Anniversary leads to new edition for railroad pictorial history book

The Clinchfield No. 1 traveled from Erwin to Kingsport on Nov. 30, 1968, to pull the Santa Train. For the previous two months, the historic steam engine had been restored at the Clinchfield Railroad headquarters by a team of workers and volunteers. It would go on to pull the Santa Train and other excursions throughout the South for the next decade. (Photo by David DeVault)

From Staff Reports

It was 50 years ago – Nov. 23, 1968, to be exact – that an antique steam engine rolled down the tracks from Erwin to Johnson City for its “shake-down” trip on the rails.

For two months, dozens of Clinchfield Railroad workers, some paid, some as volunteers, had taken a rusted and rotted 4-6-0 steamer and refashioned it into the shiny, “new” Clinchfield No. 1. With a successful first outing secure, the No. 1 set out the following week, on Nov. 30, 1968, to pull the Santa Train from Kingsport to Kentucky and Virginia and back. It was a sojourn the steamer would perform annually for the next decade.

Those two events – and more – are highlighted in a special anniversary edition of “The One & Only: A Pictorial History of the Clinchfield No. 1,” first published in 2013 but out of print since 2014. Now, the book, by former newspaper publisher Mark A. Stevens and retired CSX engineer A.J. “Alf” Peoples, is available in a limited edition new printing.

The new edition sports a new cover featuring the artwork of Utah-based painter Simon Winegar and more than 50 new images, bringing the total to more than 550 in the 148-page book.

“It’s exciting that the book will be available in a new, if very limited, new edition,” Stevens said. “Alf and I were pleasantly surprised at the intense interest in the first edition when it was released in 2013. We knew we had an interest in the Clinchfield No. 1, but until the book is out, you never know the reaction.

“We were very pleased. There’s a lot of love in this region for the Clinchfield Railroad and, in turn, for the No. 1”

In fact, interest in the historic steam engine was so great that Stevens and Peoples were contracted by The History Press to produce a written history of the No. 1. That book, titled “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine,” was an Amazon top seller and is still in print, in both softcover and a special hardcover “Library Edition.”

“My first job working for the Clinchfield was as car marshal for the excursions pulled by the Clinchfield No. 1 between 1968 and 1979,” Peoples said. “I’m so proud that my railroad career started with the No. 1. And, I retired as an engineer in 2014, so as an author of two books about her released in 2013 and 2014, I guess you could say my career was bookended by the No. 1.”

The special anniversary edition is $34.95. Signed copies are available directly from Stevens by writing to him at Mark A. Stevens, 390 Lumbee Circle, Pawleys Island, SC 29585. Copies are also available at www.clinchfieldno1.com, where limited-edition prints of the cover artwork is available as a framed giclee print and notecards are also available. Proceeds benefit the Clinchfield Railroad Museum in Erwin, Tennessee.

The 41.5-ton steam engine that would one day become the Clinchfield No. 1 was built in Indiana in 1882 and had a storied history before it was famously rebuilt in Erwin after a long service including stints in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. It pulled the first rescue train to reach survivors of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood in 1989.

But it was that restoration in 1968 that secured the real-life “little engine that could” into railroad history.

From 1968 until 1979, the No. 1 pulled popular excursion trains between Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky – and beyond. The historic steam engine and the excursions that carried thousands over the years received massive media attention, including from the likes of The New York Times, Southern Living and the Chicago Tribune.

“There’s nothing like a great American success story,” Stevens said, “and the Clinchfield No. 1 is just that.”

For more information about the new edition of “The One & Only,” call Stevens at (423) 737-6139 or email him at MAScommunicationsLLC@gmail.com.

Harry Potter Week comes to Unicoi County High School

Emilee Edwards and Brooke Bennett at a Harry Potter-themed table during last week’s Harry Potter Week at Unicoi County High School. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by RIchard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

During the week of Oct. 29 through Nov. 2, the Unicoi County High School Library transformed into Hogwarts, the School of Wizardry in the Harry Potter universe.

Normally the library was reserved for Muggles and other non-wizards, but last week only wizards were allowed as the school and the UCHS Book Club held their 3rd annual Harry Potter Week. This annual event, which included several games and activities, came about shortly after the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

“I had a group of students that was really excited about the film and said we should have a Harry Potter Week event,” librarian Karla Keesecker told The Erwin Record.

The events that ran all week long included Wand Making, Activity Table, Craft Table, Escape Rooms, Horcrux Hunt, O.W.L. (based on the O.W.L. test in the Harry Potter Universe) Trivia Tournament, Harry Potter Games, Photo Booth, Face Painting, Bake Sale, Harry Potter Store and Potions Class.

The events took place during Success Period and after school. The students competed and were grouped into houses. The houses were Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin – just like in the books and films. The students had their houses sorted by completing an online questionnaire. Once the houses were divided, the teams worked on getting house points. House points were earned during the afterschool activities. Students received a house ticket upon completing tasks. These tickets were used to count towards house points

The activity table included the game “Would You Rather?”, crossword puzzles, word searches, puzzles and coloring book pages. These activities were worth five house points after school.

At the Wand Making table, all the materials and supplies to make your own wand were provided.  Each wizard gained 10 house points for this event.

The craft table allowed each student to make their own owl or Harry Potter ornament. Book owls were free to make. The charge to make the ornaments was $1.

The O.W.L. Trivia Tournament took place all week during success period and Oct. 29, after school in teacher Caitlyn McKinney’s room. Each student that entered the tournament received 10 house points after school. The winning student received 50 house points after school. 

Participants played a game of corn hole on specially made Harry Potter themed boards. The students then moved to the Ministry of Magic Memo game played with paper airplanes. The corn hole boards were raffled off at the end of the week.   

Photo booth props were available for students to take pictures with. Students that took a photo at the photo booth and posted it on social media received five house points after school. 

Teacher Chad Roller created a challenging set of riddles for the Horcrux Hunt. Roller offered daily prizes to the individual or team that solved the riddle. Daily winners were entered to win a grand prize at the end of the week. The Horcrux Hunt winner was Sabrina Todd.

There were two escape rooms available to challenge the students.  This event was also a great way to rack up on some house points. The escape rooms were worth 10 house points for participating and 15 house points for winning after school.

Students received 10 house points for dressing up. The costume contest winner was Toby Tipton.

Face painting was available every day during success period and after school. This event was worth five house points after school.

Potions class was an exciting event for the participants. Potions class with Professor Dilys Thickey, a.k.a. Teacher Diana Tucker, was held in room 2041 daily.

“This is a great way to get the students to read and understand labs,” Tucker told The Erwin Record.

