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Governor-elect vows to strike down vaccine, mask mandates in January

GATE CITY — Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin brought a list to Gate City on Tuesday of what he will do on Day 1 of his administration.

That list includes striking down COVID-19 school mask mandates, banning a theory on racism not taught in public schools and firing the state’s Parole Board and public health commissioner.

In a day-long “Thank You” tour of far Southwest Virginia, Youngkin held a rally choreographed to classic ’70s and ’80s rock at Scott County Telephone Cooperative’s maintenance center before he went on to bag groceries at an Abingdon supermarket and hold another rally at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center.

Youngkin was introduced to the group of about 200 area officials, residents and SCTC workers by transition team member Amanda Pillion, Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith and House of Delegates Republican Majority Leader Terry Kilgore.

“One of the things I’m thankful for is Scott County,” Youngkin said in reference to Thanksgiving and his majority vote totals across Southwest Virginia localities. “What happened Tuesday three weeks ago was the reflection of a movement across this entire commonwealth of Virginia, and it was truly a movement.”

Crediting rural Virginia localities with countering the urban northern Virginia vote for his win, Youngkin said his support began with parents. In the closing days of the gubernatorial campaign, Youngkin capitalized on Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe’s statements on parental involvement in public education and on a controversy over a parent’s opposition to her son reading a Toni Morrison book as an assigned class text.

“It kind of started with parents, and that’s where it should have started because, guess what, parents matter,” said Youngkin.

Youngkin said the parental rights issue crossed party lines, and he cited education, public safety, low taxes, constitutional rights and economic growth as the basis for his plans after inauguration on Jan. 15.

“Our job now is not to allow this movement to become a snapshot,” said Youngkin, “but for it to maintain itself as a motion picture with a lot of the movie yet to come.”

Youngkin said he would start a waste and efficiency audit of state government beginning with the Virginia Employment Commission and Department of Motor Vehicles. Calling for the “largest tax rebate in the history of Virginia,” in the wake of a $2.6 billion surplus and an anticipated $3 billion surplus in 2023, he said he will push for elimination of the state grocery sales tax and a one-year suspension of the most recent increase in the state gasoline sales tax.

Youngkin said he wants to see the General Assembly double the standard deduction for the state income tax and exempt up to $40,000 of veterans’ retirement income from taxation.

State public schools will also return to five days a week classroom instruction, Youngkin promised, and the state will see its largest education budget with teacher salary hikes and more funding for facility construction and special education.

Promising to support creation of innovation charter schools for college and career preparation, Youngkin later said those schools would be public schools and not private charter schools.

While promising that history instruction would include “the good and the bad,” Youngkin said “one of the things we will not do is to teach our children to view everything through the lens of race.”

“We want not to be dream stealers but want to be dream facilitators,” said Youngkin. “So, on Day 1, we will ban critical race theory in our schools.”

Critical race theory, a legal theory of historical racism in connection with government institutions, is not part of Virginia’s Standards of Learning, although Youngkin later claimed that the state Board of Education has coached teaching of the theory and recommended a book on introducing it in classroom teaching.

Youngkin promised budget increases for law enforcement salaries and training across the state and referred to the Nov. 13 shooting death of Big Stone Gap police officer Michael Chandler before leading the audience in a prayer.

“We’re not going to allow qualified immunity to be remotely encroached upon,” Youngkin said, adding that the mental health system must see investment because of declining care and the increased impact on law enforcement dealing with affected people.

Criticizing COVID-19 lockdowns and shutdowns’ impact on businesses, Youngkin said he was concerned that Virginia’s right-to-work status “would go away” after hearing of automotive companies locating plants in neighboring states. He promised a 12-month tax holiday on small businesses’ profits to encourage growth and hiring along with cuts in Virginia business regulations to encourage “an innovation economy.”

“I do not believe that people should be told that they must get the vaccine,” Youngkin said. “I believe in the vaccine, so you will hear me say I’ve gotten the vaccine, my family’s gotten the vaccine. I encourage people to get the vaccine, but that is your decision, not mine.”

Youngkin said he opposed businesses firing workers for not getting vaccinated and promised to revoke mandates for state employees to get vaccinated and wear masks. He also promised to appoint a new state health commissioner and rescind state mandates for K-12 students to wear masks to school.

Youngkin promised “strong support” for Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares’ efforts to oppose Biden administration mandates for businesses’ firing of employees refusing vaccination.

“I trust you to make decisions with regards to your family,” Youngkin added.

Sullivan considers $1,500 bonus pay for employees before Christmas

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s non-school employees might be getting a $1.5 million Christmas gift.

As county officials continue to discuss how to spend about $30 million in federal relief money, coming to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, requests for a share of that money continue as well.

As of Tuesday, as three separate county committees met to discuss them, requests totaled more than $55.6 million.

Nearly $37.65 million of that total falls under “water and sewer” infrastructure projects submitted by five utility districts and the cities of Kingsport and Bristol.

The “other” funding requests, mostly falling into the “public health” category, totaled more than $17.97 million.

The county’s financial management committee and executive committee on Tuesday mostly discussed items from that last list of requests. The administrative committee’s meeting continued at deadline for this article.

Among items that appear destined to go to the full commission with a “favorable” recommendation:

• $5.2 million for new HVAC equipment for county buildings.

• $77,614 for software for the circuit court clerk’s offices.

• $1.125 million for new ambulances for Sullivan County EMS.

• $365,000 for equipment for Sullivan County EMS, including active shooter personal protective equipment, ventilators and turnout gear.

