unfunded departmental requests. To fund the request the Unicoi County Commission would need to raise the county’s property tax by approximately 30 cents. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

In a meeting of the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee on July 10, Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman and Budget and Finance Committee member Marie Rice said the county was already “in the red” $703,000. After factoring in unfunded requests of the school system and highway department, a 30-cent tax increase would be needed to meet the unfunded demands that are now approaching $1 million.

“There are three of us (commissioners) that would be hung up on the south end if we did that,” Jamie Harris, a newly-elected commissioner who will take his seat in September, said about a potential tax increase.

Commissioner John Mosley voiced his agreement with Harris that a major tax increase should be avoided and Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris said he was opposed to dipping into the general fund balance, especially for any recurring expenses.

“Five cents would be my max,” Mosley said about a tax increase.

Both Mosley and Commissioner Loren Thomas favored the idea of funding the various county offices the same amount as last year.

• • •

Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes attended last week’s meeting to discuss the Unicoi County Highway Department’s budget, which currently has expenditures coming in at $2,200,437, approximately a $286,000 increase from last year. The department’s total revenues amount to $2,495,372, about a $150,000 decrease, this year. The department’s ending fund balance as of June 30 comes in at $3,153,117, compared to $2,858,182 for last year.

After having two employees retire, Haynes was able to give a 2-percent pay increase to his remaining staff.

Haynes also said last week that his department is in need of three new salt trucks, which are expected to cost approximately $184,000.

“I’ve taken care of my employees and now I’m having to replace these vehicles,” Haynes said. “We’ve got to have some trucks. This salt has eaten them up.”

Haynes also said he is placing the older trucks out to bid on government deals. He also noted that he is in need of a paver; however, he is going to look into leasing options as opposed to purchasing one.

“Those trucks are the main objective. I know that I’ve asked for quite a bit and what you can give I’ll take and if you can’t I’m not going to argue,” he said. “I just can’t keep jumping into my budget and buying equipment.”

The trucks Haynes said he is looking to buy are two one-ton trucks, estimated to cost $48,000 each and one 10-ton truck, which costs approximately $88,000. Haynes also mentioned that a Tunnel Creek Bridge replacement is on the horizon, a project he is currently sorting out with the state.

“Everything has to be on site to replace that bridge in 16 hours,” he said. “The state has done condemned that bridge and shut it down.”

Rice asked about reimbursement from the state for the Higgins Creek bridge replacement. Haynes reported that the department has received $50,000 thus far, with more funds on the way. For the $888,000 project, the state will ultimately be funding over $600,000.

When the committee moved back to the topic of funding Haynes’ requested trucks, he once again displayed his willingness to work within the county’s funding to the best of his ability.

“You guys can get one I’m good to go, get two I’m better, and if you get three I’m tickled to death,” he said. “I’m not hard to get along with. I understand that there are other officeholders who need help too.”

Mosley questioned what Haynes would do if the county was unable to provide funding for the trucks and Haynes stated that he would have to somehow figure it out within his budget because there was no way to avoid the need for the trucks.

After hearing from Haynes, Thomas expressed appreciation for his work at the department, especially with recent bridge repair and securing state aid. No decision or recommendation was made regarding the trucks until more of the county’s budget requests have been examined.

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet again on Wednesday, July 18, at 6 p.m. in the conference room at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

Erwin BMA hopes to find budget savings

Town officials discuss the hundreds of thousands of dollars that could potentially be saved through a refinancing offer with the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Kendal Groner

A refinancing offer presented to Town of Erwin officials in a budget workshop on July 12 showed a total of $316,750 in savings are available for next fiscal year, in addition to approximately $740,000 in new monies, locked in at a fixed interest rate.

Officials heard from Steve Queener from the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund, who examined the town’s three current capital outlays which total $1,327,803.

“In this proposal, what we have done is extend those maturities a little,” Queener said. “If you choose to leave the maturities the same, that’s up to you.”

The town currently has an $800,000 note from 2012, which they still owe $350,000 on before it matures in 2022. Of a $1,125,000 note from 2013, the town still owes $657,803 before it matures in 2025. A total of $320,000 is still owed on a 2018 note in the amount of $350,000 that expires in 2028. Queener extended the 2012 note that matures in 2022 by another four years, and also extended the 2013 note that expires in 2025 by two more years. By extending the maturity dates, the town will not have to make a debt service payment of $80,000 that is due in June 2019 on the 2012 note, $93,750 due in September 2018 on the 2013 note and $35,000 due April 2019 on the 2018 note.

“That’s $208,750 that you would not be required to pay next fiscal year by us restructuring it into the fixed rate program,” Queener said.

Queener also went back and evaluated the $3.5 million note used for the town’s downtown revitalization projects and was able to waive and spread out the $108,000 payment due this year over the course of 11 years.

“If you want to shorten that 11 years and you want to pay it over the next five years, you can do that,” he said. “You just can’t take it and put it at the end.”

In addition to the $316,750 in savings Queener was able to offer on debt service payments, he was also able to offer $747,000 in new monies to be used for capital expenditures such as new fire trucks, police cars and long-term public works projects.

“Including that, that brings you a total of $2,074,803,” Queener said about the town’s total debt. “What we put together for you is a 15-year, fixed rate program at 3.95 percent for the full 15 years.” 

Town officials were also told by Queener last week that the new monies could be put on a draw program, meaning instead of paying interest on the entire $747,000, the town would only pay interest on the amount they draw as they complete various projects.

“I think the enhancement part of this, is it saves you a little money on your debt service this year so you don’t have to make any payments this year,” said Queener. “You will not have any payments until September 2019.”

Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff asked Queener if it would limit the town’s ability to make principal payments. Queener stated that if the town were to pay it off in the first eight years, there would be a 1-percent prepay penalty; however, after that, there would be no penalty and additional principal payments could be made at any time.

• • •

Prior to hearing from Queener last week, Rosenoff said the town was currently at an 8.04 cent budget gap with revenues of approximately $6.6 million, and expenditures of approximately $6.7 million. However, just based on the $108,000 in savings on the $3.5 million note, he said that puts the town at a savings of 8.46 cents.

“Those savings look good for next year,” said Doris Hensley, Town of Erwin mayor. “I think that covers everything we ever wished for in the town.”

Alderman Mark Lafever cautioned that while the savings looked appealing, officials should consider the ramifications of incurring more debt service.

“We have to look at two or three years down the road…” Lafever said. “I know we’re freeing up a lot, but if this is going to stack up on the debt service to where in two years we’ll be looking at more issues, we need to be aware of that,” Lafever said.

Rosenoff agreed to formulate projections for the town’s total debt service over the next three years and compare it to the $557,199 of debt service the town currently has. Queener informed town officials that they were in “a little crunch time” in order to meet the Sept. 1 deadline for the outlay note extensions and stated that a resolution of support would need to be passed by the Erwin Board of Mayor and Alderman by the end of July.

Pyranha kayak company coming to Erwin

The former Cherokee Adventures, located at 2000 Jonesborough Road, will soon house Pyranha, one of the leading manufacturers in whitewater kayaks. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The announcement that Pyranha, a manufacturer of specialist whitewater kayaks headquartered in the United Kingdom, will be relocating its North American distribution base to Erwin shows that Unicoi County continues to become a focal point for outdoor recreation.

According to a recent press release, Pyranha was drawn to Erwin not only due to a favorable tax climate, but also because of its impressive natural assets. A leader in research and development of polymer kayaks since the 1970s, Pyranha has chosen a spot alongside the Nolichucky River where it will distribute kayaks as far as the West Coast and across Canada.

“This is exactly the result we hope to see as we continue to encourage investment in our natural capital as a form of economic development,” said Kayla Carter, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership’s Outdoor Development manager. “Erwin is ahead of the trend in terms of tapping into the outdoors as a form of economic vitality. All of our regional partners should take note and follow suit as we will all benefit from Pyranha’s investment in Erwin.”

The company will be locating at 2000 Jonesborough Road, formerly Cherokee Adventures, across from the rock landform known as the “Devil’s Looking Glass.” Pyranha is expected to invest up to $1 million in property, plant and equipment at their new distribution site. Eight to 12 new jobs are also expected to be created.

The Outdoor Industry Association cites outdoor recreation as a powerful economic driver and as of 2017 measured that $1.59 billion was spent on each year in the 1st Congressional District in Tennessee.

“That is a huge economic impact and in Unicoi County alone tourism is a multi-million dollar industry,” said Tyler Engle, director of the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board. “It employs nearly 100 people, so we see that impact on our property taxes, sales tax and that’s a direct release on each household in Unicoi County when we have people who aren’t from here spending money. Pyranha has been in Asheville for many years and we are pleased to see these jobs coming over the mountain.”