The class made Magic Mud, Wormwood-Comes-to-Life, Liquid Enemies, Exploding Filibusters, Dancing Unicorn Milk, Exploding Elixir, Fleeing Spiders and Mandrake Restorative Draught Potions. Other more advanced potions included Felix Felicis, Drought of Peace, Skele-Gro, Veritaserum, Polyjuice, and Wolfsbane. Participating in these potions classes gained the students 10 house points after school. 

Honeydukes Bake Sale was open every day during success period to those students who had registered for activities. Great baked goods were sold such as butterbeer, chocolate frogs, chocolate wizard wands, cockroach clusters, exploding bonbons and more.

The Harry Potter Store was open every day. Items included, vinyl decals, Christmas ornaments, and tote bags.

The winning house was Ravenclaw with 350 points. Second place was Slytherin with 310 points. Coming in third was Hufflepuff with 225 points. And last, but not least, Gryffindor finished with 205 points.

The UCHS Book Club is always looking for new members. Most of the members share in the love of reading.

“I truly love reading,” said UCHS Book Club member Shelby Miller.

Students interested in joining the book club should see Keesecker in the library. The UCHS Book Club meets usually around every three weeks, according to Keesecker. Harry Potter Week isn’t the only event that the book club participates in.

“Our book club actually takes a trip yearly to the Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival in Murfreesboro every March,” Keesecker said.

#All4Gerald: Foster family awaits brother’s transplant call

Gerald Foster is awaiting a call to head to Nashville for a liver transplant. Supporting their brother are Tracy Foster, left, and Robin Bowman. Other family and friends have planned a fundraiser for Gerald on Nov. 10. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

With Thanksgiving less than a month away, this is a time to reflect on what is important in life. For most, a healthy family would be near the top of the list of things to be thankful for.

For sisters Tracy Foster and Robin Bowman, a healthy family takes on even more meaning as their brother, Gerald Foster, is fighting for his life.

Gerald is in need of a liver transplant. Because of his liver trouble, he is also having to fight kidney issues.

Hope is on the horizon, though. Gerald is near the top of the list for a liver transplant. This means that he can receive a call any minute that a liver is available. Once Gerald and his family receive that call, they have six hours to be in Nashville.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center is where Gerald will have his liver transplant. To ensure that he gets to Nashville in time, he will need to be airlifted.

“MedFlight will transport him once we get the call there is a match,” Tracy told The Erwin Record.

Once Gerald arrives at the hospital, the medical staff will prepare him for the transplant. The prep will take roughly six hours.

Gerald is in good spirits and his family’s faith is strong, according to Tracy.

“He is getting better every week, and we know God has got it and God has carried us this far,” she said.

Besides the medical costs, the Fosters will need to find a place to stay while Gerald recovers. To help offset the costs, family and friends are doing everything they can to raise awareness and funds for Gerald and his family.

Friends and family of the Fosters have created the hashtag, #All4Gerald. Team Gerald is holding a spaghetti dinner on Saturday, Nov. 10, from 4-7 p.m. at the Unicoi County High School cafeteria. To go orders will be available, but you must purchase a ticket for the meal.

Live entertainment will be presented at the dinner from the Unicoi County Bluegrass Band. Tickets will be a $5 donation and they are available at the Unicoi County Register of Deeds office, Unicoi County High School, Liberty Lumber and Clinchfield Federal Credit Union.

There are T-shirts available for purchase at the All4Gerald Facebook page.

If you cannot make the event but wish to donate, an account has been set up at Clinchfield Federal Credit Union under the name Team Gerald.

If there are any businesses that wish to sponsor or help with fundraising, please contact Debbie Tittle at 306-6895.

For more information and updates of Gerald’s journey, please check out the All4Gerald Facebook page. Team Gerald would like to thank everyone who supports Foster in his journey.

Photos sought for annual ‘Images of Unicoi County’ calendar

From Staff Reports

The Erwin Record is now accepting entries for our annual “Images of Unicoi County Calendar.”

“I am pleased to announce that we are going to publish the calendar again this year. It is so nice to see local residents and businesses enjoying this publication throughout the year,” Publisher Lisa Whaley said. “I encourage everyone to submit entries for the calendar. We would love to feature your photos of life in the Valley Beautiful.”

Entries should be emailed to kparkey@erwinrecord.net with a brief description of the photo, as well as the name of the photographer. Photos can also be dropped off at The Erwin Record office at 218 Gay St. in downtown Erwin.

The deadline for photo entries is 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30. For more information, call the newspaper at 743-4112.

NOLI opening restaurant in downtown Erwin

By Richard Rourk

Jason Howze, left, and Jordon Haun recently announced that their food truck NOLI will open a storefront in downtown Erwin in spring 2019. The restaurant will be located at 105 S. Main Ave. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

Business in downtown Erwin continues to grow. A new business with a familiar name is set to join the growing list of establishments in the spring of 2019.

NOLI is coming to 105 S. Main Ave. in Erwin. Business partners Jason Howze and Jordon Haun picked Erwin over other cities to expand their business. They were offered locations in Johnson City, but chose to stay close to their roots. Both men grew up in Unicoi County.

The building, which is 4,572 square feet, will house NOLI downstairs and will host newly remodeled apartments upstairs. The walls are made from original brick from when the building was erected back in 1904. The patio area has ceiling fans with iron tables and chairs. There is a clear garage door that will open up to the patio from the restaurant. Along the garage door there will be stools facing out to the patio and the view of downtown Erwin.

According to Howze and Haun, the restaurant will feature a full-length bar with beer options on opening day. Due to state laws, they must wait at least 30 days before being able to serve liquor.  The plan is to have a full-service bar after that period is over.

“We plan on pairing cocktails to match our unique menu,” Haun said.

The menu will have NOLI classics, but will be expanded. Howze has the menu in mind, but did not want to share it just yet. Keeping with the mystique of NOLI, once the building is complete, everything will be blacked out until opening day.

Currently, NOLI operates out of their food truck. NOLI was a pioneer in the recent food truck boom and continues to draw a crowd everywhere they go.

“We were the original in Johnson City, now there are 30 plus food trucks,” Howze told The Erwin Record.

NOLI, which is a nod to the Nolichucky River, started out in the food truck business back in 2014. The men decided to expand the business to a storefront after a brief discussion.

“We had a few drinks and decided it was time to expand,” Howze said with a laugh.

The two decided they wanted to open a brick and mortar restaurant in the developing downtown area.

“I saw the space here and thought I’d love to open up there,” Haun told The Erwin Record.

For those concerned about the NOLI truck going away, it’s not.

“The truck is going to be our lifeline, we plan on getting back into catering as well,” Howze said.

The two owners are excited to join the growing downtown of Erwin.

“If we can do half for Erwin that we did for Johnson City, then I will be flying high,” Howze told The Erwin Record.

On taking the gamble of opening a new business, the men are unfazed.

