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Thomas got involved in local government because of archery ban Thomas got involved in local government because of archery ban

Not long ago, first-district Unicoi County Commissioner Loren Thomas would have described county government as “all new to me,” but he said that a vote by a previous commission to ban archery bear hunting in the county piqued his attention.
“I’m an avid hunter,” Thomas said. “I knew that I had to get up there and voice my opinion about that decision, so I did.”
Thomas said he attended his first county commission meeting in 2008, however he was told that he would need to come back to the next meeting and be placed on the agenda in order to make a presentation.
At his second meeting, Thomas gave his presentation and was told to come back for yet another meeting in order for the panel to hear both sides of the argument about archery bear hunting.
“Right then, I knew they had made a decision only looking at it from one perspective,” Thomas said.
As the time for the 2010 county election drew closer, Thomas felt he should use his voice in a more effective way for the citizens of the south end of the county and, on the final day before the deadline to do so, he took out papers to run for a spot on the commission.
“I made no promises to anyone because I didn’t know what the job would entail,” Thomas recalled. “I basically told people my opinions and listened to theirs as I was going door to door. It brought a lot of things to my attention.”
Thomas told his constituents that he wanted to go into the office his first year and do “a lot of listening and less talking” until he could get a better grasp of what the job was all about.
“God gave me two ears and one mouth,” Thomas said. “So I wanted to try to listen to the people of the county and my mentors – fellow commissioners.”
Thomas said he began attending every county commission meeting leading up to his election and said that commissioners even allowed him to start participating in discussions on topics that would carry over into the upcoming term.
“I had a good foundation under me,” Thomas added. “I started participating more than I thought I would be able to.”
Thomas said that as time has gone on, he has done his “homework” on the issues that have been brought before the commission. He was quick to add that his main focus when it comes to making a decision on those issues is to hear both sides to every story.
“It all goes back to that bear-hunting issue when they voted on something that was one-sided,” Thomas said. “I’ve been on that side of things.”
Thomas was born in Knoxville, and his family returned to the county at age 2. He attended Temple Hill Elementary School, and graduated from Unicoi County High School in 1994. From there, he continued on to Northeast State Community College to study welding.
After a switch during his college years to a business management program, Thomas took a job as a supervisor with Morrill Motors, where he has worked for the past 14 years. Thomas said his job has enabled him to address budgets and issues in organizational structure, as well as work with other people toward a common goal on a daily basis.
“Doing what I do as a profession has shaped me into the county commissioner that I am, and that’s very important,” Thomas said. “When I make decisions on things as a commissioner, it affects me and my family just as much as everyone else.”
Thomas said that hours and hours of study and research on issues facing the county enable him to be an active leader and make better informed decisions when voting on matters at commission meetings.
“It’s not easy,” Thomas said. “But I definitely value taking the time to do my homework on these issues so that when it comes time to have a meeting, I’m able to ask good questions and make good decisions.”
Currently at issue, Thomas said, is an impending tax increase due to budgetary needs across different offices and departments.
“Fortunately, we’ve been able to work through the sheriff’s demands and we have made some drastic progress with that budget, as well as others,” Thomas said. “However with the entire county budget, we’re looking at increases because the revenue is just not there like it has been in the past.”
Thomas said the commissioners are “constantly looking at different areas that can be cut” as well as different ways to come up with revenue. One way he suggested was to open up ATV trails in the county in order to bolster tourism.
“We’ve got all this government land just sitting here that we aren’t able to use,” Thomas said. “I feel like if we had some ATV trails, that would bring people in that would buy fuel, snacks and drinks, and they would dine at our restaurants, stay in our hotels.
“There’s a lot of potential right there with every single truck that pulls an ATV into this county,” Thomas added.
Thomas said another challenge comes in the form of citizens making comments on issues without making an honest effort to be at meetings and hear what’s actually going on.
“They have a right to their opinion,” Thomas said. “But a lot of the time, people don’t know why we voted on things the way we did. A lot of the time, a rumor may get started that doesn’t have any foundation.”
Thomas said he has made an honest effort to talk to as many officeholders as he can about their individual budgets in order to better understand their needs and suggest possible cuts.
“I go over their budgets with them line by line, one on one,” he said. “I ask them to show me why they need each amount for each line, then we talk about their needs, about staffing, about whether their equipment is up-to-date, whether or not their employees are happy.
“This is how I educate myself. There’s things I don’t know, some offices that truly do have needs that warrant the increases they’ve asked for this year. There are also some that I feel like we still have room for some improvement.”
Thomas said he will begin making his concluding suggestions for improvement as the commission prepares to finalize the county’s budget in the coming weeks.
“Everybody in (the courthouse) wants to provide the best service they can for the public because those are the people who elect them,” Thomas said. “We have to sometimes make difficult decisions with their budgets to try and hold them at a certain level of service so that we can live within our means.”
Thomas is the son of Bob and Debbie Thomas. He is the grandson of Earnestine Harris, who he said is one of his greatest role models.
Thomas and his wife, Cathy, have two daughters: Taylor, 10, a student at Unicoi County Intermediate School; and Sara, 5, a student at Temple Hill Elementary.
Thomas took the time to field questions compiled from reader input. His responses were as follows:
Q: Do you feel you can connect with the officeholders and others asking for budget increases and extra money?
A: My father has been a teacher since I was in third grade. I see what goes on with the school system. I see what goes on with the sheriff’s department, and a lot of other offices. I knew a lot of these people already before I ever got in this position. I have also been able to work very well with the other commissioners and officeholders. I try to make sure I’m being fair to them, but also that I’m being fair to the taxpayers because I am one of them. I want to do everything I can to keep us from having to raise taxes.
Q: Would you encourage young people like yourself to do what you’ve done and run for a county office?
A: I was no different than any other person in the county. I only knew what I read in the papers. As a younger person on the commission, I have felt very well-received and I would encourage any young person who thinks they might have an interest to start out by attending commission meetings in order to educate themselves about what’s going on. They do need to realize, though, that you have to study. You have to be willing to do a lot of things that normal people just don’t get out and do. It’s a challenge, but it’s a very rewarding challenge.
Q: What was it like when you started visiting people door-to-door to campaign?
A: I learned a lot going door-to-door. When I go out to visit people, that’s when I learn the most about our county. It’s good to get out and see people, because a lot of citizens surprisingly don’t even know who their county commissioners are. It always makes me feel good when I walk up to somebody’s door, speak with them the first time, introduce myself, tell them what I do and see that they understand that I’m there to help them.
Q: The burning question: raises for county employees. What are your thoughts?
A: We’ve gone too long without giving them a raise. My first year, I voted along with the rest of the commissioners not to give a raise because I didn’t know a lot about everything. This time, I feel like we have to help our employees keep up with the cost of living. When you go for three or four straight years without receiving a raise, it gets harder and harder on them to support their families. I fully support a raise. I’m all for giving them at least a 1.6-percent raise to match what school system employees got from the state. I know we’re faced with budget demands this year that are four and five times higher than what we faced last year. It’s going to be a struggle.