Mike Patterson, Pyranha US head of operations, said the company’s North American distribution headquarters have been in Asheville for more than 18 years; however, as business costs rose, Patterson said the surrounding infrastructure became “strained and overly saturated.”

“My wife, Melanie, and I are longtime Erwin residents and we saw no better option than Unicoi County when tasked with finding a more suitable location for the company,” Patterson said. “The proximity to Interstate 26 along with the low cost of living, affordable real estate and low taxes make Erwin and Unicoi County the obvious choice.”

Patterson said while looking for somewhere to relocate the company, the new facility was one of the first spots that came to mind, which is also capable of accommodating any future desires to expand.

“We think there is no better place for a kayak company to locate,” he said. “Unicoi County is sometimes overlooked in favor of larger metropolitan areas. However, as an outdoor-focused company, we like the direction that Erwin and Unicoi County are headed with respect to promoting and capitalizing on outdoor recreational opportunities. We feel strongly about the area’s potential and hope to play a part in the economic growth of this place we love so much.”

The Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County is expected to make presentations related to the project to committees of the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County governments in the coming weeks. JEDB Chairman Lee Brown also expressed his excitement for the company, which he calls a “natural fit” for Unicoi County and the Nolichucky River.

“Pyranha has decided to capitalize on the great opportunities in Unicoi County for outdoor recreation and lower cost of doing business here,” Brown said. “It is a great pleasure to welcome Pyranha to our growing stable of outdoor recreation providers in Unicoi County.”

New plant coming to Erwin

This property on South Industrial Drive in Erwin is the new home of Old Hickory Buildings and Statesville Barn Company. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Kendal Groner

The upward trend of Erwin’s economic climate continues with last week’s announcement that Old Hickory Buildings and Statesville Barn Company, the nation’s leading manufacturer of residential outbuildings, will be locating its new plant at 1090 S. Industrial Drive in the Riverview Industrial Park in Erwin.

“We’re so excited,” said Tyler Engle, president of the Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Board. “We are very happy to have Old Hickory and Statesville Barn join us here in Unicoi County. The Economic Development Board is glad to partner with companies to help them have the greatest possible degree of success when they choose our community for their project.”

According to a press release issued last week, the company, which has more than 40 manufacturing locations around the county and headquartered in North Carolina, had considered other small communities in Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia before choosing Erwin.

Engle said the manufacturer expects to invest up to $3 million in property, plant and equipment at the site, while offering 20 jobs in the first year.

“I am excited to bring our business into a community like Erwin,” said John Linder, general manager of the Erwin Plant. “We look forward to providing jobs to hometown people and serving the community and surrounding areas.”

The building that Old Hickory Building and Statesville Barn Company is currently refitting for their needs was previously an engineering shop that has remained vacant for nearly two years following the closure of the CSX rail yard.

“One great thing about Old Hickory, they are not only going to be manufacturing buildings in that location, but also they will have a retail outlet, so their location along I-26 is really perfect,” Engle said.

The onsite retail outlet will sell buildings constructed at the Riverview Site to the general public and serve those in East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia and Upstate South Carolina. The site is expected to be fully operational in the fourth quarter of this year, with a formal announcement and ribbon cutting ceremony planned for later this summer.

“We are really excited about the opportunity it’s going to bring,” Engle said. “I think that Unicoi County is definitely in a great place and people are paying much closer attention to us as a destination for manufacturing and businesses.”

Unicoi County Budget & Finance Committee address sheriff’s budget – again

Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, left, and Commissioner Glenn White listen as the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee discusss several of Hensley’s unfunded budget requests during a workshop. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

A second budget workshop was held on July 3 by the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee to discuss funding for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, whose requests total approximately $500,000 more than last year, for a total budget that is approximately $2 million. In addition to approving a new nurse for the two jails, the board moved several items over to become capital projects and made around $100,000 worth of cuts. In the first budget workshop held with Sheriff Mike Hensley last month, the committee agreed to fund a total of four deputies, three criminal investigators and a full-time secretarial position.

The first item discussed by the committee last week was overtime pay, which was originally requested at $40,000, a $30,000 increase from last year’s budget.

“I’ve only got a certain few jailers that can handle these transports,” said Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. “The comp time was getting right at the max … I’ve tried to cut down on the comp time, but they’re the only ones that can do what needs to be done.”

Hensley said because of the courts there are numerous transports they are having to make to other counties to bring inmates back to Unicoi County. Jailers have to take 40-hour in-service training, and unlike deputies, who receive a supplement check from the state, the correctional officers do not.

“So it falls on me to pay them,” Hensley said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman and Budget and Finance Committee member Marie Rice asked how many hours of overtime Hensley estimated they needed. He replied that because of the line of work, it was difficult to estimate.

It was suggested by Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Todd Wilcox to cut the overtime pay and give Hensley the opportunity to approach the board if he needed more funding down the road. A general consensus was made to cut the overtime pay line item from $40,000 to $20,000.

Although the committee had approved a full-time secretarial position, with a cost of $35,000, for the sheriff’s department last month, Hensley said he currently has a more immediate need for an additional nurse at the jails.

“There’s no question I need another secretary, but this is more pressing than a new secretary,” Hensley said. “I need another full-time nurse if I am going to cover two jails.”

With 38 women and 62 males currently housed at the jails, Hensley said the nurse had informed him she was overwhelmed with the workload due to the jails being at maximum capacity.

“Some of them aren’t even sentenced … that’s part of the problem,” he said. “Once they’re sentenced they become state prisoners.”

Although the $35,000 cost to hire an LPN at the jails had not been factored into the budget, Hensley suggested moving the $35,000 line item that had been reserved for a new secretary. The committee also saw a need for an additional nurse and supported the addition of the new position by exchanging it for the secretary position.

Before discussing the need for a maintenance and repair position, Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Gene Wilson inquired what amount was contributed by the Town of Unicoi to the department.

“Not one dime,” Hensley responded.

Wilson asked how much was contributed by the county to the Town of Unicoi to the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department and Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Loren Thomas said he believed it was $15,000 or $30,000.

“Well, we outta take 30 or 15 away from them (fire department) … you know if Unicoi is going to do that,” Wilson said. “The county already funds those non-profits. The Town of Unicoi wants to be a city and get all this money, but they don’t want to pay for nothing.”

“That’s between you all,” Hensley replied to Wilson.

The committee moved on to discuss the maintenance and repair position, which Hensley estimated would cost $35,000. He cited vehicle repairs and updates, along with maintenance work to the two jails such as the installation of allied piping, as reasons a full-time position was needed to cover those maintenance duties.

“I’m having to rely on Family Auto Care out here to do the oil changes and the brakes and everything and it’s very expensive,” said Hensley. “I promise you it will save the county money by doing this.”

Wilson suggested a part-time mechanic he knew in the area, but it was mentioned by Unicoi County Commissioner and Budget and Finance Committee member Glenn White that unless the mechanic is ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified it could open the county up to lawsuits.

Wilson said the individual he had in mind may be certified and also stated that he didn’t see the need to hire someone full-time.

“You’re not going to get a certified mechanic to work part-time,” said Hensley. “Another thing, I’m trying to get by with one person when I really need two.” 

The committee asked Hensley to add the maintenance and repair position into the budget for future consideration.

Hensley had requested $12,000 for vehicle tubes and tires, a $6,000 increase from last year.

“You can’t just go up here and get the cheapest set of tires for a police car … and if you run over a nail, you can’t just put a plug in it,” Hensley said.

Rice asked how much each set of tires cost and Hensley estimated $600 per pair.

Wilson said he didn’t believe 10 sets of tires could be used in a year, but Hensley said with the amount the vehicles on the roads, they wear down quickly. He said there were also trash trucks and jail vehicles to take into consideration. The committee agreed to leave the tubes and tires line item at $12,000.

• • •

White asked what the general fund balance would be looking like for this year, which prompted Wilcox and Wilson to question whether they should be pulling from the account.

“So you’re going to break the general fund?” Wilson asked.

White said he would like to take about $300,000 from it to fuel some of the unfunded requests for the sheriff’s department.

“We still need more numbers to come in, but I’m hoping it will be pretty good,” said Phyllis Bennett, Unicoi County finance director and bookkeeper, about the fund balance.

With the discussion of the fund balance on the table came a heated argument between White and Wilson.

“Don’t start with your insults,” White said to Wilson.

“The only thing you want is more government …” Wilson said.

“I’m not starting no insults,” Wilson said.

“I don’t want to listen to what you think,” said White.

White told Wilson he “didn’t know what he was talking about” before Wilson said White was “on the fence” with everything.