“Some say it’s crazy to open a restaurant in Erwin, but they also said it was crazy to open a food truck in Johnson City, and that worked out just fine,” Haun said.

The entrepreneurs go a step further when discussing the advantages of setting up in Erwin.

“Here in Erwin, we are built off of tourism, and if you can’t make it with the interstate close by, the Nolichucky River and the Appalachian Trail then you can’t make it at all.,” Howze exclaimed.

To keep up with the whereabouts of the NOLI Food Truck and updates to the new space in Erwin, check out their Facebook and Instagram pages. Be sure to check out their Instagram stories to stay up to date.

Howze and Haun also wanted to thank everybody in Erwin for being so welcoming and helping out.

UCHS Marching Blue Devils win top honors

The Unicoi County High School marching band recently brought home several trophies from the Apple Festival in Chilhowie, Virginia. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County recently made waves at another Apple Festival as the Unicoi County High School band competed at the Apple Festival in Chilhowie, Virginia, on Saturday, Sept. 29.

According to the festival website, The Chilhowie Apple Festival Band Competition is the oldest continuous band competition in Virginia or Tennessee and has been going for 66 years now.

“A total of 18 bands competed that were from East Tennessee and as far as Roanoke, Virginia,” Chilhowie High School Band Director William J. Green said.

Due to the varying sizes of bands, they were split into groups.

“The bands were adjudicated in music, marching, general effect, drum major, color guard and percussion,” Green told The Erwin Record.

The Unicoi County High School Band Director Evangeline Hurter explained that the band “is made up of roughly 18-20 students per grade.”

At the Apple Festival, the UCHS band took home Class 4A2 first place in drum major, first place in guard and second place in Percussion. The band also took home second place in general effect, second place in marching, and first place in music. General effect is a combination of both music and marching.

The UCHS band was also declared Best in Class for Class 4A2. The band took home the title of Large Division Grand Champion and they were also declared the Grand Champ of the entire day and were presented with the Apple Cup. The Grand Champion awards are a combination of music, marching, and general effect.

“It was pretty cool,” Hurter said of the victories.

The UCHS marching band has three more competitions left this season. On Oct. 13, the band is set to compete at Daniel Boone High School; however, the location of this event could change to John Battle High School. To keep up to date on changes check out uchsbandboosters.org or uchsonline.com.

The band will be competing on Oct. 20 at Science Hill High School for the Science Hill Hilltopper Invitational. The final competition of the year will be on Oct. 27 at Sullivan Central High School and is called the Appalachian Classic.

“I am super proud of the children and it’s wonderful to see them get something in return for their hard work,” Hurter said.

The next fundraiser for UCHS band is going to be a fruit sale and details will be available in the coming months.

Administrator shares features of new UCMH

UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll discusses the features of the new hospital during a meeting on Friday, Sept. 28, at the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by RIchard Rourk)

y Richard Rourk

Ahead of the grand opening of the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital later this month, the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center held a meeting for interested citizens with representatives of Ballad Health, the company which owns and operates the facility.

This meeting took place on Friday, Sept. 28, and was led by Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Administrator Eric Carroll.

Carroll wasted no time to explain to the crowd all the new services and features that will be available at the new hospital. Starting with the rooms, each one of the inpatient rooms will have a view of the mountains. The new hospital will have a helipad for Wings’ ambulance services. The hospital will have a 24-hour emergency room.

Also according to Carroll, cardiology services will be expanded at the new facilities. New to the hospital will be digital X-rays and ultrasound services. There will also be numerous updates to current services with new equipment.

“We currently have a cafeteria, but it is very difficult to find,” Carroll said of the current facility. “At the new hospital there will be indoor and outdoor dining space and is located right outside of the outpatient waiting space.”

There will also be a gift shop and a chapel at the new hospital.

There will not be a surgical center at the new hospital, which prompted a question from the audience at Friday’s event regarding what would happen to someone who needed surgery.

“There are three hospitals within a 23-mile radius of this hospital that have surgical capability, so that played a huge role in that decision,” Carroll said in response.

One of the citizens asked about a parking garage. Carroll stated there is no plan currently for a parking garage.

Also on Friday, April Jones, RN, director of nursing at UCMH, addressed the crowd and introduced Epic – the technology platform that will connect all Ballad Health facilities in the future.

“Unicoi County Memorial Hospital will be the first Mountain States Hospital to go live with Epic,” Jones said.

Current Wellmont hospitals are already on Epic. The plan is to have all Ballad Health hospitals live on Epic by April of 2020. Health records will be available between all Ballad Health hospitals once they are all on the Epic system. Patients will also be able to check their records through Epic.

“Patients can sign up and check their results, schedule, cancel and reschedule appointments or tests,” Jones said.

The Epic platform currently covers 200 million people, roughly two-thirds of patients nationwide.

Pharmacist Terry Roller of Roller Pharmacy asked if Epic would be compatible with CPESN USA.”

Jones replied, “yes and for those that do not know about CPESN USA it is a system that pharmacies use to communicate with each other and with hospitals.”

She confirmed Epic will be compatible with CPESN USA.

The official ribbon cutting for the new hospital will be held on Oct. 22. Public tours will take place on that day. The facility will be operational soon after that date.

Erwin Elephant Revival returns in October

This elephant statue in front of Erwin Town Hall is just one of the statues that will be auctioned off during the Erwin Elephant Revival next month. Others statues are located in downtown Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

From Staff Reports

Erwin has a new story to tell. One that is colorful and full of redemption.

Today, standing watch over this historic downtown, are eight baby elephant statues. They are cheerfully painted with vibrant hues and themes that would melt even the coldest heart. Smiles can be seen on every corner of the street, from the elephants and thousands of visitors alike.

Born in 2016, a series of fundraisers and public awareness events known as the “Erwin Elephant Revival” was created as atonement for the tragic death of a circus elephant named Big Mary. This gentle creature was forced to perform in Spark’s Circus in nearby Kingsport.  On Sept. 16, 1916, Mary had a very bad day. During a downtown parade she was pushed beyond her limits and accidentally killed her inexperienced trainer. Crowd hysteria and mob mentality prevailed, and poor Mary was sentenced to die.

Without adequate firepower to complete the task, the circus owner hung his star attraction in the Clinchfield railyard in Erwin the next day. For the last 100 years, locals have wished they could bury this undeserved stigma along with Mary’s bones, under the old roundhouse.  Songs have been sung, books have been written and playwrights have enacted this sad story over and over again. A new generation of Erwin locals decided that they had lived with “the elephant in the room” long enough. They could not save Mary, but they can make a difference in the lives of modern day elephants. 

Due to the overwhelming generosity of our community, more than $15,000 has been donated for the care of 10 elderly captive elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee in the last two years.

This 2,700 acre natural habit provides space, comfort and 24 hour veterinary care for suffering elephants who have spent most of their lives on public display in zoos or circuses. Mary would have been happy there.

