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County Fire Department can proceed with budget transfer despite CLB objection

COCKE COUNTY—A budget transfer requested by the County Fire Department led to a lengthy discussion at Monday’s County Legislative Body (CLB) meeting.

The initial request was presented to the County Budget Committee earlier this month, and passed on to the CLB for consideration.

The position of assistant chief has been vacant for some time at the department, which led Chief Bryan Southerland to remove the position and request those funds be used to increase salaries for all firefighters.

Included in the move would be a new position that will carry the title of Senior Captain. No new dollars would need to be added to the budget to make the request work.

A motion was made to approve the request, but it failed with eight commissioners voting against the measure.

After that vote occurred, County Mayor Crystal Ottinger told the body she would let the department proceed with the request despite their disapproval. She said it may result in a small blip on the county’s audit report but would be worth it in the end.

“I’m going to go ahead and allow them act as if this was approved,” Ottinger said.

“This should only result in an audit footnote and not a finding when the time comes, but I’m willing to do that to get them the money they deserve.”

Several commissioners feared that approving the request would open Pandora’s box.

“If we allow the fire department to do this what will stop everyone else from doing the same,” CLB chair Clay Blazer asked?

“I’m torn by this decision because I know our employees deserve more pay.”

Commissioner Gayla Blazer agreed that most employees deserve an increase in pay but preferred it be done through the budget process. She also questioned the salary increase for the chief.

The request would see Southerland’s salary increase by $4,400 per year.

“The chief knew the salary when he took the position,” Blazer said.

“If I take a job, I’m not going to come back six months later and say I need $4,000 more to do the same job. I’m not saying the others don’t deserve this, but I think it should go through the normal budget process.”

Commissioner Norman Smith said he would like to see more money go towards volunteer departments. He said the majority of the county is dependent upon these departments for a wide variety of emergencies.

“There is a reason we’re not paying these employees enough and that’s because we don’t have the money to do it with,” Smith said. “They all need more money, but where are you going to get it from? Are you going to hit the tax payers who can’t even breathe?

“For the people in Grassy Fork and Point Pleasant their volunteer departments will be the first to respond. These volunteer departments are the ones we need to be looking to help.”

Commissioner Casey Gilliam had a different opinion on the matter. He said the county has to find a way to increase wages for all departments due to the high turnover rate.

Gilliam said the county is losing employees every single day to higher paying jobs in other counties.

“We are constantly losing well trained people to other counties over a few thousand dollars,” Gilliam said.

“It’s not just the fire department and the sheriff’s office either. We’ve had people laugh in our face when they hear what we pay at the road department.”

Commissioner Forest Clevenger agreed with Gilliam saying he wanted to see county employees prosper. He was in support of the request because it involved existing funds within the budget.

“We were able to get sheriff’s deputies a little more within their own budget and I think we should do the same with the fire department,” Clevenger said.

“I think we should do this with a lot of departments. We have to start paying people more money. This requires no new money so we’re just holding them back and not letting them prosper.”

Moving forward, commissioners briefly discussed the vacancy on the Sheriff’s Office Civil Service Board. The Public Safety Committee narrowed the choices down to Ward Williams and Phillip Weidenburner to fill the position.

The body voted to appoint Williams to fill the vacant seat but assured Weidenburner that a position will be open soon as terms end for other board members.

During the meeting commissioners voted to reappoint Clay Blazer as chair of the body for the 2021-2022 year. Norman Smith was named vice-chair.

Mayor Ottinger and commissioners took a moment to recognize long-time newsman and radio broadcaster, Marty Ricker. Ricker passed away on July 30, 2021. He worked at many radio stations over the years and most recently served as news director at WLIK in Newport.

Ottinger presented a proclamation to Ricker’s family members and former employers who were in attendance for the meeting.

The County Legislative Body will meet again on Monday, October 18 at 6 p.m. in the Circuit Courtroom of the Cocke County Courthouse.

City School Board approves pay raise for substitutes

NEWPORT—The Newport City Board of Education held their September meeting in the Newport Grammar School auditorium on Monday night. Items included the approval of an increased pay rate for substitutes to help mitigate the effects of an ongoing labor shortage at the school.