“You think I’m going to listen to your crap,” White replied.

A series of personal insults were then hurled by both White and Wilson before Wilson exited the meeting. On Monday, July 9, White sent a letter to the editor issuing an apology for his remarks towards Wilson.

“I am not concerned on what opinions were directed towards me, my response was just wrong; and I want to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Gene,” White’s letter reads on page 4-A.

While discussing the general fund, Bennett had also cautioned the committee on the dangers of letting the balance drop too low.

“If any of you were around here four or five years ago when we had a $30,000 fund balance, you could not come back … that’s why it’s dangerous to take $500,000 out of it,” she said. “We’ve got to keep our fund balance up there.”

Following Wilson’s departure from the meeting, White said there was no way getting around the fact that the sheriff’s department was going to have significant increases for this year.

“I don’t know how much it’s going to be, but going and cutting five here or 10 there, I mean I just don’t see it,” White said.

For new police cars, Hensley had $77,200 budgeted. He said last week that he recently bought one new vehicle out of military surplus funds and two used vehicles for investigators out of the government surplus. However, with new deputies and a new investigator, he said there was still a need for at least three to four more vehicles.

“I’ve got a total of eight crown vics and every one is worn out …,” Hensley added. “I have one investigator car and it’s completely gone and needs to be replaced … plus I have a new investigator now that needs a car.”

Last year, two vehicles were purchased from the general fund balance and Rice asked if Hensley could purchase an additional vehicle from the government surplus. Hensley said it wasn’t just the money that was the issue, but also the time. He said it could take at least six to eight weeks to get a vehicle on the lot and then after that he has to get it equipped.

“I want to be conservative and I want to save as much as I can, but when the rubber meets the road … I’ve got to have vehicles to answer calls,” Hensley said.

Rice said the county has received a $25,000 grant that can be used to supplement the purchase of one vehicle. The committee agreed that the purchase of the vehicles should be considered a capital expense and dropped the $77,200 Hensley had budgeted for vehicles down to zero.

Another pressing issue Hensley brought to the committee’s attention was the need for improvements to radio communications, which he had budgeted at $30,000. According to Hensley, there have been serious radio communications issues. In order to fix them, the antennae on Buffalo Mountain needs to be raised 20 foot in addition to installing another receiver at Martin’s Creek.

“We only have one repeater and if that repeater tower goes down, we are out of communications and I was unaware of that until about two months ago,” Hensley said.

Whether it was his responsibility or the responsibility of the Unicoi County 911 Board to address the issue, is something Hensley said he was still unclear on. Either way, he maintained it was imperative it be fixed.

“If not, we’re going to find ourselves without communication,” Hensley said.

The committee agreed to fund the $30,000 to raise the tower and install the new repeater as a capital expense and cut the amount Hensley had budgeted down to $5,000.

Hensley had $70,000 budgeted for maintenance and repair to the workhouse jail, which included a $48,000 project for fencing of the impound lot. After meeting with the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS), Hensley said the county will be facing issues if they do not fence in the lot.

“It’s a liability on the county,” Hensley said.

He said he believed it would cost more than $40,000 once the electric wiring was factored in to operate the gate. He also stated that the Unicoi County 911 Board had agreed to provide $12,000 towards the project.

Rice said the County Commission had previously approved $15,000 on the fence and Hensley believed the issue had come back before the Commission. However, Bennett said the one bid received was too high and was turned down during a meeting, but new bids never came back before them.

“We need quotes on it and we need more information because we can’t budget for something we don’t have a cost on,” Rice said. “We’ve already approved $15,000 and they’ve approved $12,000, so you’re more than two-thirds of the way there.”

The committee cut the maintenance line item down to $10,000 with the understanding that the fencing would also be bundled as a capital expense project.

The last item discussed by the committee was the need for two camera systems at the jail due to compatibility issues between the two current systems.

“The existing cameras aren’t working,” Hensley said.

Hensley estimated it would be a total cost of approximately $24,000 to replace the camera systems. Although the cost was not included in the budget, the committee also decided that it should be included as a capital expense.

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee will continue their budget workshops on Wednesday, July 11, at 6 p.m. in the Unicoi County Courthouse conference room where they will be discussing the Unicoi County 911 Board’s budget.

Town of Erwin BMA puts property tax increase on table

Town of Erwin officials hear from Steve Queener with the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund, pictured third from left, during a budget workshop held Monday, July 2, where the topic of debt refinancing was discussed. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

During a budget workshop held on Monday, July 2, Town of Erwin officials discussed the town’s current debt service, a three-percent salary increase for employees and property owned by CSX that is currently for sale.

Steve Queener with the Tennessee Municipal Bond Fund (TMBF) attended the workshop to provide assistance to the town officials in their discussions on their current debt service and new needs they might have. The TMBF provides a capital outlay program, a fixed interest rate program and a variable interest rate program for cities in Tennessee.

“What we try to do is see if a city has a need and if their need fits one of those programs,” Queener said. “You guys have been loyal supporters of the bond fund for several years.”

Queener said the town currently has the original $2.68 million from November of 1995 and currently owes $793,000 at the current 2.39 percent interest rate. There was also another $1.3 million from 2009, with an outstanding debt of $1,021,00 and a current interest rate of 2.36 percent. The most recent was the $3.5 million borrowed in 2014 for renovations to downtown.

There is currently $3,098,000 in debt still owed on that loan, with a current interest rate of 2.71 percent.

“Those rates change each Wednesday,” Queener said. “With the fixed rate program, interest rates have gone up. The variable rate has went up some, but not as rapidly.”

Queener said many cities are starting to look toward the variable interest rates and on the $2.68 million loan, the town has paid a little over $1 million in interest, compared to the approximately $2 million they would have paid with the fixed rate program. For the $1.3 million loan, the town has paid $141,800 in interest, opposed to the $417,000 they would have paid with a fixed rate, for savings of $275,000. Finally, for the $3.5 million loan, the town has paid $154,134 in interest, as opposed to the $430,527 with the fixed rate program, a savings of $276,000.

“You’re probably looking at 3.25 to four percent today,” Queener said about the fixed rate program. “That’s just a guess … much more than the three figures I just gave you.”

Rosenoff asked if the town were to refinance, if they would be obligated to pay the principal payments during the next fiscal year, with the next payment coming up in September.

“If we got it closed out before then, it wouldn’t be a problem,” Queener said. “We’d be happy to shoot some numbers back at you.”

• • •

After figuring in new numbers, the Town of Erwin currently has proposed revenues of approximately $6.58 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year and approximately $6.62 in expenditures.

Changes from the previously balanced budget come from the addition of two new police officers into the budget and the lowering of expected Community Planning Transportation Grant Funds from $125,000 to $40,500 in grant revenues.

With these additions, the town would need a 3.49-cent property tax increase to balance the budget, Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said Monday. Should the officials want to include a three-percent salary increase for employees, the town will need a 9.76-cent property tax increase to balance the budget; a four-percent raise would need a 11.17-cent property tax increase; and a five-percent raise would require a 12.58-cent property tax increase.

“If we redo the bond or refund, it’s going to change that debt service line item, so we’re still not seeing the end game yet,” said Town of Erwin Alderman Mark Lafever. “So, in my opinion, we need to be prepared for a small increase, but it still doesn’t reflect what we are going to be looking at once we decide what to do with the debt service.”

Rosenoff said if they went the route of refunding or refinancing, he didn’t anticipate that the total debt service of $557,198 would be drastically reduced.

“If we go this route and refund this, we will still have interest, but I don’t think the payments will be due until next fiscal year,” Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said.

Hensley said she believed those savings would be enough to cover the three-percent raise and possibly a five-percent raise without having a major tax increase. She also stated that from previous fiscal years, it seems to work best if the town incrementally raises taxes instead of going several years without any increases and then having a large increase all at once.

“I think a little bit of an increase each year is better than one really big one,” Town of Erwin Alderman Gary Chandler said.

A general consensus was reached among the officials to include a three-percent salary raise  for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

• • •

Also during the workshop, the CSX-owned property up for sale where the Hoover dump site currently sits was also a topic of discussion.

“There was an industry about five years ago that wanted to buy the Morgan Insulation and they really got upset that we didn’t want them here because they were a sawmill,” Hensley said.

The same company has contacted CSX and offered to buy the eight-acre tract where the Hoover dump site sits.

“The county has first refusal because they are the ones leasing it,” said Hensley.

The county was offered the property at $25,000 an acre, for a total cost of $225,000, which includes the home of Unicoi County Little League. However, due to concerns of contamination, the Unicoi County Commission voted in its June 25 meeting to table discussions on the property purchase until it has been further inspected.