The 2018 Erwin herd will be auctioned off on Oct. 20 at noon in the Gathering Place Park in downtown Erwin. One hundred percent of the proceeds of this public art project benefit local non-profits, as well as two elephant charities. For those unable to attend the live auction, a proxy bid form can be found at erwintn.org. 

Please contact Jamie Rice 220-7624 for any further questions.

School Board hears program updates

Retiring principal Larry Howell, standing left, addresses the Unicoi County Board of Education during a meeting on Sept. 13. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Board of Education wasted no time in electing officers for the next year during a meeting held on Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Central Office

The officers were voted in unanimously in a 6-0 vote. Tyler Engle, who attended the meeting via teleconference, was elected board chairman. Steve Willis was elected vice-chairman and Steve Scott was elected as athletic council representative.

The board then shifted gears and received data from two recent programs that are geared at improving the scores of county students. The Aspire Book Bus, a school bus that was remodeled into a moving library and multimedia center, was on hand for the public to view. This bus allowed educators to reach out to the students during the summer months and was used to help improve overall literacy scores.

Elementary Curriculum Supervisor Jenifer Lingerfelt stated Aspire Book Bus has been a project many years in the making

“I am also so very thankful for the support of our community,” Lingerfelt said. “We have had several private donations that have helped us secure books for check out, and will have another round of book drives in the spring to fill the bus with books the children can take home and keep.”

The Aspire Book Bus and the Read to Be Ready Camp reached out to roughly 560 students in recent months. The Read to Be Ready Camp encouraged children to read and even took children on field trips centered around most of the books they read. One field trip took the children to Cracker Barrel where some of the children were able to read from the menu and order for themselves for the first time.

According to the data provided to the board, children without a summer reading routine can lose 1-3 months of skills. This loss can lead to three years of reading skills by the time a student reaches the end of fifth grade. The Aspire Book Bus and Read to Be Ready programs inspired the students by enforcing their motto of “read about it, think about it, talk about it and write about it.”

According to the data Lingerfelt presented, the students average reading accuracy rate improved from 69.5 percent to 80.6 percent. The average reading comprehension rate rose from 51.4 percent to 64.2 percent.

This early data has motivated the Aspire Book Bus to keep moving through the school months as well.

“We are working with the school librarians to plan several visits to the schools and also offer several off-site family nights connected to the book bus,” Lingerfelt said. “I’m also very excited that Lori Ann Wright is planning something extraordinary with her high school students and we continue to partner with RISE Erwin to connect with community planned events.”

Lingerfelt is currently looking into getting more grants to expand and enhance the program. To keep up with updates and how to help out with these programs, please visit the Unicoi County Schools Aspire Book Bus page on Facebook.

While the Aspire Book Bus and Read to Be Ready programs helped transform the lives of younger children, UC Advance focused on older children. Unicoi County Schools UC Advance Coordinator Mark Fleenor addressed the board last week and shared more good news.

Fleenor opened by reading a testimonial from a parent, explaining that UC Advance has been a blessing to both the parent and the student.

“I once heard that liars figure, but figures don’t lie,” Fleenor said.

He also said that in the first years data, that there were 163 earned credits from those active in UC Advance. In year two they finished with 383 credits – a 135 percent increase in a year. There were only 39 students enrolled in UC Advance in the first year, but in the second year there were 57 students enrolled.

“These figures show you are getting a good return on investment,” Fleenor said.

• • •

In other business, the board honored Larry Howell, former principal of Rock Creek Elementary School and a recent retiree.

“I’ve been working with Mr. Howell since I was a senior in high school when he was my track coach,” Director of Schools John English said. “I have the utmost respect for him. His kids knew he cared about them.”

Howell is still leading the middle school football team through a great season so far.

“As a child, I saw lights on the hill and I was drawn to the lights like a moth to a flame,” Howell said. “Since then I’ve been able to play for Unicoi County, coach for Unicoi County, and have a career at Unicoi County and it’s been amazing. I’m proud to be from Unicoi County and I will be a Blue Devil until I die.”

• • •

In final business, the board voted unanimously to approve the same service of Lewis & Associates to audit the school nutrition funds and the school funds.

The board also voted unanimously to test for lead in drinking water every two years, to detail guidelines on homebound instruction and to comply with changes to TSSAA.

The board voted unanimously to approve the seventh grade field trip to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg/Knoxville on May 8-10, 2019.

Union Street Taproom owners hope business will be open for Apple Festival

Michael and Tara Baker hope their new business, the Union Street Taproom, will be open in time for the upcoming Unicoi County Apple Festival. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Michael and Tara Baker set a lofty goal preparing to open their new business by the time the Apple Festival starts and the hard work the couple has poured into their new business is paying off.

The Bakers believe the Union Street Taproom, located at 111 Union Street in downtown Erwin, will bring much-needed business to the area. Places like Asheville and Johnson City have benefited in a number of ways from having taprooms, which can have a tremendous economic impact on their communities.

A taproom is different from most places that serve alcohol. It is not a bar, a nightclub or a restaurant chain. It is a place for friends and families to come to socialize and enjoy some of the best craft beer around.

“We are a 2018 taproom, we are family friendly and pet-friendly,” Michael said.

Work is coming right along at their Union Street address. The countertop is currently being installed. The signage is in the process of being put together. The Bakers would like to thank the crew at Boomtown in Johnson City for working with them.

Opening this business has been something the couple has wanted to do for a long time.

“We really want to be part of the positive progressive movement in downtown Erwin,” Michael said.

The Bakers plan for the Union Street Taproom, which will be the first craft beer business in downtown Erwin, to be a great location to come in and catch a ball game and sample some craft beers with friends and family.

The Bakers said they are working hard to provide Erwin a unique place to come and be a part of the growing downtown area. The Union Street Taproom also plans to give back to the community.

“We want to partner with the downtown businesses and continue to work with organizations such as the American Cancer Society,” Michael said.

Michael also said they hope to remove any stigma there may be in regards to Union Street’s history with alcohol.

“This is not a place to come get intoxicated, this is a place to sample craft beer,” he added. “This is a place to come enjoy friends and family.”

Michael went on to say, “there will be a popcorn machine for patrons but, right now there are no plans for a food menu at this time. Our goal is to have food trucks come by and the patrons can buy their food and bring it into the taproom.”

He hopes to work with local eateries to make this goal happen.

The Union Street Taproom will have a long countertop along the front window space with stools. There will also be a long countertop where the tap will be against the wall upon entry. There is plenty of wall space for televisions and a space for a projector to display ball games and silent movies. The ceiling is complete with wrought iron light fixtures in place. The Bakers have added Edison bulbs to give the space a classic look.