The board also discussed incentives for the staff and faculty as a reward for Newport Grammar’s recent accolades as a Level 5 reward school on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

The meeting’s workshop began with a COVID-19 report from Mischelle Black and Kathy Ragan, who shared that 11 students had been exposed to COVID-19, one student had tested positive, and 26 students were using distance learning. One staff member had tested positive, but that member had been absent from work due to other health reasons and had not been in the school for over a week.

Cafeteria Manager Christina Leas followed with her report of the last month. In the 14 operating days of August, NGS had served 2,443 breakfasts and 5,265 lunches.

The school’s new combination oven has been installed and was working properly. Leas shared that, due to the lack of functioning air conditioning in the kitchen, the freezer had broken down and she had to request help from Thermo King, who donated a freezer truck while the school’s freezer was being repaired.

Leas also shared that the cafeteria has been struggling with food and supply shortages, as manufacturers were understaff and could not produce enough product to meet demands. Finally, Leas shared that the cafeteria had been affected by ongoing labor shortages, but she reassured the board that the children are being fed.

Assistant Principal Dustin Morrow shared the budget for the SAFE Schools Grant that NGS would be receiving. The budget included the installation of a security vestibule to the main entrance of the school, which would provide a buffer for visitors to state their reason for visiting before being granted access to the building by administration.

Federal Programs Supervisor Amy Messer reminded the board that September 28 will be a professional development day for NGS.

Systems and Assessments Supervisor Dr. Justin Norton shared that the school was randomly selected to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for fourth grade ELA and Mathematics.

Norton also shared that the school would be conducting a Substitute Training day on September 27 at 1 p.m. for interested parties.

The meeting was formally called to order at 6:47 p.m. and began with the approval of last meeting’s minutes.

The board approved a field trip for the first grade to Myers Pumpkin Patch, as well as a trip for grades 2-4 to Echo Valley Corn Maze. They also approved a trip for Christina Leas to the East Grand region New Supervisor Meeting in Knoxville.

Next, the board approved a proposed revision to insurance guidelines for certified retirees and approved the utilization of Broadway and Main Pharmacy to provide on-site flu shots to teachers.

The board’s next items were the approval of an option for either two additional personal days or a bonus of $300 for all NGS employees for the school’s exemplary status on TVAAS, as well as a stipend for the tested teachers who earned grades of four or five on the assessment.

Following that item’s approval, the board addressed the decision to require athletes to wear masks while playing. The board’s final decision was to require masks from students, coaches, and others who were on the bench or in the stands, but to allow the students to remove their masks while they were actively in the game.

The board also approved the formation of a Scholar’s Bowl team for students in grades six through eight, to be led by Nicholas Stephen.

The board approved their 2021 Disciplinary Hearing Board members in Dr. Justin Norton, Lenora Douglas, and Mischelle Black.

They also approved the SAFE Schools grant budget, and a trip for Karen Chambers’ Extended Resource Class to the Atlanta Aquarium in December, as well as a trip to Newport Cinema for the eighth grade.

Finally, the board voted to increase their Substitute Pay Rate from $55 per day to $65 per day for uncertified substitutes, and from $65 to $75 per day for certified substitutes in an effort to incentivize more substitutes to work.

69 children reported COVID positive in seven-day period

COCKE COUNTY—With only nine new COVID cases reported on September 20, case numbers continue to cool down in the county. In the last seven days, there have been 240 new cases reported, which is down from the 384 cases over the previous seven days.

According to state data, there were approximately 69 cases in residents aged 0-18-years-old from September 13 through 19. Of those, 10 were 0-4-years-old, 17 were 5-11-years-old, and 42 were 12-18-years-old.

As of September 20, there were 451 active COVID cases in the county, which is down from earlier in the month, but still on par with figures from early January.

No new deaths or hospitalizations have been reported to the county dashboard, leaving the toll at 104 deaths and 132 hospitalizations.

Cocke County’s vaccination numbers are still slowly rising, with 32,816 doses of the vaccine having been administered. Over 48% of the county has received their first dose and just below 42% are fully vaccinated.