“I am proposing we buy the back four acres which is directly behind the Hoover property, which is going to be developed here very shortly for $100,000,” Hensley said. “We can let the county buy the trash site there and keep it.”

Hensley envisions the area as a potential site for a dog park and mentioned that it would be  prime location with adequate parking space. She also said that the noise and air pollution from a sawmill could impact the Erwin Linear Trail and potential developments.

“I’m afraid if the new developer finds out that there will be a sawmill right behind them that they will pull up their stakes and leave,” said Hensley.

Rosenoff said that he had already reached out to a CSX representative that has been speaking with the county and asked them to include the town in future negotiations and discussions. He said the Town of Erwin Planning Commission does have a rule for an industry such as a sawmill in terms of regulating noise or other pollutions.

“I think part of the conversation about the four acres, when we negotiate that, they should understand that we deserve and need that Little League field,” said Lafever

“There’s a lot of kids around here that benefit from it,” added Fire Chief Darren Bailey.

Hensley expressed concerns as to whether or not the railroad would even entertain negotiations with the town since they are already involved in discussions with the county.

“If the county says no (on purchasing the property), then where does that leave us?” she asked.

Lafever expressed similar concerns to Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland regarding the history of the property and potential contamination. Hensley said she had spoken with Gary Tysinger, project manager with Tysinger, Hampton & Partners, Inc., who told her there was no contamination on the property.

“I know Kenneth Garland said differently,” she said. “Even if there was spillage down there, we won’t be building on it.”

A general consensus was reached during the meeting for the town to engage in discussions with the county regarding the property. Hensley entertained the idea that if negotiations prove unsuccessful and the county votes to not purchase the property, that the town could possibly purchase all eight acres if given the same offer and then lease a portion of the property back to the county.

On Monday, July 9, at 3 p.m., the Town of Erwin will host another budget workshop to further discuss debt service and refinancing options.

Blue Forever donates trauma kits to Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department

Kellie Abbott, founder of the non-profit organization Blue Forever, is pictured with Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley as she donates belt trauma kits to the department. Each kit contains emergency medical supplies such as QuickClot Combat Gauze, SWAT-T tourniquets, a face shield and latex gloves. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department is now one of the more than 66 law enforcement agencies that have received life-saving Belt Trauma Kits from the non-profit organization, Blue Forever.

Blue Forever was the brainchild of Kellie Abbott, who founded the organization as her high school senior project following the tragic death of her friend Sergeant Tim Prunty with the Shreveport Police Department in 2010.

“This guy was essentially just trying to kill a police officer and he saw Tim’s car outside while he was talking with this girl,” Abbott said. “He shot at Tim, and (Tim) shielded the girl and pushed her out of the way … he was shot many times, but one of them was in the femoral artery and he bled out.”

Abbott, a Louisiana native and Mississippi State graduate, who is currently in her second year of pharmacy school at East Tennessee State University, said she will be forever impacted by the tragic loss of Sergeant Prunty. With both of her parents having dedicated careers to law enforcement, Abbott saw a need for medical resources officers could carry with them to stop profuse bleeding in the event of an emergency.

“It was really impactful and something I will forever carry with me,” Abbott said about Prunty’s death. 

Even though the first officer on the scene arrived shortly after Prunty was shot, Abbott said the only resource they had to use in an attempt to stop Prunty’s bleeding were ripped up shirts.

“The reason it was such a big deal is he bled out and that is one of the most preventable deaths in general,” she said.

After the loss of Prunty, Abbott saw a news bit about QuikClot Combat Gauze, a hemostatic gauze made by Z-Medica that can be used to control serious bleeding until emergency medical services or another officer can arrive at the scene of an incident. After hearing about the QuikClot Combat Gauze, Abbott was inspired to create the Belt Trauma Kits, which along with the gauze contain a SWAT-T tourniquet, a face shield and a pair of latex gloves.

Close to 2,800 kits have been donated in 14 states and Abbott estimates that they have been utilized at least 30 times thus far. One life was saved with the QuikClot Combat Gauze at the Shreveport Police Department in 2015 after a teenage boy was shot by a high powered rifle.

“He was shot in the buttocks area so a tourniquet couldn’t be used and the QuikClot Gauze was able to be used,” Abbott said. “Emergency Medical Services was unable to get into the scene because it was an insecure scene.”

Last week, Abbott stopped by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department to donate 20 of the Belt Trauma Kits. It is estimated that only 50 percent of law enforcement agencies across the United States have access to some sort of tourniquet kit.

“I think this is a great idea and your experience is what sets this in stone. You saw there was a need for this,” Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said to Abbott. “You’ll be blessed by what you’ve done here … there’s no doubt you can save hundreds of lives with these kits.”

Hensley mentioned that law enforcement are typically the first responders on any emergency scene and a cut to a major artery can be life threatening and make “every second count.” He also pointed out that with the Nolichucky River and the Appalachian Trail in Unicoi County, that the department is frequently conducting search and rescues in situations where the kits can be utilized.

“It will be put to good use and undoubtedly it can make the difference between life and death,” he said. “As a sheriff, I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

To date, Abbott has raised more than $200,000 for the Blue Forever non-profit through T-shirt sales, donations and various fundraisers.

“It’s crazy how it’s come from essentially nothing. It’s completely grassroots and even a $20 donation is a big thing to us,” she said. “It’s heartwarming for me to be able to have done this and impact so many lives. I’m just trying to make as big of an impact as I can throughout the United States.”

To learn more about Blue Forever or to make a donation, visit blueforever.org, or their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/blueforeverinc/.

Communities plan events for festive July 4 holiday

By Kendal Groner

Unicoi County residents will not have to travel far to have a festive Independence Day as communities throughout the county have special events planned to celebrate the nation’s birthday day.

Flag Pond

The Flag Pond Ruritan Club will be hosting its annual 4th of July celebration on Saturday, June 30, beginning at 4 p.m. at the Flag Pond Community Center (Old Flag Pond School) at 110 School House Road.

“We had a good turnout last year, we always do,” said Richard Waldrop, Flag Pond Ruritan Club president. “We usually do it on Saturday before the 4th because a lot of people have to work and they don’t like to come on the 4th.”

The free event will include a parade, lawnmower races, corn hole competition, food and live music. The lineup for the parade will be at 5:30 p.m. before it begins at 6 p.m.

“It starts at the school, goes down the road and there’s a turnaround I’d say a quarter of a mile before they come back by the school,” Waldrop said. “Anybody that wants to ride, walk, run or ride a bicycle, they’re welcome to.”

Waldrop recalls around 32 participants in the parade last year, many of whom came on four-wheelers that were decorated in traditional red, white and blue.

Following the parade, the lawn mower race will take place on school grounds and those that wish to participate must sign up prior to the race and sign a waiver.

“We had 10 compete last year,” said Waldrop. “It’s just standard lawnmowers is what they use. I think we give $20 as the cash prize for the winner.”

Musical entertainment will be provided by the Spivey Mountain Boys and the Ruritan Club will have food available for sale.

“We have hamburgers and hotdogs, nachos, desserts, and drinks … all the usual,” Waldrop said. 

A fireworks show is expected to begin at approximately 9:30 p.m, with the fireworks being provided by the Ruritan Club and set off by the local fire department.

“They lasted 45 minutes to an hour last year, but it may be a little after 9:30 before we start,” Waldrop said. “We like to wait until it gets really dark. We have a good time with this event. We have it so the whole family can come and have fun.”

For more information about the event, or for directions, contact Richard Waldrop at 388-8929, or Flag Pond Ruritan Club Vice President Judee Krom at 919-428-5619.

Town of Erwin

In an effort to recognize and honor the veterans in this area on Independence Day, the Town of Erwin is hosting a Welcome Home Veterans Parade that will begin at 11 a.m. in downtown Erwin.

Town of Erwin Communications Coordinator Jamie Rice said that this July 4 will give all veterans, from World War II up to the Middle East Conflict, a chance to be honored for their service.

“This parade was really planned to honor veterans who may not have been honored when they came home initially, especially the Vietnam veterans,” Rice said. “A lot of times soldiers come home and they don’t really receive the fanfare that they should. This is our way of saying we appreciate you, you are not forgotten and we want to honor you today.”

The former Morgan Insulation Property on Second Street will be utilized as the staging area for all of the vehicles and floats. Those who are walking or riding bicycles will be meeting at the parking lot of Erwin Town Hall before the parade commences.

“We had several thousand last year,” Rice said about parade attendance. “We had four professional floats that were designated just for veterans and then we probably had another 20 convertibles with veterans in them. We had a Jeep club come and probably 50 people decorated their bicycles, scooters and red wagons for the parade.”