Although there will be some domestic beers on tap, the Union Street Taproom will feature many different craft beers. The Bakers are working with numerous distributors to bring in the best local beers around. The goal is to possibly have 12 beers on tap total that may rotate in and out.

“Our goal is to have a hard apple cider on tap in time for the Apple Festival,” Michael said. “This will possibly be a first for the Town of Erwin, actually having a hard apple cider at the Apple Festival.”

Unicoi County Commission approves budget, recognizes outgoing officials

Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice recognizes outgoing Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch for his many years of service to the county during the Monday, Aug. 25, meeting of the governing body. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Monday’s Unicoi County Commission meeting was bittersweet as several members were attending their last meeting in their current roles. The new faces that will be sworn in later this week were also present for the meeting.

A major item on the agenda for this meeting was the passing of the county’s 2018-19 fiscal year budget.

“We were able to balance the county budget without a tax increase,” County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said. “The tax rate will remain the same at $2.6838.”

The $2.6838 rate is per $100 of property value.

The commission approved the Unicoi County operating budget for the fiscal year of 2018-19 unanimously. The panel also voted unanimously in regards to setting and approving the county property tax rate for the fiscal year 2018-19.

• • •

Another issue discussed at the meeting was in regards to the underpayment of PILT payments for fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. The request was for the county mayor and the county attorney to take the necessary steps to include Unicoi County in a class-action lawsuit.

Outgoing Mayor Greg Lynch stated that PILT payments were underpaid until recently. According to Mayor Lynch, “the payments were as follows: in 2012 the payment was for $54,000, in 2017 the payment was for $83,000 and in 2018 it was for $149,000.”

This money is used primarily for the school system. If any money is received over the amount given to the school system it is used for other needs, such as fire control.

“The federal government is already making adjustments, but this lawsuit is to recoup the money for the interim part,” Lynch said. “I recommend that you say yes to this.”

The motion to approve was made by Commissioner Loren Thomas and seconded by Commissioner Gene Wilson. The motion passed.

• • •

County Commissioner Kenneth Garland started off by stating during the reading of the minutes, that he wanted it on record that he voted against Food City coming to town.

“I’m not against Food City, I just don’t want to see other businesses in our area suffer,” Garland said.

• • •

Regarding the budget amendments on the agenda, Garland recommended that they be tabled and addressed by the new Commission. There was no opposition in regards to tabling the issue until next month.

• • •

Closing the evening, Rice recognized the outgoing officials, including Lynch. Rice listed Lynch’s accomplishments while in office.

“He was adamant in protecting Rocky Fork and the environment,” Rice said. “He truly believed in keeping the valley beautiful. We appreciate his service.”

“It’s been an honor serving and I look forward to the transition in getting the county moving forward,” Lynch said.

Also receiving plaques during the closing were outgoing commissioners Bridget Peters, Gene Wilson and Garland.

Erwin Fiber service expanding

This maps shows the areas where Erwin Utilities plans to expand its Erwin Fiber service. (Contributed photo)

By Allen Rau

While many Erwin residents who are customers of Erwin Utilities currently have access to high-speed internet service, those who don’t may expect that service in the near future.

Erwin Utilities is currently expanding its fiber optic network within their power/electrical footprint and they expect to complete the final phase by the beginning of 2020, according to John Williams, fiber optic engineer for Erwin Utilities.

“Right now we feel like we’re kind of in the home stretch,” Williams said. “Our first phase was right in downtown Erwin and we built for about 1,000 customers … we were looking for about 25 percent of the people we billed (for electricity) to sign up for the service. That was our goal, to make it where it would pay for itself, make money and be sustainable. We quickly reached that goal. In that first area we built, we’re actually at 36 percent rate right now. Since then, we’ve built past a total of about 5,000 customers and our total footprint that we can build to is 9,000.”

Williams added that Erwin Utilities can only build the fiber network in areas where the company already supplies power due to state law.

In order to keep the options simple, there are only two packages available.

“We have simple packages that are fast, they’re inexpensive,” Williams said. “We offer just two speeds: 25 Megabits per second (Mbps), up-and-down, and the second speed is One Gigabit per second (Gig), which is 1000 Mbps, up-and-down. We have the cheapest One Gig internet service in the state.”

Up-and-down translates to symmetric service, which is the upload and download speed for information. The information could be videos uploaded to Facebook, for example, or TV shows downloaded from AppleTV at the same speed.

For a residential package, One Gig service costs $69.95, while 25 Mbps is $49.95. For the business package, One Gig costs $79.95, while 25 Mbps is $59.95. All internet services include WiFi.

To add a voice line, the cost is $24.95 for residential and $34.95 for businesses, with each offering unlimited long distance, caller ID and voicemail.

Cable TV will not be an option with these services, as Williams said the company believes streaming services are the future.

“We decided to do internet and phone service and not cable TV, as we felt like cable TV was on the way out,” he added. “Services like SlingTV, DirecTV now are around the corner.”

While downtown Erwin has already had fiber constructed, the area currently under construction runs along Main Avenue beginning at Food Lion and just north of Fifth Street and would follow Main Avenue up to the Unicoi Animal Hospital. The only area on the west side of I-26 currently being constructed for fiber access is surrounding Harris Hollow Road. Areas scheduled for future installation include the Limestone Cove area, Dry Creek Rd area, Unicoi, Scioto Road, reaching up to Whispering Pines. An interactive map of all current and future construction is available at www.e-u.cc/FiberMap.html.

Williams added that the installation of the fiber network was being implemented by Erwin Utilities employees.

“Since we’ve been doing it for a while we’re getting pretty proficient at it,” he said. “We have our own installation guys; people that come into people’s homes and do the install and connect all your devices up are Erwin Utilities employees. One thing that’s unique about us is we use very little contractors. We’ve pretty much done it with our own crews.”

Erwin Utilities Marketing Coordinator Lynnsey Seagroves said that installation was not the only task the company employees were responsible for.

“John (Williams) actually did all of the design, and (we) saved a lot of money because we didn’t have to contract out pieces of this and a big chunk of that was the design portion which John was able to do himself,” Seagroves said. “So he is the mastermind behind this.”

Seagroves added that customers would not have to sign a contract or pay rental fees for equipment used for the network in customers’ homes.

As Erwin Utilities is also a water, wastewater and power supplier to customers, those who choose to sign up for broadband service would still receive only one bill covering all services, Williams said.

“At this point, internet service is a utility,” he said. “We had the existing infrastructure. We think that municipal broadband is a great thing. We’re heavily invested in our community. We want our community to succeed. We want to see growth.”

Seagroves agrees.

“Our vision is to enhance modern life and help drive local economic development,” she said. “We want to enhance our customers’ lives and we feel that providing broadband absolutely does that. We want our local businesses to have access to this high-speed internet. And we also use it as a marketing tool for businesses who are interested in relocating, or doing a startup in the area.”