• $750,000 to connect Sullivan East High School to sewer, via a pump station at Sullivan East Middle School. Commissioner Dwight King said the school’s on-site wastewater treatment system is more than 50 years old. Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the system is a source of regular problems and needed repairs. “It’s not going to last much longer,” she said.

• $5.05 million for equipment, vehicles, and upgrades to the county’s solid waste department, which includes transfer stations in Bristol and Kingsport and a recycling program.

• And the $1.5 million (estimated) for giving each county employee “premium pay” of $1,500. The federal relief money may be used to provide premium pay to employees for working through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Richard Venable said rather than try to pick and choose which employees faced what level of hardship due to working during the pandemic, he supports giving the same amount to all employees. Venable said if its determined later that not all employees are eligible for the premium pay as outlined in federal relief guidelines, the county will make up the difference so all employees will get the extra pay.

At one meeting, Rafalowski asked for clarification on whether the $1.5 million proposal included $1,500 premium pay for school system employees. The answer was no. Venable said the school system would need to consider using its own funds if it wants to provide a premium pay to school system employees.

Commissioner Colette George was the first to link the potential $1,500 in extra pay to Christmas, saying if the county was going to give the money to its employees it should be done in time for Christmas. Others agreed.

The Sullivan County Commission is next scheduled to meet on Dec. 14.

Sullivan seeking architect for sheriff's firing range and training facility

BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Commission voted last week to seek an architect for a new firing range for the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office.

The firing range the sheriff’s office has used to keep its officers state certified is under new ownership and will not be available for use after Dec. 31.

The commission had been asked to OK spending up to $1 million for actual construction of a new firing range on a county-owned parcel on a hillside off Massengill Road. That proposal asked that the project be funded with federal relief money.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will send $30 million to Sullivan County.

Most of the money must be spent in a way that is related to COVID-19. The new firing range would not meet that criteria, county officials have said, but a portion of the money isn’t restricted. Sullivan County’s unrestricted portion is estimated at $6 million of the $30 million total.

When the resolution to OK spending up to $1 million of that unrestricted money on a new firing range came up, several county commissioners raised questions about the lack of a professionally prepared plan for the new facility.

The commission ultimately voted to let the project proceed through the initial steps needed to get designs and cost estimates.

To that end, Sullivan County Purchasing Agent Kris Davis and her staff are in the process of preparing a request for qualifications, the first step in selecting an architect.

Davis told the Times News on Tuesday that the process of choosing an architect will take at least two months. When federal funding is used, the architect’s fee is 6% of the project’s total cost.

Davis and County Finance Director Larry Bailey said once an architect is selected and cost estimates are available, the issue will come back to the Sullivan County Commission.

Big Stone Gap shooting suspect arraigned on murder charges

WISE — “I understand that, bro, but there ain’t much more you can do to me.”

With that statement, Michael Donivan White ended his arraignment Tuesday on charges in connection to the shooting death of Big Stone Gap Police Officer Michael D. Chandler.

White, 33, appeared via video from the Abingdon Regional Jail before Wise County Circuit Court Judge Ron Elkins. During the 10-minute arraignment, White at various times slouched in his chair, yawned and leaned forward.

As Elkins said White was present for arraignment on probation violations and a new indictment handed down Monday by a county special grand jury, White said, “Ain’t nobody worried about probation violations.”

Virginia State Police investigators claim that White, who has been in Virginia custody since Nov. 15, was at a vacant Orr Street house when Chandler arrived at about 4 a.m. on Nov. 13 to do a welfare check on a woman. That check preceded a meeting between Chandler and another man in Big Stone Gap who had called 911 about the woman.

White requested a court-appointed attorney before Elkins read the probation violation charges for grand larceny and fraud charges White had pleaded guilty to in August. As Elkins read the aggravated murder and felony murder charges from Monday’s 13-count indictment, White smiled.

White then leaned forward before yawning and shaking his head as Elkins read the remaining drug, firearm and disorderly conduct charges against him. Elkins then asked questions regarding his eligibility for court-appointed counsel, drawing answers of “yep” and “nope” from White.

Elkins asked White to clarify his answers for the court record, at one point saying, “I don’t know what yep means.”

“Yes,” White replied, also calling Elkins “bro” twice during the hearing.

The aggravated murder charge carries a mandatory life sentence on conviction and the felony murder charge carries a term of five to 40 years.

Capital punishment was abolished by the General Assembly earlier this year.

White said he had been “laying pipe” and earning about $200 per month against $486 per week in child support for five dependents before the Nov. 13 incident.

White also gave his address as 1225 Orr St., yards from the vacant home where investigators say he allegedly shot Chandler before leaving him lying in a ditch.

Elkins appointed Gregory J. Baker as White’s counsel, and White requested a motion for a speedy trial and for a change of venue. Elkins said he noted the speedy trial request in the arraignment record, telling White that the hearing was not the appropriate time to request a change of venue.

After setting April 11-15, 2022, as the trial date on all charges, Elkins cautioned White about his behavior.

“I know that you have an attitude, and that won’t serve you well,” Elkins said before White called him bro again and said he understood.

White was arrested on Nov. 13 in a Kingsport motel an hour after Chandler’s death and after a 16-hour manhunt by Wise County deputies, the Virginia State Police, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Kingsport Police Department.

The VSP is continuing its investigation into the shooting, and anyone with information related to this incident is asked to call (276) 228-3131 or email at questions@vsp.virginia.gov.

KINGSPORT — It's starting to look a lot like Christmas in downtown Kingsport now that the historic Nativity scene has gone up around Church Circle.

West Ridge guard Cooper Johnson looks to find a way around Unicoi County defender Eli Johnson in the second quarter of Tuesday's game.