This year, the alumni marching band will team up with the Unicoi County High School marching band to perform in the parade. Rice said they have also invited people to bring their pets, dressed in celebratory red, white and blue if they wish, and have them walk in the parade.

A special place will be reserved in the parade for any area Medal of Honor recipients and special transportation will be provided for veterans who prefer to ride rather than walk the parade.

“They’re more than welcome to ride on any of the floats,” said Rice. “We have three floats reserved for them and we also have a float with seats if they can’t stand.”

Following the parade, the Town of Erwin will be providing refreshments, hot dogs and treats at the Unicoi County Veterans Memorial Park on South Elm Street.

“We will have a shuttle for veterans to get them back from the park to the starting point of the parade,” said Rice. “There will be lots convertibles available to carry veterans as well.”

On the football field, a kids area will be set up with water inflatable slides to give children a fun opportunity to cool off after walking in the parade.

“Northridge Community Church has generously sponsored that kids area and they will be providing popsicles, water balloons and lots of fun ways to cool off up there,” Rice said.

For more information about the parade, contact Jamie Rice at 220-7624.

Town of Unicoi

The annual Freedom Fest hosted by the Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch will continue for its 16th year.

On July 4 beginning at 5 p.m., event attendees and organizers will gather at Unicoi Elementary School, 404 Massachusetts Ave., for Independence Day festivities.

“It actually started in the backyard of Mark Ramsey (former Town of Unicoi Alderman),” said Tina Wilcox, Town of Unicoi office manager. “When they outgrew his house, they moved it to (Unicoi United) Methodist Church before moving it to the elementary school.”

Once the ceremony begins, there will be a presentation of colors, followed by the National Anthem performed by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and an invocation from Eddie Blazer, pastor of the Unicoi Church of God.

“We grow and grow each year,” Wilcox said of the event. “Ours is always on the 4th no matter which day it falls on.”

Although Wilcox said the event incurs a great deal of publicity just through word of mouth, this year the town has put up a large highway banner inside the town to advertise, in addition to four electronic billboard signs in Johnson City.

“People come even from North Carolina,” said Wilcox. “We hear that they run across us a couple of times and now it’s becoming a family tradition because they enjoy it so much.”

Starting at 5:15 p.m., musical entertainment will begin starting with Brimleaf & Sonarflare, followed by Broadstreet Station at 6:45 p.m., and then Carson Peters & Iron Mountain at 8:15 p.m.

The musical performers are described as playing a variety of genres ranging from bluegrass to country to rock. Once night falls, the fireworks show will begin. The fireworks will be set off by Danny Coffie and Tony Street.

“It usually lasts a good 15 to 30 minutes,” Wilcox said. “Every year we try to add more and more popular and new fireworks.”

Concessions provided by the Unicoi Ruritan Club, such as hamburgers, hotdogs and funnel cakes, will be available for purchase.

“The gathering of the people is my favorite part about this event each year,” Wilcox said. “Everyone gets together and brings their own chairs, blankets and coolers to hang out. People share old history and jokes; it’s a great community gathering, almost like a block party before the fireworks.”

Town of Erwin officials continue budget, interest rate discussions

Members of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen joined town department heads in a budget workshop held on Monday, June 25. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Prior to their June 25 meeting, the members of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen sat down for a budget session to discuss whether it would be in the town’s best interest to refinance some of its debt before they approved an amendment to their previously passed budget ordinance.

In their pursuance of possibly restructuring their debt, the town has consulted with Cumberland Securities Inc, Raymond James Financial Services and the Tennessee Municipal League.

The board was previously advised by Cumberland Securities Inc. to forgo the variable interest rates on their approximately $5.5 million in debt and instead opt for fixed rates to ultimately save money.

“If we go with a set rate, we’re going to be paying interest at that high rate. But right now, if it does go up, it will go up in small increments,” said Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley. “By going with the variable rate, as opposed to the fixed rate, we have saved $272,000.”

By going with a fixed interest rate, Hensley said the town would be paying a four or five percent rate, as opposed to the high one percent or low two percent they have been, which would continue to slowly increase.

The board agreed to meet next week, on Monday, July 2, at 10 a.m. to discuss with TML what route would be most beneficial for the town.

• • •

Budget talks then turned to long-term projects for the public works department, including resurfacing and striping. The roads included in the resurfacing and striping projects are: Washington, Adams, Monroe, Spruce, Holly Mill, Harris Hollow and Temple Hill.

“We think with the roads and striping, hopefully, it’ll be about $140,000 for those projects,” Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said.

Hensley asked about cash on hand to fund the projects and Rosenoff said currently there was around $120,000 in the bank, with projected revenues of $192,000.

“I think basically we’re trying to do some roads with our current gas tax,” he said. “I do think we would have to space out cash on hand for the two big projects. I think we’d do just fine to do that.”

Hensley asked if that would deplete the money available and Rosenoff said he expected there to still be monies left to start 2019.

“I project we’ll probably have $30,000 at the end of the year,” Rosenoff said.

Hensley also mentioned giving the town employees an annual raise for the fiscal year 2018-19.

“This is something I’ve been adamant about is giving our employees an annual raise, because I think they deserve it,” she said. “I would like to have a three percent, if not five percent raise, whatever we can afford.”

A two percent raise for the employees would cost $62,000, a three percent raise would cost $80,000, a four percent would cost $98,000 and five percent would cost $116,000.

Overall, the town’s 2018-19 proposed budget is balanced, with both revenues and expenditures coming in at approximately $6.5 million.

“Based on what we have now, we’re balanced,” Rosenoff said.

Alderman Gary Chandler made a motion to approve the budget amendment, and it was seconded by Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz before it unanimously passed.

• • •

Also during the BMA meeting, the board approved a bid in the amount of $22,248 for firefighting gear after hearing from Fire Chief Darren Bailey.

Out of the three bids that were received, two met the specifications, one being from MidSouth Emergency Equipment in the amount of $29,076, and one from MES (Municipal Emergency Services) in the amount of $22,248.

“The low bidder met the bid specifications and my recommendation is to go with them,” Bailey said. “This is the favorite of myself and the employees.”

Alderman Virgil Moore made a motion to accept the low bid from MES, and his motion was seconded by Hyder-Shurtz before it unanimously passed.

The board also heard from Bailey regarding bids on SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) gear.

Bailey said one bid did not fall within the specifications and said that a multi-jurisdictional bid could allow them to save over $1,000 per month.

“I would like to reject all bids now and ask for permission to go with the multi-jurisdictional bids,” Bailey said.

Aldermen Mark Lafever made a motion to reject the bids and allow Bailey to join the multi-jurisdictional bids in August. His motion was seconded by Hyder-Shurtz before unanimously passing.

• • •

The board also unanimously approved a Unicoi County High School Gridiron Club 5K run/walk on Saturday, July 28, from 7 a.m. to noon.

Sheriff, budget committee spar over budget

Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch, right, listens as Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley defends his budget requests to the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee during a meeting on Tuesday, June 19. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee sat down with Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley on Tuesday, June 19, to discuss funding requests from his department for the 2018-19 budget that include a total of four deputies, three criminal investigators and a full-time secretarial position.

“The bottom line is I don’t have enough people to answer the calls,” Hensley said. “I don’t have enough people to work when the deputies need time off. The compensation time is definitely not working for me because I don’t have enough people to work for those that need time off.”

With not enough deputies on staff at the moment and what Hensley said is a growing workload, he said it is imperative that he receives at least two new deputies; especially in light of new restrictions that extend the period of time it takes to train someone and increased patrol demands.

“It takes a lot of time to get a deputy trained,” he said.

At six months from the date a deputy is hired, a deputy must be put through academy training before riding with a field training officer, a time span that Hensley said stretches eight or nine months.

“I’ve put two patrol officers in the schools and I don’t think we can afford to take them out,” he said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland inquired about state funding for school resource officers and Hensley said he heard word money may “be coming down the pipe,” but there have been no details as to when or how much.

“All these politicians are good for is giving you lip service,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson. “They’re not going to help this county.”

With the Town of Unicoi relying on the sheriff’s department to patrol the Town of Unicoi, Hensley said that has put additional strain on the department.

“They’re counting on me to patrol out there and I need help,” he said.

Garland asked why the Town of Unicoi needs “special treatment” and if they were providing any funding for patrol. Hensley said he sent the Town of Unicoi a letter over a month ago, yet has received no response.

“I’ve got to have four deputies, that’s the bottom line,” Hensley said.

Hensley said he had already eliminated the position of chief deputy, freeing up approximately $46,145 and leaving enough to fund one new deputy which costs around $40,000.