The following is a list of surrounding counties showing their total COVID-19 count compared to active cases, as well as their population percentage that has received at least one dose versus percent fully vaccinated:

Sevier: 18,464/1,153 (49.57%/41.15%)

Hamblen: 12,220/643 (40.53%/34.74%)

Greene: 12,040/939 (44.25%/38.81%)

Jefferson: 9,133/647 (50.63%/43.62%)

In the last seven days, the CDC has reported 28,524 new COVID cases across the state of Tennessee. The State Health Department reported over 4,000 cases on September 18 alone.

Tennessee has reported 14,450 COVID-related fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic, including 182 in the last seven days.

There have now been 6.58 million doses of the COVID vaccine administered to 3.53 million Tennesseans, approximately 51.7% of the population. Just over 44% are fully vaccinated.

The CDC reported a total of 28,741 new cases across the nation on September 20; the national case total recently surpassed 42 million cases since the outbreak of the virus.

A total of 225 new fatalities were reported, pushing the toll to 672,738 American lives lost to COVID-19.

Over 212 million Americans have received their first dose of the vaccine, which equates to about 64% of the nation’s population, including nearly 75% of adults and 93% of Americans 65 years or older.

Just fewer than 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or about 54.7% of the population, including 64% of adults and 82.0% of Americans 65 or older.

County in the running for three major industrial projects

COCKE COUNTY—Cocke County is currently in the running to land multiple large-scale projects according to Lucas Graham, Cocke County Economic Development Director and Partnership President.

Graham provided a brief update on the projects during the most recent meeting of Economic Development Commission (EDC). Project Gold Star started as a nationwide search that has been narrowed to a select number of states.

The company has an aggressive timeline and is currently looking to make a decision by October. “I’m working with the CEO and VP and it’s been a back and forth process,” Graham said.

“The state incentive application is being considered next week. This would be manufacturing based with a large job count. The five-year job commitment would be around 500. They have significant water and sewer needs, and power is good as well. We’re one of the last ones standing right now and competing with a few other states.”

The second project that looks very promising for the county has been given the moniker MOD.

Investors are looking at Tennessee, and specifically Cocke County, as a regional manufacturing, distribution and sales office.

“The company is looking at a new build in the innovation park that would take 10 to 15 acres. It would be 120,000 square feet and a job count of 350 to 400. We have another four months before a decision will be made, but we’re in the top three. I’m working with their leadership team and they seem to like the area and the site.”

The third project that also has Cocke County listed in its top three has been named Prescott. Prescott is a large-scale highly competitive project with a leadership team that is considering locations in Texas and Arizona in addition to Cocke County.

Graham said the county would have to be aggressive and creative to land such a large-scale company.

“We’re very pleased to be one of the three finalist for this project. It’s exciting but also nerve-racking at the same time. They are 30 to 45 days away from a decision. This is a very competitive process, but the company has a strong desire to be in east Tennessee. They are considering this as an east location, and looking at a mid and west coast presence if they can get enough capital. It’s very good to be in that first group.”

Another item discussed by Graham was a pending announcement from a retailer looking to locate in Newport. The Partnership has been working with the company’s corporate leadership on a press release for local media.

COVID delayed the announcement, but Graham expects the news to be released in the next few weeks.

The EDC and Partnership boards will meet again on Thursday, October 21 at 5:30 p.m. in Newport’s City Hall.

Chamber of Commerce holding scarecrow decorating contest

The Cocke County Partnership Chamber of Commerce is inviting Cocke County businesses and homes to participate in a scarecrow decorating contest. Gift card prizes and bragging rights are sure to rev up the competition.

Creativity and imaginations are welcome; there are no limits on how crazy you can be. There are no restrictions on design; however, please be family friendly. The community will be voting so be creative, festive and show your crazy scarecrow designing skills.

Submit your scarecrow photo online by Sept. 30 to be included in the voting process. All submissions will be posted on the Cocke County Partnership’s Facebook page. Voting will be open from October 1st through the 31st and the top 3 winners with the most likes/loves/comments will be announced on November 1st. Prizes include area gift cards and local business promo items!

How to enter (2 easy ways to enter):

Fill out our form at https://forms.gle/zwqnswbE6QSqxypk8 or send your name, address, phone number and photo submission by Facebook Messenger to the Cocke County Partnership.

Contact: Cocke County Partnership Chamber of Commerce, Lynn Ramsey or Jennifer Ellison at jellison@cockecountypartnership.com or by phone at 423-623-7201.