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Hensley: Reason, stability crucial elements in local government

Bill Hensley is a self-proclaimed Type A personality – he says he’s “always got to be out doing something.”
It’s precisely this mindset that Hensley said helped him decide to run for office as a second-district county commissioner last year.
“I thought I could be an asset to the county,” Hensley said. He was quick to add that serving as a commissioner is his first foray into the political scene.
“I started working for the Postal Service in 1975,” Hensley said. “I started out at the bottom there, and eventually became postmaster.”
Hensley retired as Flag Pond’s postmaster in 2001, after working in various offices all over the eastern part of the state for nearly 27 years. That experience, he said, has helped shape the type of commissioner that he has become over the past year.
“The biggest challenge is trying to please everyone,” he said. “You learn right away that you cannot do that. I’ve got people that are calling me constantly, and I feel for them. They’re barely scraping by and don’t want their taxes raised.”
Hensley, who serves as the chairman of the commission’s finance committee, said that while he understands public scrutiny over potential tax hikes, he and the other commissioners must do what is necessary in order to keep the county’s government afloat.
“You have to keep everything running somehow,” Hensley said. “I think we’re going to really have to clean up some left-over items and get those funded before we start anything else. Time has run out on us, and we’ve got to pay the piper, so to speak.”
Hensley clarified that the “left-over” items he was referring to included the county’s ambulance service, the new middle school and a potential shortfall in the
town of Unicoi’s contribution to the school system, for which the county may have to pick up the difference.
“Those are just three items right off the top of my head, without looking,” Hensley said, adding that budget requests from Sheriff Kent Harris this year were also weighing heavily on commissioners.
“I thought we made very good headway on that,” Hensley said of the sheriff’s department budget. “Some of the commissioners wanted to table that until we could get some projections in from the state as far as revenue goes. We’re hoping that will offset a little of the tax burden this year.”
Hensley addressed the county’s impending and inevitable tax hikes – which he called “the elephant in the room” – and said he never promised his constituents he would vote against tax hikes if they were needed to operate the government smoothly.
“But what I’m hearing on the street now is the same thing I heard when I was campaigning for this office,” he said. “People are telling me that our county needs to work harder to live within its means. I think they’re right. We need to hold the line, so to speak.
“I know people want raises for their employees, but, you know, we pay for their health insurance every year, and that keeps going up. If you really focus on that, that is a small raise that they’re not having to pay for right there.”
Hensley also addressed what he called “a big controversy with the officeholders,” who he said are arguing over which courthouse employees are more qualified for higher pay, and which ones do more specialized work.
“All of our employees do important work,” Hensley said. “We really need to get some kind of continuity on what we pay new employees, and we also need to address step raises for the ones who have been here.”
Hensley said he would like to see all the officeholders sit down in a round-table discussion and work toward establishing a starting salary or hourly wage for new workers, and also set up a step-increase system for wages as employees’ knowledge bases grow.
Hensley has been known to encourage “reasonable people to arrive at reasonable ends,” and he says that message is a crucial foundation to his political platform.
Hensley also said openness among government bodies and officials is key to the healthy operation of the county.
“I’m a firm believer that without freedom of the press, we would not be the nation we are today,” Hensley said. “The (Sunshine) Law can get under your skin sometimes, but we need to keep everything out in the open and let our citizens get involved.”
Hensley also fielded questions compiled from reader input. His responses were as follows:
Q: Who are some of your political role models?
A: Former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was one of my idols back when I was young. I also admire Fred Thompson, Bill Frist and Phil Roe. I respect them for their ability to reason problems through and come up with the best solution without rushing into it.
Q: How would you respond to the recent differences between the sheriff’s department and the citizen group led by John Day?
A: Everyone is equal, regardless of power. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to say what they want to say. Mr. Day exercised his right as a citizen to get up and stand up for what is important to him. That is the spirit of true democracy.
Q: What would you say to young people who hope to one day run for office?
A: Get involved as much as you possibly can. Come to meetings. Stand up and be recognized. Have your say and do something. Don’t just sit idly by and hope that someone else will change things. If you want change, go out and make it happen.
Q: What is the biggest threat to local government?
A: Apathy. Apathy will kill a society faster than anything else, in my opinion. People need to care. They need to come to county (commission) meetings. There’s a specific time for visitors to have their say, and that’s all they have to do. Plus, that really, really helps us out with our decisions.