“We may have to start with a new budget because there’s so much in here,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said, “but we can agree on some things today.”

Wilson made a motion to remove the chief deputy line item and replace it with two deputies. It was seconded by Garland before it unanimously passed.

Wilson inquired as to why Hensley was requesting three investigators, as opposed to the two he currently has.

“We’re trying to get one this year and one next year because the two I have are going to retire,” Hensley explained. “I have to have someone to fill their shoes … you can’t do it overnight.”

He also said that the number of calls coming from Walmart, which he is required to respond to, is enough to take up one investigator’s time, not counting the other county crimes. The cost for one investigator with benefits totals approximately $45,080.

“Sheriff, you’ve done a good job the last four years, why do you need more now?” Garland asked.

Hensley said all of the jails in the area are at maximum capacity, many with non-sentenced prisoners and the Tri-Cities crime rate keeps increasing. 

“The simplest way to put this is I’ve got two and I’m requesting three,” Hensley said about the investigators.“I’m trying to be conservative and get by the best we can.”

The general consensus among the commissioners was to to approve the funding for the three investigators, which would provide two to cover those that are retiring and another for next year.

Also up for discussion was Hensley’s request for one full-time secretarial position. He currently has one full-time and one part-time secretarial worker, yet he says the workload is still too demanding.

“The paperwork in the jails is overwhelming,” he said. “On top of that, I am required by law to have someone not affiliated with any cases to be an evidence technician.”

Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris said because the commission didn’t fund a new secretarial position for the mayor, he didn’t see why they should for the sheriff’s department.

It was also pointed out by Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox that the commission hadn’t yet factored in the cost of outfitting vehicles for the new deputies and expressed that he also wasn’t in favor of funding a new secretarial position.

“I want to remind you I’m bringing in a lot of money from the state,” Hensley said.

However, he said there have been multiple occasions his department has been late getting those payments in from the state due to lack of personnel.

Hensley asked if the commission would favor him keeping his full-time secretarial position, costing $35,000 a year and doing away with the part-time position that costs $6,240 a year to instead replace it with a full-time position. Hensley also pointed out that if his secretary, Joy Grindstaff, were to retire the department would be in desperate need of more secretarial assistance.

“You better have something budgeted,” he said. “No one understands what all she does.”

The committee asked Hensley to draft a new budget reflecting the agreed upon changes.

Following their meeting on June 26 to discuss the Unicoi County School System, Agricultural Extension Office and Industrial Development Board’s budgets, the commission will sit down with the sheriff once more to continue discussion of his budget.

Town of Unicoi BMA OKs budget, does not provide funds for SRO

In addition to approving the town’s 2018-19 budget, the members of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, pictured above, approved matching funds for grants and passed a resolution supporting the upcoming July 4 Freedom Fest. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

In its Monday, June 18, meeting, the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved on second reading of the ordinance for the 2018-19 fiscal year budget.

The total revenues reflected in the budget amount to approximately $3.2 million, with approximately $2.7 million in expenditures, leaving a fund balance of $462,650.25. The separate fund created for the Mountain Harvest Kitchen breaks even with both expenditures and revenues amounting to $452,552.47.

The budget shows expenditures of $93,848 for public safety, $481,727 for public works, $119,995 for parks and recreation and $181,219 for debt service.

Prior to a motion being made to approve the budget ordinance, Alderman Jeff Linville took a moment to speak on issues he felt needed clarification. Linville distinguished that the budget on the table was for the Town of Unicoi, not Unicoi County, and said that the town still pays more than its fair share to the county through land taxes. He stated that the average home in Unicoi is valued at $145,000 compared to the $126,000 in the rest of the county.

He also spoke on a matter of previous contention regarding the placement of a school resource officer in Unicoi Elementary.

“The budget does not include anything for a school resource officer because it is too early in the process,” Linville said. “No one that I know of is against an SRO.”

Linville said that each gubernatorial candidate has promised the Town of Unicoi funding for an SRO in the near future.

“In the budget, there is money for the bike trail that has been in our long-range plan for years,” Linville continued.

Linville was referencing the Town of Unicoi Buffalo Valley Connector Trail and Bike Route that will run from the Pinnacle Fire Tower trailhead and go 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. An ARC POWER Grant provides about $300,000 and requires $128,815 in matching funds from the town, for a total project cost of $428,815.

Linville also mentioned that the town will once again be contributing another $5,000 to the Unicoi County 911 Board, the same amount he said the town put forth last year.

“The fire department submitted a request for an amount and we have included that entire amount in this budget, as we have always included everything the fire department has asked for,” he said.

The budget shows $35,600 allocated for the Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department, a slight decrease from the $45,000 that was requested last year. Linville said he was informed by the department that an insurance office rating increase up to a level five is anticipated.

After Linville spoke, Alderman Roger Cooper moved to amend a line item in the amount of $9,800 for the salary of the city recorder to carry out financial duties. His motion to amend the line item was seconded by Alderwoman Kathy Bullen.

“The reason being, we have Rodefer & Moss coming on board and they are going to charge us $1,000 a month,” Cooper said. “I really don’t feel we need to spend another $9,800.”

Linville responded that the $9,800 was budgeted as an “as needed amount” that doesn’t necessarily need to be spent by the town unless it is needed.

“I’m hoping it’s a zero, it could be a $1,000, it could be $8,000,” Linville said. “But the $9,800 will cover it.”

Cooper’s motion to amend the budget failed with Linville, Vice Mayor Doug Hopson and Mayor Johnny Lynch voting in opposition. Bullen and Cooper voted in favor.

“If you’re going to keep money in, even though you’re not going to spend it, it doesn’t hold water for the SRO, but it does for paying someone?” Bullen asked.

Cooper also moved to remove a line item just over $5,000 for the city attorney’s TN Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) payments and payroll taxes. Cooper made a motion to remove the line item and his motion was seconded by Bullen.

“Our personnel policy says you have to be a full-time employee to be able to get on and stay on the TCRS program,” Cooper said. “I think this is a little premature that we do this.”

City attorney Lois Shults-Davis said that she was told she could not pay her own TCRS anymore. She also stated that previous audits and TCRS indicated that this was the preferred way to pay the retirement funds.

“Basically, the town is not paying extra for it, she is contributing to her own TCRS,” said Town of Unicoi City Recorder Michael Borders.

Cooper’s motion failed with Linville, Hopson and Lynch voting in opposition. Bullen and Cooper voted in favor.

The ordinance to approve the budget as presented passed with Bullen, Linville, Hopson and Lynch voting in favor. Cooper voted in opposition.

• • •

In other business the BMA:

• Unanimously approved a low bid from Mark Ramsey for the 2018-19 Interstate 26 mowing and litter pick up. His bid for mowing came in at $5,600 a month, with another $925 a month for litter pick up.

• Unanimously approved the town’s engagement with Rodefer Moss, public accountant and business advisor, for their services beginning July 1.

• Unanimously approved a financial audit proposal from David M. Ellis, which Borders said will cost the town an additional $2,000 more next year, but will provide the benefit of having a certified public accountant on board each month.

• Unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the town to enter into an agreement with the State of Tennessee for a Health Access Grant amounting to $85,000, with an estimated $29,000 of in-kind contributions from the town. The grant is aimed at promoting healthy lifestyle choices and the fund will be used to construct a new farmer’s market pavillion.

• Passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to accept Community Transportation Planning Grant funds for a corridor study to focus on State Route 107. The grant provides $125,000 in funding and requires the town to put forth a 10 percent match, not to exceed $12,500. Bullen, Hopson, Linville, and Lynch voted in favor. Cooper voted in opposition.

Committee OKs permit for NOLI

The Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI) in Erwin will soon be offering classes on a wide array of outdoor activities such as kayaking, canoeing, survival training and much more. Pictured, above right, is Scott Fisher, owner of NOLI, and one of NOLI’s experienced instructors, Jeremy Glass. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Those with an interest in outdoor recreation will soon have a chance to develop an impressive skill set through the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI), which is located on the property of USA Raft/Mountain River Guides on the Nolichucky River in Erwin.

On June 7, Scott Fisher, owner of NOLI and former U.S. Army Infantry officer and ranger with years of experience in kayaking and swiftwater rescue, came before the Unicoi County Rafting Committee to discuss his business plans.

“Our mission is to celebrate the outdoors and help others to do the same,” Fisher said. “That’s what drives us. It’s a unique concept, I don’t think there’s anything else like this, certainly not in the region and really throughout the southeast.”

At NOLI, a team of 12 highly-trained and experienced individuals will lead instruction for kayaking, canoeing, water safety awareness, swiftwater rescue, wilderness medicine, survival, map reading and land navigation, leave no trace, nature hikes, youth day camps and outdoor photography and painting.

