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Sullivan County budget, 9.3-cent tax increase approved

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission approved approved a 2021-2022 budget on Thursday, along with a 9.3-cent tax increase to fund it.

The budget approved gives the county school system everything it requested, including permission to use $8.8 million in reserve funds to balance the system’s $89.96 million budget.

The votes brought rousing cheers from the teacher- packed audience.

Including the $89.96 million for the county school system, the county’s budget totals $215.2 million.

The Sullivan County Board of Education reversed course earlier in the day and presented a list breaking down how it plans to spend that reserve money.

County commissioners asked for the list weeks ago. Last week, Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Randall Jones said he would produce such a list only if the county did first for its use of reserve funds to balance the general fund.

School system officials have said the $8.8 million in reserve funds would be spent on one-time expenditures. County commissioners cited concern use of any of the money for recurring expenditures could mean a tax increase next year, or soon thereafter, because — according to the school system’s own proposal — use of the money will virtually wipe out the system’s reserve fund.

The list from the school board was seen by at least some commissioners for the first time as the meet- ing began Thursday. Some questioned some of the items listed by the school system as “one-time” expenditures, including: textbooks, all school resource officers, instructional materials and supplies, and debt service.

Sullivan County Finance Director Larry Bailey said debt service absolutely is a recurring expense.

Commissioner Dwight King attempted at one point to adjourn the meeting and reschedule a potential vote for next week, saying he and other commissioners needed time to really look at the list, bringing loud jeers from the audience.

County Mayor Richard Venable said he’d like to have an opinion from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Office on whether items on the list could be considered one-time expenditures.

Commissioner Mark Vance suggested voting on the tax rate and budget, but pulling out the $8.8 million in school system reserve spending for consideration at a later date.

Ultimately, County Attorney Dan Street said that wasn’t an option. The commission had two choices, Street said: approve the school system’s proposed budget or reject it and send it back to the Board of Education.

After a recess, Vance moved for approval of the budget as presented and it passed by a vote of 17-4. The tax rate of $2.4062 (per $100 of assessed value) passed by a vote of 16-5.

Watch now: Financial impact of Summer Wells search will hit Hawkins sheriff, rescue agencies

ROGERSVILLE — One thing police and rescuers don’t want to think about while they’re looking for a missing child is how much the search operation is going to cost.

But eventually that issue will have to be addressed, as members of the Hawkins County Commission’s Budget Committee pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting.

Jeff / Jeff Bobo — jbobo@timesnews.net 

On June 22 investigators conducted a roadblock canvass, speaking with drivers who travel through the Beech Creek area often to see if they noticed anything out of the ordinary on June 15, the day Summer Wells went missing.

Sheriff Ronnie Lawson and Chief Deputy Tony Allen were asked about the financial impact of the 13-day search operation for missing 5-year-old Summer Wells, as well as the ongoing investigation.

Summer was last seen on June 15 at her home in the Beech Creek community. Although a massive search operation in that area ended after 13 days, the police investigation into her disappearance is ongoing.

Allen told the Budget Committee on Wednesday that he’s expecting a big overtime bill.

“It will hit us pretty hard, but we’ll do what we’ve got to do to work through it,” Allen said. “It won’t be comp time. It will be paid out. It’s just one of those things that you can’t plan on.”

Allen added, “That’s why we need a little bit extra (set aside in the budget). I haven’t got my budget analysis done on it yet of what the cost is because we’re still working the case. We’re boots on the ground still, and it might be three months before I can do a cost.”

Allen noted that the Black Lives Matter protest in Rogersville in July 2020 cost the sheriff’s office $47,000 for one day of law enforcement coverage. The full-scale search operation for Summer lasted 13 days, and the police investigation has surpassed three weeks.

Lawson noted that the patrol division and school resource officers alone put in a total of 3,200 man-hours during one week of the search. That’s not including the amount of time the detectives division has put into the investigation, Lawson added.

Allen told the Times News on Thursday the HCSO has exceeded 4,000 man-hours overall on the case, but he doesn’t know the overtime cost yet.


In this file photo, search crews gather for their morning briefing before beginning the fourth day of the search for Summer Wells.