For more information on the Erwin Utilities Fiber Expansion visit www.e-u.cc/fiber.

Homeowner: Group doesn’t ‘know what direction to go’ regarding course

A group of homeowners and other community members known as the Buffalo Valley Community Group had hoped to reopen the now-closed Buffalo Valley Golf Course. However, the group was unable to raise funds for a legal retainer fee and the future of the course is unknown. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Kendal Groner

When the City of Johnson City failed to accept the Town of Unicoi’s $400,000 offer on the 124-acre, former Buffalo Valley Golf Course property this past winter, a group of concerned homeowners and community members called the Buffalo Valley Community Group was spurred into action.

In attempts to salvage the golf course, and at a minimum protect the value of the property surrounding many of their homes, the group has been raising funds to meet a $5,000 legal retainer fee to have an attorney look into their property rights to help facilitate their efforts to incorporate or become a stronger voice. However, due to the current state of the greens, some donors have now pulled their contributions.

“We don’t know what to do,” said Brandy Bevins, Buffalo Valley Community Group Member. “We’re just stuck. We got down to where we had the money and then a couple of people backed out because the greens are gone.”

The community group had previously presented a management plan for the property during a series of meetings leading up to the Town of Unicoi’s offer to purchase the property. However, Bevins said it was based on the principle that the property would be at least minimally maintained as a golf course.

“The amount of money it would take at this point in time, it would be ridiculous,” she said about restoring the property as a golf course. “I’m not sure anybody would even want to do that, and I know we don’t have the money to do that.”

JT McSpadden, a communications manager for the City of Johnson City, said that the city will continue weekly maintenance on the property to keep cleared areas at heights of four to six inches. Although, Bevins says the amount of maintenance being done is not enough and even mentioned that her husband has been mowing the fairway himself to prevent overgrowth.

“My daughter actually stepped on a snake a few days ago,” Bevins said “People have had foxes in their yard, people have had bears, raccoons out during the day … things that haven’t been here before because of mowers and golfers.

“It’s terrible to live out there and watch it just grow up … when you’re used to looking out your back door and used to seeing this beautiful manicured grass and now looking out and seeing nothing but tall unkempt grass.”

Concerns have also been voiced from homeowners about what they described as unsightly excavation work around the Lakeview Drive entrance which Johnson City representatives previously maintained was to mitigate drainage issues. According to community group members, much of their frustration on the matter stemmed from the fact that the city had not received an excavation work permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) or the Town of Unicoi prior to beginning the activity. Johnson City ultimately did receive a permit from TDEC; however, they have not received a permit from the Town of Unicoi and the excavation work has been halted.

“Now they have defaced the property … I don’t think it could be recovered. I heard it could be upwards of $50,000 each green to fix,” Bevins said.

Bevins also said the community group has heard rumors that the property could become campgrounds, a soccer complex, walking trails, a park or wetlands. Recently, the group sent a letter to Johnson City commissioners expressing their concern over the excavation work and future of the property.

“The immediate example of existing unsightly conditions left by initial excavation is the main purpose of writing this letter,” it reads. “The front portion of the property is the main viewscape entering into the subdivision offering tremendous curb appeal to the main residential properties within said subdivision, and is now referred to as the ‘crater’.”

The letter, which included signatures from about 60 residents around the golf course, went on to say that the “crater” has not been filled with any soil or alternative fill material, and implored the city to consider the detrimental impacts to the residential neighborhoods if the area is not returned to its pre-developed state.

“We honestly feel like they don’t want to tell us anything … all the digging and everything they said they would have a public meeting about, but they have not announced any of those,” Bevins said. “We just don’t even know what direction to go in at this point.”

McSpadden stated that there has been no recent interest expressed in the property; however, it is not being marketed at this time and there no immediate intentions to do so. Johnson City will also be applying through the Army Corp of Engineers for Streambank Mitigation Credits in the coming weeks to provide compensatory mitigation, a process that is intended to offset certain unavoidable disturbances to wetlands or streams from land development by enhancement, establishment, preservation, or restoration of aquatic resources. According to Tn.gov, components of compensatory mitigation include objectives such as: maintenance plans, performance standards, long-term management, adaptive management, mitigation work plan and financial assurance.

“Once approved, we will construct the proper streambank then monitor and maintain the site,” McSpadden said. “This will apply only to the existing streams on-site and the city will maintain ownership of the land. The remaining acreage adjacent to the streams and not included within its defined banks will remain available for other uses as yet to be determined.”

Unicoi County Commission OKs budget on first vote

The Unicoi County Commission met on Monday, Aug. 6, to vote on the 2018-19 budget for the first time. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

After several weeks of meetings, the Unicoi County Commission needed less than five minutes to vote on the proposed budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year on first reading.

In a special called meeting held at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Monday, Aug. 6, the county’s governing body voted 8-0 to approve the budget and have it printed in a newspaper of general circulation in the county. (The budget appears on page 5-A of this issue.) This approval will send the budget to a second vote, which according to officials, will most likely take place during the panel’s next scheduled meeting on Monday, Aug. 27, at 6 p.m.

During the Aug. 6 meeting, Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to approve the budget, which was seconded by Commissioner Gene Wilson.

“I think you all did a great job on this budget,” Wilson said following his second. “… There will be no tax increase in Unicoi County.”

White and Wilson then joined commissioners Marie Rice, Jason Harris, Kenneth Garland, Bridget Peters, Loren Thomas and Todd Wilcox in voting “yes” on the budget; Commissioner John Mosley was absent.

This budget keeps the county’s property tax rate at $2.6838 per $100 of assessed property value for 2018-19.

Also included in the budget is a one-time bonus for county employees. There will reportedly be a $550 bonus for full-time employees and a $250 bonus for part-time employees. The Erwin Record previously reported that a portion of this will be funded with $30,000 from Unicoi County Highway Department funds and a portion will come from the general fund.

The budget also allows for $141,659 in contributions to non-profit and charitable organizations, the largest of which – $55,000 – will go to the county’s volunteer fire departments.

The governing body also chose to fund county departments at levels less than the previous year, but still faced an approximate $150,000 shortfall. Last week, the Unicoi County Budget & Finance Committee decided to cover that by drawing from the general fund and from funds the county received from the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. Also being utilized is approximately $45,000 in reserve funds from the County Clerk and Property Assessor’s offices.

• • •

The budget approved Monday does not include many items Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley had requested in the approximate $1.3 million budget he proposed to the Unicoi County Budget & Finance Committee when meetings began. This budget included requests by Hensley for new staff positions and patrol cars. Throughout the meetings between the committee and Hensley, the two parties debated which of his departmental requests could be funded.