Fisher said he’s lived in this region for about 16 years and has about 20 years of experience with whitewater kayaking and as a swiftwater rescue instructor. For quite some time, Fisher said he and several friends have toyed with the idea of creating something like NOLI, but it wasn’t until now that they felt the time was right. With the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership (NETREP) and their attention to outdoor development, Fisher took note of an atmosphere being created that he believes will be supportive of the outdoor business venture.

“With this regional collaboration, there’s really newfound interest and support to make something like this work,” Fisher said. “It’s perfect timing.”

Just based on the initial interest in NOLI’s services thus far, Fisher said it is very promising and added that many people have already expressed a desire to sign up for many of the classes, most of which will be offered year-round.

“Our offerings are so broad,” Fisher said. “A good example of that is the wilderness first aid and CPR, that class we will offer all year, and there is a significant interest in that class.”

The survival class is another year-round class that will be offered, which Fisher described as family friendly. The one-to-two day class will allow participants to get their feet wet by wading to an island off of the Nolichucky Gorge Campground. Survival topics that will be covered include: fire starting, shelter building, water purification, map and compass usage, and leave no trace.

“We’re going to keep it fun and we’re going to keep it light,” he said.

For the kayaking, both flat and whitewater kayaking will be offered. Access points on the river will include Chestoa, Sawmill, Jackson Love and USA Raft for the whitewater kayaking. Half-day paddles will take place at regional lakes.

“That will include a trip to an island for a nice lunch,” Fisher said. “We are also going to offer flatwater paddling for senior citizens and for women specifically. We found there to be particularly a lot of interest in that.”

For the riverside painting classes, Fisher said they plan to bring in Peggy Root, an established artist in Jonesborough, for a two-day oil painting class called “Capturing the Nolichucky” that will take place in late July.

There will also be a “NOLI Flow” class where participants can bring a chair along with their favorite wine or beer and enjoy an art class on the bank of the Nolichucky with all supplies provided.

“It’s very community friendly and it’s for everyone with no experience required,” Fisher said.

“Then afterwards participants will be able to take home their canvas or picture.”

David Ramsey, a local professional photographer who was also a key player in the preservation of Rocky Fork State Park, will be teaching the outdoor photography classes that will cover wildlife landscape and action.

“All of these will start fairly soon,” Fisher said about the classes.

He expressed his excitement for being able to have an outdoor school stationed in Erwin and said that after traveling all over the world, this has been the first area Fisher says he has wanted to call home.

“It’s almost perfect,” Fisher said about Erwin and Unicoi County. “The natural resources we have here from an outdoor standpoint, it’s among the best in the country.”

Glenn White, Unicoi County Commissioner and Rafting Committee member, made a motion during last week’s meeting to approve Fisher’s license to put in the river. His motion was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner and Rafting Committee Chairman Loren Thomas before it unanimously passed.

“It sounds very interesting and we’re excited to have you,” said Thomas

“Thanks a lot for coming to Unicoi County and doing business here,” White echoed.

For more information about NOLI and their upcoming courses, visit www.NoliLearn.org.

Unicoi County officials continue budget talks

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee tries to minimize any unnecessary departmental spending to prevent a property tax increase during a meeting on June 6. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee met on June 6 to review various departmental funding requests and discuss ways to curtail spending to prevent the 58-cent property tax increase that would be required to meet the current expenditure demands.

Teresa Kinsler, property tax assessor, said the penny value of the property tax rate is down $380, taking the amount each penny on the county’s property tax rate brings in from $31,106 to $30,726. One of the major reasons for the decrease was cited to be the demolition of a Nuclear Fuel Services building.

“I think it’ll be up a little from that so that’s a positive for you guys,” Kinsler told the commission.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White inquired as to what the state of the fund balance was. Phyllis Bennett, county finance director, stated that there were still three pay periods left for this month, but the fund balance was “holding steady” at approximately $1 million.

“When people start paying their property taxes then the revenue starts building back up,” said County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice. “We do know that we took out around $200,000 out of the fund balance so far.”

With a five percent employee pay raise for all county officeholders currently mandated by the state, Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox suggested the committee wait to approve any other pay raises until the committee analyzed more of the budget and had more information on the future of the county’s ambulance service.

The committee began by discussing Register of Deeds Debbie Tittle’s budget. Tittle said she is requesting a total of $198,254, slightly higher than the previously budgeted amount at $194,909.

Tittle had requested a $5,000 increase for a pay raise for her deputies; however, as with other offices, the general consensus among the commissioners was to hold off on the raise requests. There was also a $500 increase for data processing costs and a $2,000 increase for travel costs due to required training.

A $50,000 line item within the County Building’s budget for maintenance and repairs was knocked down to $40,000, making it a $13,000 increase from the previous budget.

“Most of that was for the HVAC,” Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said about the need for repairs to the building’s heating and cooling system. He also said some of the increase was to cover the installation of LED lights to cut down on the utility bill.

In County Trustee Paul Berry’s budget request, which totals $194,859 compared to the previously budgeted $188,504, the committee decided to decrease the request for temporary personnel from $3,000 down to $2,500. There were other slight increases for state retirement, life insurance, data processing and travel costs.

“If he gets in trouble and needs more he can come back to us,” White said.

The committee decided to leave the Circuit Court budget as is, which is requested at $484,251 and includes small increases for county official and administrative office staff, part-time personnel and maintenance and repair services.

The General Sessions Court requested budget was also left alone and comes in at $142,985, which includes a $23,434 raise in the judge’s salary.

“The county attorney will be having a resolution on this in the next county commission meeting,” said Lynch.

The Unicoi County 911 budget request remains at $536,354. Currently, the county pays the director’s salary, budgeted at $42,848, one full-time employee and then the county splits the full-time staff and part-time staff costs. The total cost for dispatchers is budgeted at $295,000 and the cost for part-time personnel is budgeted at $49,920. 

“The way the agreement reads, we could be responsible for their benefits, but they have been giving us $70,000 for that,” Bennett said. “That has really benefited us the last few years on the revenue side.”

No new information was reported on the ambulance issue during the meeting other than that there has been one ambulance service provider bid on the request for proposal that will be out until June 20.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, in the mayor’s conference room at the courthouse, the committee will hold another meeting with Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley to discuss his proposed budgetary increases, which amounted to more than $1 million.

The committee will discuss the budgets of the Unicoi County School System, University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Office and the Industrial Development Board on Tuesday, June 26, at 1 p.m.

Unicoi County officials working to avoid 58-cent tax increase

Unicoi County officials discuss numbers for the proposed 2018-19 budget. Unicoi County Mayor Lynch is pictured, far right, explaining the need for a part-time worker in the mayor’s office. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee met on Wednesday, May 30, to discuss the $1.6 million increase in requests received from office holders for the proposed 2018-19 budget.

“Our penny is going to bring in less this year,” said Marie Rice, Unicoi County Commission chairwoman, about the county’s property tax revenues. “Plus we still have other things – that doesn’t even cover any kind of salary increase for employees.”

Of the increase in requests, $1.3 million came from the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department for seven new officers, a new secretarial position and transitioning part-time employees to full-time positions. Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said all of these additions are absolutely necessary.

In order to fully fund all of the requests the Unicoi County Commission would most likely have to vote to increase property taxes by 58 cents.

“Are we in favor of raising property taxes 58 cents?” Rice asked the committee on Wednesday.

The general consensus among the commissioners was to avoid any tax increase and Unicoi County Commissioner Kenneth Garland said, if anything, he wanted to give 10 cents back to the taxpayers.

“The sheriff’s requests are ridiculous,” Garland said. “I couldn’t believe what he’s asking for. We don’t need a tax raise, we need to cut some stuff.”

Rice said that there were many areas, such as personnel costs, where their hands were tied; however, commissioners could deal with new department and non-profit requests as they went along.

During their meeting on Wednesday, the committee briefly discussed a few departments including the mayor’s budget, which currently totals $289,789. There is a $57,331 increase for the mayor’s budget, $40,000 of which was requested by Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch for part-time personnel.

“You probably will need to put some of that in there because we’re still in between where Phyllis (Bennett, bookkeeper for the mayor’s office) went to the Highway Department,” Lynch told the committee, referencing the transition to centralized accounting.

“The $40,000 was to put someone in that office and eventually start training with Phyllis,” Lynch said. “The bookkeeper is almost more important than the mayor.”

Lynch pointed out that the mayor’s office has functioned with only three employees for the last two decades, while other offices have grown in size and personnel.

However, Garland said he wanted to “mark it out” and not fund the $40,000 for additional personnel. At a minimum, Lynch suggested $20,000 be left as a safety net for the transitional period.