There weren’t any rescue agencies in attendance for Wednesday’s meeting, but Commissioner Hannah Winegar questioned how the operation will impact them financially as well.

Both of the county’s rescue squads are nonprofit, 100% volunteer agencies which operate on donations, fundraisers, and a contribution from the county. They’re always short on funding.

The commission’s Ad Hoc Committee, which will make recommendations on how to spend the $11.1 million Hawkins County expects to receive in federal stimulus funding, also attended the Budget Committee meeting.

Although stimulus funding can’t directly be used to offset expenses from the search for Summer, Ad Hoc Committee members suggested that stimulus funding might still benefit local rescue agencies.

Although they'd been searching for Summer nearly a week without positive results, Church Hill Rescue Squad Capt. Tim Coup said during a June 21 press conference that morale is not an issue and everyone participating in the search has the same outlook. “We will not quit until we find Summer Wells.”

The Church Hill Rescue Squad, which led the search and rescue effort, had spent approximately $1,380 in cash on the operation as of Wednesday, but what members spent in volunteer hours by far exceeds that amount.

CHRS Capt. Tim Coup told the Times News on Wednesday that during the 13-day search his agency spent a total of $521 on fuel and maintenance. The remainder of the cash expenditures were for LED hand lights for searchers on the night redeployment and office supplies for the command post — such as a printer, paper, ink, pens, dry erase markers, etc.

As for volunteer man-hours, 22 CHRS members put in 2,248 hours over the 13 days. The 2021 national average value of a volunteer man-hour is $28.54, which would put the value of the CHRS’ manpower contribution to the search at $64,157.92.

“The search for Summer Wells will not put our agency in the red for the fiscal year,” Coup said. “The funds that were used for this call will take away from other necessary expenditures such as training, equipment, capital projects and replacement of a frontline rescue truck.”

The CHRS and the Hawkins County Rescue Squad each were tentatively approved for a $50,000 contribution from the county in the proposed 2021-22 budget, which has not yet been approved by the full commission. That’s an increase of only $1,000 from the previous fiscal year.

The CHRS had requested a $41,000 increase for the purpose of increased specialized training, including search and rescue classes, as well as for equipment and facility improvements.

“Our agency has also requested the same increase as the fire departments in the county of $11,000,” Coup said. “This would bring the contribution total to $60,000. Just like Hawkins County Rescue Squad, our call volumes have only increased from years past.”

HCRS Lt. Corey Young told the Times News on Wednesday that his agency spent approximately $1,500 in cash on the search.

As for man-hours, 33 members of the HCRS put in 2,185 hours for a volunteer manpower value of $62,359 over the course of the operation.

Young said the incident won’t put the HCRS in the red for the fiscal year, but it will pull resources away from other expenditures such as supplies, uniforms, training and capital projects.

The HCRS had asked the county for a $26,000 contribution increase in 2021-22, and like the CHRS, was tentatively awarded an extra $1,000, from $49,000 to $50,000.

Contributed / TBI 

Covering the rough terrain in the Beech Creek search area left search teams exhausted both physically and mentally.

“We have been funded at $50,000 for several years, then was cut back to $49,000,” Young said. “We asked for an increase of $26,000 for this fiscal year to plan for large expenditures for the next few years such as vehicle replacement. We have recently asked commissioners for the same $11,000 increase given to the fire departments, to bring our contribution total to $60,000 but haven’t received the additional funding.”

Winegar suggested Wednesday that in light of the Summer Wells case the Budget Committee should revisit the contribution allocated for both rescue squads.

Commissioner Mark DeWitte, who sits on the Ad Hoc Committee, said current restrictions on the funding wouldn’t allow rescue agencies to seek compensation for resources used during the search. The funding is restricted to COVID-related expenditures.

“All of the individuals who were involved in this rescue were also the (first responders) majorly exposed to COVID back then,” DeWitte noted. “(Summer’s search) may not directly apply, but there may be some money they could tap from to bring them back up to where they were. It doesn’t have to be exactly for this emergency purpose, but we’re encouraging all nonprofits to come before that committee.”

DeWitte added, “There is money there just because you (as an essential worker) were dealing with the public during COVID. If they present their case in the right way, that the committee could pass on to the people who actually make the decision, there’s probably some money in there that they’ll end up being able to get.”

