By Brad Hicks
As has been the case for months, attendance at Monday’s meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen exceeded available seating at Unicoi Town Hall.
And, just like last month, an anonymous flyer was distributed to the town’s residents the day before the meeting, urging them to attend and question the town’s leadership on how tax money is being sent.
At the top of the flyer, which was placed in residents’ mailboxes on Sunday, is a cartoon figure resembling the “Monopoly Man” from the iconic board game. Behind the figure is a large bag of cash from which the mustached, top hat-wearing man is nonchalantly throwing money around.
“Is this the guy you want using your tax money?” the flyer asks. “Are you getting what you pay for with your tax dollars?
“Does your road need repair? Do you think you would like a fire hall closer to your home? Are you getting services you need or are all the pet projects getting more attention and money instead of what you and your family deserve.
“Is your government treating your money like Monopoly money?
“Come to the town hall meeting on Monday the 19th at 5:30 and ask questions!”
And while only one person in attendance actually questioned how the town was utilizing funding and Mayor Johnny Lynch’s request for the person who printed the flyers to identify himself or herself went unanswered, the latest flyer did prompt Lynch to provide a response – one that included him jokingly breaking out his own top hat and stating “Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”
Lynch’s response to the flyer came just before adjournment of Monday’s meeting.
“It’s real cute, you know,” Lynch said. “It’s got the little cartoon, and I assume that’s supposed to be me.”
But the mayor took on a more serious tone when addressing the concerns raised in the flyer, particularly the reference to the town’s “pet projects.” He said projects and town-sponsored events, such as the July 4th Freedom Fest and Strawberry Festival, are investments in the town made for its citizenry.
“It’s all for you,” Lynch said. “It’s all for you. We don’t get anything out of it. If you’re going to get out here and you’re going to criticize and you’re going to do all this stuff, even though it is election time, let’s be cool about it. Let’s get along, and let’s put good information out. Let’s not put inaccurate information out.”
Still, the heated atmosphere prevalent in recent meetings seemed to have cooled off Monday, as two of three attendees who spoke during Monday’s public comments period commended town leadership for its efforts.
Twelve-year resident Bob Sahli said officials have done a “fabulous” job for residents.
“I’m proud of what you all have done, every one of you,” Sahli said to the board. “I’m proud of everything that has been accomplished by what little amount of money that you get.”
Jean Stead served on the board for a project similar to the Town of Unicoi’s Mountain Harvest Kitchen in Hancock County. He said the kitchen there proved not to be a “pet project” but instead a tool for economic development.
“I would also like to address the fact that it seems to me the thinking in this town is that we cannot have quality of life, quote ‘pet projects,’ versus spending money,” Stead said. “It is not a linear problem. We can have both. They go together in what we call ‘quality of life.’”
Resident Donna Perry, however, questioned the return realized on projects such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen. She said she first attended a meeting due to the issues with the bridge along Marbleton Road. Perry said what kept her coming back was her belief that the board is continuing to work on “special interest and pet projects.”
“Most of the money I see going out to these things is not bringing enough money into this thing,” she said, adding that such projects such as the kitchen are a “money drain” rather than “money maker.”
The board on Monday approved a bid from Kingsport-based Armstrong Construction Company to complete the second phase of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen project. Brunhilde Tober-Myer, who has served on the kitchen project’s board, said a previously-conducted survey indicated more than 250 people expressed interest in utilizing the kitchen and that the town continues to field interest in the project.
Lynch said the time and money spent on pursuing various projects has bought a greater return to the town.
“‘Pet projects’ are investments in your town. They’re investments in your town,” Lynch said. “We’ve worked very hard to get these grants. Tell me, if you took $2 out of the bank, do you think you could triple that? No, you couldn’t, but we can with grants and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve taken this money and we’ve tripled it.”
In other business, the board approved a resolution that would allow Unicoi County Schools officials to close Garfield Street from Virginia Street to Massachusetts Avenue while Unicoi County Elementary School is in session as school officials deem necessary.
By a 4-1 vote, the board also approved a measure to authorize Town Attorney Lois Shults-Davis to proceed with condemnation to acquire the last right-of-way needed for the Marbleton Road bridge should condemnation action be necessary. Alderwoman Kathy Bullen cast the dissenting vote.
Shults-Davis said officials are awaiting an appraisal of the property but that negotiations for the right-of-way have thus far been unsuccessful.