“It would be up to whoever wins the August election to see what happens with the $40,000,” Lynch said. “I care at this point what happens to this office and I am trying to look out for whoever comes in here.”

Garland made a motion to take the $40,000 increase out of the budget and his motion was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas. The motion passed with Rice, Thomas and Garland voting in favor. Unicoi County Commissioners Gene Wilson and Jason Harris voted in opposition.

The Unicoi County Commission budget is currently set at $55,281 and will most likely increase due to training and travel costs for the new commissioners joining the panel later this year.

The Unicoi County Budget & Finance Committee will continue discussing the 2018-19 budget during their next scheduled meeting on Wednesday, June 6, at noon in the Unicoi County Courthouse conference room.

Erwin BMA seeks ways to lower debt

By Kendal Groner

Prior to the Town of Erwin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting on Monday, June 4, a debt funding workshop was held during which the town heard from Cumberland Securities, a Knoxville-based municipal advisory service, to assist officials in reviewing their debt and possibly providing strategies for refunding.

The town’s debt currently totals around $5 million, however, John Werner, vice president of Cumberland Securities, suggested that if the town capitalizes on fixed interest rates rather than variable interest rates, their payments can be sizeably reduced.

“All of the loans can possibly be refunded to maybe go out and get a better rate,” Werner said. “More importantly, when you want to get debt in the future, we help our clients not just with larger bond sales, but also the more simple capital outlay notes.”

The town currently has approximately $3.98 million in bond fund loans and in looking at the debt service from 2009 and 2014, those variable interest rates are 1.97 and 2.31, respectively.

“We will convert that debt over to a fixed rate and in today’s market you are looking at a 3.5 percent rate for those,” Werner said.

With the fixed interest rates, that $3.98 million in bond fund loans could drop to $1.67 million, which Werner said was a conservative projection.

If the town were to enlist the services of Cumberland Securities, Werner said that they would act as the town’s municipal advisor, and would only charge them when a particular transaction was carried out.

“I don’t think anyone would criticize you for what many people do when buying a car or a home,” he said. “We are confident rates will continue to go up.”

Both Alderman Mark Lafever and Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley voiced their support of attempts to refund some of the town’s debt and secure a fixed interest rate.

“I personally think this would be the best way for us to go,” Hensley said. “Right now we don’t even know how to budget. If we lock it in, I think it will save us money down the road.”

• • •

In the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, the board unanimously approved the authorization of the continued funding of city departments, services and expenditures at present 2017-18 budget levels until the new 2018-19 budget ordinance is passed.

The board also unanimously approved an ordinance to amend the previously passed budget ordinance on first reading. The public and final reading of the budget will be discussed at their June 25 meeting.

The board also discussed environmental and engineering services with S&ME Engineering Services as part of the $500,000 ECD Site Development Grant to render the former Morgan Insulation Site pad ready.

“This proposal is for environmental services, including phase one and then a limited phase two,” said Lindsey Harris, project manager with S&ME Engineering Services. “What we’ll do with phase two is work with the area waste disposal on site. The engineering services include preliminary design and then full construction design and limited construction administration during construction of the site.”

Lafever made a motion to approve the environmental and engineering services and the motion was seconded by Alderman Virgil Moore before it unanimously passed.

• • •

The Unicoi County Family YMCA has a youth triathlon planned for Aug. 11 and Frank Cooke, CEO of the Unicoi County Family YMCA, came before the board to request that Love Street from Ohio Avenue to Mohawk Drive, and one lane of Mohawk Drive, be closed for the event.

The triathlon will be for children up to fifth grade, specifically for those in first through fifth grades.

“We decided it was time to do a kids triathlon to try and get kids active,” Cooke said.

By closing the aforementioned streets, Cooke said participants would able to enjoy a one-mile bike ride, with the running portion of the event taking place at the track, and the swimming portion at the YMCA pool.

“It will take about three officers to close those streets, especially since we’re talking about young kids,” Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson said.

Hensley asked if the YMCA has enough volunteers to assist with supervising the event. Cooke said in the last race the YMCA held there were around 20 volunteers and he expects there to be more for the triathlon. Tilson said the fire department had offered some help with the event and Lafever suggested reaching out to the county for additional support.

Lafever made a motion to approve the road closures and his motion was seconded by Moore before it unanimously passed.

• • •

Hensley also read a proclamation honoring Linda O’Neal and her work with the TN Commission of Children and Youth and proclaimed June 15 to be Linda O’Neal Advocacy Day.

O’Neal has been the executive director of the TN Commission of Children and Youth Since 1988 and the independent state agency has a mission to improve the quality of life for Tennessee children and families and provide leadership for other children’s advocates.

“It is my understanding that Linda will be retiring after over 30 years of service. She has brought much comfort to the youth and families across the state,” Hensley said. “We’re very fortunate to have people that will stand up for our youth.”

Linear Trail tunnel project ahead of schedule

Members of Summers-Taylor construction crew work on the wing walls of the Linear Trail tunnel that will link the Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park. Harris Hollow Road is now open to traffic, and the entire projected is expected to be completed by October. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

As the Linear Trail Tunnel Project that will connect the Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park continues to make headway, officials say this moves the town one step closer to establishing the “Appalachian Loop” – a 15-mile trail system that will extend from Chestoa Park to Iron Mountain.

The current project to link the approximately 4-mile Erwin Linear Trail to Fishery Park has been discussed conceptually for almost 15 years and will create a safe and convenient link between two of the town’s major recreational assets.

“We’re all about creating community and livability, so pedestrian access and access to the natural elements is a major focus,” said Riki Forney, Public Works director. “The stopping place for it, it inhibits from connecting to the park, so it would have been a big safety issue to bring it up to the height of Harris Hollow Road and then connect it to the park.”

Funding for the project is coming from an $885,271 Transportations Alternatives Grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, with the Town of Erwin providing 20 percent in matching funds.

Back in March, the town accepted a bid from Summers-Taylor Construction to build the tunnel and enlisted the engineering services of Tysinger, Hampton & Partners, Inc.

Outdoor spaces such as the trail are extremely important to the taxpayers and community itself, according to Forney. He said that parks and recreation services are continually looking for accessible, family-friendly spaces.

“We have people come from all over the region to access our trail,” said Forney. “It’s a paved surface and more secluded. They just like the natural aspect of it, and it has a huge draw. For most of that four miles you are never really looking at safety issues and it has easy access to all municipal services, yet it is also far enough away to get to the outdoors.”

Gary Tysinger, project leader with Tysinger, Hampton & Partners, Inc., has been involved with the “Appalachian Loop” trail system project since the Erwin Linear Trail was first constructed over 20 years ago.

“The Erwin Linear Trail has been the most successful part of this,” said Tysinger. “The trail system itself is very unique.”

Tysinger noted that the trail itself is unlike many others in the area because it includes wooded areas, natural wetlands, ponds and passes through light industrial areas.

He recalls seeing the bridges that stretch across the trail’s wetlands being built, which he said was done by building upon the bridge itself without actually taking any machinery into the water. 

“They haven’t spent as much as some cities have on the trail either,” Tysinger added about the project.

The Town of Unicoi’s plans for a connector trail and bike route fall right in line with the desire to see the entire 15-mile “Appalachian Loop” come to fruition. With the help of an Appalachian Regional Commission Power Grant that provides $300,000 in funding and requires about $130,000 in matching funds, the Town of Unicoi is looking to create a connector trail that 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. It would then connect to a bike trail that follows Unicoi Drive down to Erwin Town Hall.

The Linear Trail Tunnel project has progressed far enough to allow traffic back onto Harris Hollow Road, and Forney said Summers-Taylor is currently pouring all of the wing walls on the tunnel and backfilling the area.

“Summers-Taylor did an excellent job getting the road open earlier than projected and traffic is now able to move,” said Forney. “The tunnel timeline goes well into the fall and a lot of the stuff that’s left to do is off of the surface of the road.”

Along with grading the area for ADA handicap specifications, construction crews will be adding putting down an asphalt surface, installing guardrails, protective barriers and adding signage.

The next phase will be to include all of the utilities to add lighting to the tunnel.

“Summers-Taylor has done an excellent job with this project and we couldn’t be any happier,” Forney said. “Service provided by Tysinger-Hampton, engineering and surveying have been very impressive. We ran into an issue early on where they had to move some water lines for Erwin Utilities and my hat goes off to those guys because they were able to mobilize and do all that work without impacting the schedule of the project.”

Forney also expressed his gratitude for working with TDOT and said despite a few minor issues, such as running into the waterline, the project is ahead of schedule and set for a completion date in October.

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.