The Erwin Record previously reported that Hensley wanted funds for two-and-a-half deputies funded by the county, an investigator, $60,000 in overtime pay, a part-time nurse for the two jails and a commitment to bringing the fence at the jailhouse annex up to standards, as well as installing repeaters on the county’s communication towers and two new camera systems for the jails.

“We don’t have it,” County Commissioner Loren Thomas said during a recent meeting about the $60,000 in overtime pay. “I don’t see how we can fund two-and-a-half more deputies. … I do feel like we ought to help fund the nurse.”

The committee did agree to provide $20,000 in overtime pay and a new patrol car and requested that Hensley use funds from selling extra equipment and grants to purchase two other vehicles.

The sheriff has previously said that he does not plan to sue the county over the budget. But, with the cuts he most likely will no longer be able to house state prisoners in the Unicoi County jails, which generates approximately $600,000 in revenue each year.

Hensley was not in attendance at Monday’s meeting; however, he did provide a comment to The Erwin Record on the budget after the vote, saying: “I will work with what they give me. When I see I’m running out of money for food and medical, either they can give me more money in those line items, or I will send the state inmates to the penitentiary.”

Commissioners believe they have avoided property tax increase; will vote on Aug. 6

Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee members have put their heads together in several meetings during the last two weeks in an attempt to create a more balanced budget for fiscal year 2018-19 and avoid a property tax increase. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After several weeks of meetings and crunching numbers, the Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee was able to eliminate their shortfall and still provide employee bonuses without raising taxes.

Before ending with a $146,000 shortfall last week, the committee once again visited the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department budget last week and proceeded to move around $40,000 in what they expected to be overfunded line items and transferred them into areas they believed were underfunded, such as medical expenses at the two jails.   

“Within the sheriff’s budget, I think there are things we can move around,” Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Marie Rice said. “The medical last year was astronomical.”

Over the last several weeks Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley and the committee have been locked in a back and forth battle over which of his departmental requests can be funded this year. In a meeting between Hensley and Jamie Harris, who will take his seat on the county commission this September, Hensley stated. “Don’t move any of my stuff out of my line items.”

Harris said Hensley’s budget requests that he absolutely needed and would not negotiate on included two-and-a-half deputies funded by the county, an investigator, $60,000 in overtime pay, a part-time nurse for the two jails, and a commitment to bringing the fence at the jailhouse annex up to standards, as well as installing repeaters on the county’s communication towers and two new camera systems for the jails.

“We don’t have it,” County Commissioner Loren Thomas said about the $60,000 in overtime pay. “I don’t see how we can fund two-and-a-half more deputies. … I do feel like we ought to help fund the nurse.”

The committee agreed to fund $20,000 in overtime pay, one investigator, one deputy, and three vehicles out of the general fund.

The committee left off last week with suggestions to utilize close to $45,000 from the county and court clerk’s office, dip into the Mountain States Health Alliance funds and take back $30,500 of the two-cent tax rate they have previously given to the Unicoi County Highway Department. However, Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes said that if the state did not provide funding to replace two condemned bridges, his department would need the funds.

“I know money’s tight and things are short … but it’s come to the point now where we do need to keep it,” Haynes said.

Haynes informed the commission that he would report back on whether or not he is able to receive more than $100,000 in funding from the state, which will determine whether or not he can forfeit any of the tax rate.

• • •

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Rice reported that the county was now at a $148,868 shortfall due to adjustments with the health department and a general fund balance of $932,430.

She asked the committee to share their thoughts on balancing the budget and working towards their Monday, Aug. 6, deadline for the first public reading during a called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission meeting.

“Where are the funds going to come from?” Rice asked.

Thomas suggested using the Mountain States Health Alliance funds to cover the $132,000 ambulance service subsidy. However, Rice expressed concerns with explicitly using the Mountain States Health Alliance funds for a recurring expense, which she said it is not intended for. 

“If the comptroller really wanted to scrutinize us, they could say we’re doing it just to balance the budget,” she said.

As an alternative, Rice suggested taking half of the $148,868 shortfall out of the hospital funds, and the other half out of the general fund.

“Either way, they’re not going to like it,” said Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox about the comptroller’s office.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White made a motion to accept Rice’s suggestion to split the shortfall between the hospital funds and the general fund. His motion was seconded by Unicoi County Commissioner Gene Wilson before the committee went into discussion.

Phyllis Bennett, Unicoi County bookkeeper, informed the committee that they technically did not have to move the funds over to the ambulance subsidy line item until April when it will be due.

“Still … the $148,000 shortfall, you’re going to have to face next year,” she said.

Unicoi County mayoral candidate Johnny Day mentioned rising inflation rates and questioned whether a 2.3 percent tax increase, which would amount to $75,000, was worth considering.

“A tax increase … that ain’t going to happen,” Harris said, whose feelings were echoed by several other commissioners.

Day said it was inevitable to avoid a tax increase forever if inflation continues to rise unless significant cuts are made to people’s services.

“What are you going to do … cut people’s services or raise taxes to meet inflation?” Day asked.

Wilcox agreed that the commission does need to “prepare for a tax increase” in the next year or two.

“We’re already taxed to death,” Rice said. “Most people aren’t in the same position we’re in.”

Rice’s motion to split the shortfall between the general fund and hospital money passed with all commissioners present – Wilcox, Wilson, Thomas, Jason Harris, Jamie Harris and Rice – voting in favor.

“After the budget is amended and the $45,000 comes in from the reserves and all that, it will help our bottom line,” Rice said. “It would be nice to be balanced, but we can’t always be perfect, but I think we’re closer than we’ve been in years.”

• • •

Haynes later reported back that the state would be offering funds to cover the bridge replacement, freeing up one cent of the tax rate, or approximately $30,000 the committee could use to fund based on the current number of county employees, for a $550 bonus for full-time employees and a $250 bonus for part-time employees, the cost would amount to $46,880.

The committee ended the meeting in agreement to utilize the $30,000 from the highway department to offset a portion of the cost for bonuses and retrieve the remainder from the general fund.

“You all done a great job,” Wilson said. “I’m proud of you all. No tax raise.”

Erwin Rite Aid store closing in August

Following the transfer of close to 2,000 stores from Rite Aid to Walgreens, the Erwin Rite Aid store made the list for stores that will be closing. The pharmacy will be open for its last day of business on Aug. 9, with the rest of the store remaining open for two weeks to allow for the final sale of products. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Rite Aid customers will soon be finding other storefronts to fulfill their pharmacy needs in light of several store closures across the region, including one in Erwin and Elizabethton.

In March, Rite Aid announced that a store transfer process was completed in which 1,932 stores and related assets were transferred to Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. for cash proceeds of $4.157 billion. Both the Erwin Rite Aid, located at 1252 N. Main Ave., and the Elizabethton Rite Aid, located at 507 West Elk Ave., were included in the transfer process.

