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Anonymous letter sparks debate at Unicoi BMA session

By Brad Hicks

Most cheered. Some jeered. Others questioned some of the calls made by those in charge to take action.

The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, including Mayor Johnny Lynch, center, address a packed crowd during the panel’s meeting on Monday, Aug. 15. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)
The Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen, including Mayor Johnny Lynch, center, address a packed crowd during the panel’s meeting on Monday, Aug. 15. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

As has been the case for the past several months, Monday’s sometimes-heated meeting of the Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen was held before a standing-room-only crowd. And while the board quickly got through the business portion of its meeting, the public comments portion of the agenda made up the bulk of the meeting.

Some of Monday’s discussion was spurred by an anonymous letter recently disseminated throughout the town.

“Let’s keep the momentum going!” the letter states. “As a resident and family in the city of Unicoi it is our duty to our family to know what our town officials are doing. Items on the agenda may impact you.

“We need to pay attention, while we have lost homes to inadequate fire protection in the north end of the county, the current administration continues to use the budget for a cabin, pavilion, welcome center with an a (sic) attendant to give directions, farmers market, possible car charging station and planned amphitheater. Responsible management???”

The letter also urged town residents to attend Monday’s board meeting, providing the start time and location.

“Ask questions,” the letter implored its recipients.

Resident Suzan Harkins was the first speaker to address the unsigned letter. She said the town’s management has acted responsibly, as the municipality’s budget is balanced. She said the town’s farmers market is open to vendors wishing to participate at no cost. She added that the town’s various undertakings are not being paid for via a municipal property tax. The town of Unicoi does not have a property tax and instead has operated from sales tax revenue collected within its limits.

“There’s a rumor going around that ‘A vote for (Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch) is a vote for increasing property taxes,’ but I’d like to see how you increase something that doesn’t exist,” Harkins said.

Resident Jean Stead said the town has retained its “rural integrity” while still acting progressively, fulfilling the promises town leadership made more than 20 years ago.

“Whoever sent that letter out needs to get the facts,” Stead said.

Stead’s husband Edward Stead also complimented the efforts of town officials.

“This place has become a vibrant, rural, fun place to be,” he said. “It’s got all kinds of neat stuff going.”

Residents Bob Sahli and Court Lewis were also among those who applauded the town’s efforts and its work on various projects, including the installation of sewage lines, work on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen and work to repair the bridge on Marbleton Road.

Lynch said the town’s activities and projects, such as the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, Bogart-Bowman Cabin and Visitors Information Center, are about generating sales tax revenue by attempting to draw visitors to the town of Unicoi. To further drive home this point, the board on Monday considered a resolution in which its members pledged not to entertain the prospect of a town property tax while in office.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen said while she does not favor the implementation of a municipal property tax and would sign the resolution, she pointed out that the board’s membership will change in November. Todd Hopson, appointed to the board in June to fill the seat left vacant by Phillip Hensley’s resignation, will not seek election in November. Bullen also said the board has not discussed a property tax in any meetings or retreats since she began serving, adding the board signed off on a similar resolution just four years ago in 2012.

“This is nothing more than a campaign promise disguised as a resolution,” Bullen said.

Still, the resolution was unanimously approved by the board.

Bill Clemson asked that the board move its regular monthly meetings to the town’s Visitors Information Center beginning with the September meeting. He said Unicoi Town Hall is no longer an adequate meeting venue due to its lack of seating, a sound system and capacity combined with increased citizen attendance.

Lynch said he would have no issue considering such a request – but only after the November election. He attributed the recent spike in meeting attendance and increased number of public comments to the looming election. Lynch also said there was plenty of seating at Town Hall until around three months ago when “you all started this,” directing his statement at a small group standing in the back.

“We don’t have a crowd here until it comes up right before election time, so don’t think that we’re fooled by that,” Lynch said. “We know what’s going on.”

Developer Brian Dunbar addressed purported efforts to eliminate the town. Lynch said town officials recently got word that there was a petition circulating in favor of dissolution of the town of Unicoi.

“I think opponents would like to see this town done away with,” Dunbar said. “I think that would be a mistake. The numbers, maybe, look good on that. Maybe. But these people in the town of Unicoi would not be properly served if that happened. I know that for a fact.”

Speaking after Dunbar was Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley, who addressed the same issue.

“Mr. Dunbar said there was a group wanting to do away with the town,” Mosley said. “I know of no one. That was told last time I ran against you, Mr. Mayor Lynch, that I wanted to do away with the town. There’s no truth to that. There never will be. I never even thought about that until I heard it come from your mouth.”

To address the fire protection concerns referenced in the letter, the board called upon Unicoi Volunteer Fire Department Chief Robert Adams to speak. Adams commended the support of the town’s BMA, stating the fire department would never have reached its current state without this.

“This board has not turned the fire department down on any request,” Lynch said, with this statement confirmed by Adams.

Adams said the UVFD has a Class 6 rating throughout its district, which he said is a strong ranking for a volunteer department. He also said the department has better equipment than other departments throughout the county and an exceptional group of volunteer firefighters that the department is always looking to expand. And while Adams said he did not wish to comment on politics, he, too, gave his opinion on the letter.

“If I was going to put out propaganda, I’d have the guts to put my name,” Adams said.

The board also received an update on the Mountain Harvest Kitchen from Town Recorder Mike Housewright. He said the town received word on Thursday from the First Tennessee Development District that the state has signed off on the design and given the town notice to proceed with bidding construction.

Housewright said the bid package was released Monday. The bid closing will be Sept. 15, and construction will begin moving forward afterward.

“Regardless of how you feel about the kitchen, a lot of people worked very hard to get it to this point,” Housewright said.

In other business, the board:

• Approved the second and final reading of an ordinance regarding A-1 language for accessory structures for churches.

• Approved the second and final reading of an ordinance regarding language changes in the Planned Business District zone concerning single-family residences.

  Approved the first reading of an ordinance to amend the bylaws of the town’s Planning Commission. This would allow the town recorder or his designee to prepare the commission’s agenda.

• Approved the first reading of an ordinance to repeal town Ordinance 1999-44, an ordinance that closed Garfield Street between Virginia Street and Massachusetts Avenue for certain periods of time while Unicoi County Elementary School was in session. The repeal will allow the town to work with school officials to determine when the road should be opened and closed, providing more flexibility.