The Ad Hoc Committee was meeting Thursday evening. DeWitte said there will be several more meetings to come before any stimulus funding recommendations are made to the full commission.

breaking featured
Hawkins factory announces $33 million expansion, 162 new jobs

BULLS GAP — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Barrette Outdoor Living officials announced Thursday that the company will expand operations in Hawkins County.

Barrette Outdoor Living is a leading manufacturer of fencing, railing and exterior products. The company will invest $33 million and create 162 new jobs in Bulls Gap, where it has operated since 2001.

Barrette Outdoor Living, whose Bulls Gap plant is Hawkins County's biggest industrial employer, was purchased last year by two Canadian investment firms that plan to keep the local plant operating as is.

With a workforce of more than 700 employees, Barrette Outdoor Living is one of Hawkins County’s largest employers. Barrette will add 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space, including four new extruders, co-extruders and cooling tanks as well as additional fabrication and packaging equipment.

“Barrette has been an outstanding corporate citizen in Hawkins County since purchasing the Erwin Industries facility in 2002 and they have continued to grow their operations since converting to vinyl fence production the very next year,” said Hawkins County Industrial Development Board Chairman Larry Elkins. “This large investment and additional 162 quality jobs announcement is just further proof of the pro-business environment in Northeast Tennessee that we and our partners at NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership tout as Where Tennessee Begins Its Business Day.”

Barrette was founded nearly 100 years ago in Canada and employs about 2,000 people today across North America.

As the leading North American supplier of exterior home products to the residential market, Barrette Outdoor Living manufactures and distributes vinyl, aluminum, steel and composite fencing and railing, composite decking and other outdoor products.

“The State of Tennessee along with Hawkins County, Bulls Gap and TVA have been excellent partners in our growth and we appreciate their continued support in the ongoing expansion of our business,” said Gary Williams, Barrette Outdoor Living’s vice president of operations.

Barrette Outdoor Living, whose Bulls Gap plant is Hawkins County's biggest industrial employer, was purchased last year by two Canadian investment firms that plan to keep the local plant operating as is.

Over the last five years, TNECD has supported more than 40 economic development projects in Northeast Tennessee, resulting in 4,700 job commitments and $1 billion in capital investment.

TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe said that as one of the top five employers in Hawkins County, Barrette Outdoor Living has established itself as a valuable corporate partner in the Northeast Tennessee.

“These 160 new, family-wage jobs will make a tremendous impact on the area’s workforce, and we appreciate Barrette Outdoor Living for its continued investment and job creation in Tennessee,” Rolfe said.

Lee noted, “Job creation in rural Tennessee is crucial to our state’s economic success, and I thank Barrette Outdoor Living for its investment in Hawkins County. Northeast Tennessee continues to provide companies with the ideal, business-friendly environment to support growth and success.”

Watch now: West Ridge band gives first, second public performances July 3 in Kingsport, Blountville

West Ridge High School’s band made its first and second public performances on July 3 at the Kingsport and Blountville Fourth of July parades.

West Ridge Wolves Lead Band Director Heath Hopper said the band of about 190 also plans to march with the Volunteer High School band in the Fun Fest Parade on July 16 in Kingsport.

Hopper, the former Sullivan South director, and former Sullivan North Band Director Nick Routh and former Sullivan Central Band Director Chris Smithson are leading the Wolves band, which is scheduled to perform its first football show on Aug. 20 at Volunteer High School and its first home game show on Sept. 3 when the foot-ball team hosts Science Hill.

The band, a consolidation of North, South and Central, is doing a fundraiser online to raise money for uniforms, which are to be worn in late September.

Band camp is set forJuly 26-30.

The band is also planning to take part in the Bands of America competition on Oct. 30 at the Mini-Dome at East Tennessee State University, host its Appalachian Classic competition at West Ridge on Oct. 23, compete at the Music in the Castle at Tennessee High in Bristol on Oct. 3 and likely take part in another October competition, Hopper said.

Thursday marks the 16th day since Summer Wells was reported missing. To report credible information call 1-800-TBI-FIND (1-800-824-3463).

Parts of E. Sullivan Street have suffered from the same issue as Main Street – unsuitable soil conditions underneath the road.