After speaking with officials from Walgreens, The Erwin Record was informed that Walgreens will be closing a total of 600 stores, including both those with Walgreens and Rite Aid names. A spokeswoman for Walgreens said that in an effort to optimize the store’s footprint, closures will typically take place whenever two stores are located in close proximity to one another.

“As announced last October, we will be closing some store locations to help ensure we have the right stores in the right locations to create a more focused network of stores that can deliver the greatest value for our customers,” said Allison Mack, media relations manager for Walgreens.

Two of the Walgreens-owned Rite Aids that made the closure list are the Erwin and Elizabethton stores, both of which have a Walgreens about a mile away.

Mack said that the pharmacy at the Erwin Rite Aid store will have its last day of business on Aug. 9, and the rest of the store will remain open for approximately two weeks following the pharmacy closure for a final sale on all products. Patients’ prescription records will be made available at the Walgreens at 401 N. Main Ave. in Erwin.

The Elizabethton Rite Aid will be closing its pharmacy after Aug. 7, with the rest of the store staying open for another two weeks for the final sale of products. Patients’ prescription records will be made available at the Walgreens at 214 Broad St. in Elizabethton.

“We are committed to taking care of our team members throughout this process and expect to have positions at other locations for the majority of store employees who are impacted,” Mack said. “We will be making every effort to find the same or similar positions for team members.”

According to a press release issued by Rite Aid in March, transfers of Rite Aid distribution centers and related assets should only see minimal closing conditions because the majority of closing conditions have already been satisfied.

“While we will be closing some stores in the Bristol market, we will also be investing in the community through the process of converting other Walgreens-owned Rite Aid stores to the Walgreens brand,” said Mack.

Other Walgreens-owned Rite Aids will also be converted to the Walgreens brand, a process that is expected to begin later this year and continue in phases over approximately 18 months, said Mack. Mack did not yet have information on which specific Walgreens-owned Rite Aid stores in the region would be converted over to the Walgreens brand.

Also in their March press release was the announcement that Rite Aid’s board of directors had terminated the tax benefits preservation plan (the “Plan”) that was adopted on Jan. 3, 2018.

On Aug. 9, a Special Meeting of Stockholders will be held to vote on a proposed merger deal between Rite Aid and Albertsons Companies, an American grocery store company.

Town of Erwin officials propose property tax hike

Town of Erwin officials continued discussions on the 2018-19 budget and analyzed their options, from refinancing to a tax increase, that would allow them to produce a balanced budget. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

After reviewing potential refinancing options from three financial advisory services, Town of Erwin officials arrived at a consensus to spread out a $108,000 debt service payment, take on up to $1 million in new monies and issue a 1.5 cent property tax increase.

At the beginning of a meeting on Thursday, July 19, City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said that the budget currently had an 8.04 cent gap. With revenues coming in at approximately $6.57 million, and expenditures at $6.67 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

“I don’t see anything that can be cut,” Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said about the budget.

The board had previously heard from Cumberland Securities, Raymond James, and the Municipal Bond Fund, who in the last budget meeting gave them a snapshot of their variable interest rates.

“Some of our plans have gone anywhere from 3.23 to almost up to a four percent interest rate, so there’s quite a bit of a gap in there,” Rosenoff said.

On the town’s $3.5 million loan for phases two and three of the downtown revitalization projects, the variable interest rates started out at 1.85 percent before jumping around in the high one and low two percent range. As of the end of June, the interest rate was at 2.32 percent.

“There are no plans, thus far that come close to 2.32 … so that tells me it’s not been jumping a whole lot and in some cases it went down,” said Rosenoff.

A public works garage loan in the amount of $1.3 million started at a 1.06 percent interest rate, and hasn’t yet risen to two percent. The last payment made on the loan had an interest rate of 1.41 percent. Rosenoff described the town’s variable interest rates as “healthy,” and noted that they were still saving the town money each month, compared to higher fixed interest rates. He added that because the variable interest rates are reviewed each month, it would be easy to tell if they were getting “out of hand.”

“My opinion, as far as our variable rate loans, I think they have performed very well, and if they didn’t I think the Municipal Bond Fund and others probably within 30 to 45 days would be able to find another loan at a fixed rate if we had to,” Rosenoff said.

In looking at some of the town’s capital outlay notes, the loan for the former Morgan Insulation Property, with a beginning balance of $375,000, has a current balance of $200,000, and is expected to be paid off in 5 years. An $800,000 note for capital projects in 2012 has a current balance of $320,000, and will be paid off in four years. The $1.25 million note for phase one of downtown revitalization has a remaining balance of $657,803, and is expected to expire in seven years.

“One of the suggestions was, if we have to wait on a couple of these loans to mature so we don’t have these payments anymore, then our fund balance is available to take and pay more on the debt service,” Rosenoff said.

He said the only offer on the table to postpone a payment came from the Municipal Bond Fund, which offered a postponement of the $108,000 payment on the $3.5 million note that is due this year and instead spread it out over the course of 11 years. Hensley was at first cautious about spreading out the payment and mentioned that the town could be in “worse shape” down the road compared to this year.

“I don’t think we are in bad shape right now,” she said.

Hensley said she would like to take any extra funds and utilize them to pay off the remaining balance for the Morgan Property.

“Hopefully, that property will be sold in the next 12 to 24 months. … Of course, there’s no interest on that, but the $320,000 left on the capital projects, we could use it for that,” she said.

It was pointed out by Rosenoff that there have been many large projects with “a lot of local money tied up,” such as the Harris Hollow Tunnel Project and the ECD Site Development Grant, both of which will be wrapped up this year and be off the books for next year. Currently, Rosenoff said there are no other projects in the $1,000,000 plus range.

“We have to continue to do these big projects, but there has to be some kind of break to catch up,” said Town of Erwin Alderman Mark Lafever.

Despite the large capital projects over the last several years, Rosenoff reported that the town’s fund balance is $1.4-$1.5 million. In order to balance the budget, Hensley suggested using the $108,000 savings this year from the debt service payment and increasing the tax rate by 3.3 percent.

“I think it’s inevitable,” Lafever said about a tax increase.

To avoid the 3.3 percent tax rate increase, Hensley said with the $108,000 debt service payment, plus a new loan of $1,000,000 with interest payment of $22,587, the town could possibly have a 1.34 cent tax increase instead.

“If we do that, that’s not going to put us ahead so we could be having to increase taxes again next year. We do have a good fund balance. … I’d like to see it build up a little more though. I’m just not comfortable with $1.4 (million),” she said.

Her final suggestion was to opt for a 1.5 cent property tax increase, which town officials were in general agreement on.

“It’s better than a 5 percent or an 8 percent increase next year,” Hensley said about a tax increase.

With the proposed 1.5 percent increase, Rosenoff said the town would have a balanced budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

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.