Wheel Tax, Jail Funding Failed

By Amanda R. Curtis

Staff Reporter

The Lewis County Board of Commissioners held their regular monthly meeting January 28, 2019, in the Lewis County Court House. Among quarterly reports, election of notaries and budget amendments, there were three resolutions that the public showed up to weigh heavily in on.

After the call to order, invocation and pledge of allegiance, roll call confirmed all commissioners to be present and able to vote with the exception of Ronnie Brewer. The minutes were approved from the last meeting, and the night’s courtroom-filled evening commenced.

Public input began with DeAnna Darden Carroll of the Davis House Child Advocacy Center using her three minute floor time to speak on the water damage and rat issue in their building. Mrs. Carroll provided photos of the damage to commissioners, noting, “In the five years I have been at the center, I can’t count the number of ceiling tiles that have been replaced. Not only does leaking water fall from the ceiling, but it also runs down the walls under the floors to come up through the carpets.” As far as the rats go,” she continued, “they have chewed up the chords to our router, and we are now worried about the video equipment used for interviews for court cases being destroyed.”

County Mayor Jonah Keltner noted another business within the building, HCTEC has expressed their concern regarding the leaking roof. Mayor Keltner, along with some of the commissioners, visited the business and witnessed water leaking onto equipment and buckets sitting around the room to catch the rain. The cost to fix the roof of the building has been estimated at $250,000 and is included in the upcoming expenditures on the Mayor’s Quarterly Report.

Continuing in public input, Ted Pratt spoke about there being no need for a new jail if we would refer to the Bible when it’s time to handle criminals. He stated, “We [as a society] are raising people to be lawless monsters. We’ve taken God and the Bible out of school and now have to build bigger jails to house the after effects.”

Many community members from Indian Creek spoke in hopes of convincing the commissioners their need for city water was of utmost importance and worthy of the funds of the CDBG Grant up for vote.

Cody Mitchell agreed, “If we have to have a tax raise, I would rather use that money to assist with the grant money for the folks like those here from Indian Creek. Criminals are a small portion of the society. These guys [Indian Creek community members] will mean more to the contribution of our community.”

Four hours worth of discussion and deliberation brought the following results:

Resolution No. 01-07-19: Increasing the County-Wide Motor Vehicle Privilege Tax by $41- Failed

Resolution No. 01-08-19: To Rescind Resolution #12-14E-18 “Establishing that All Lewis County Government Employees Shall be Paid Either Monthly or Semi-Monthly on the 5th and/or 20th of Each Month” – Approved

Resolution No. 01-09-19: Regarding 2019 Community Development Block Grant – (1) Funding toward city water systems for Indian Creek – Failed, (2) Funding for a new fire tanker truck for the county – Approved.

The resolution to increase the county-wide wheel tax was to be voted on due to the 30-year revenue from the wheel tax going to fund the new proposed seven million dollar jail.

Detention Facilities Manager of the Tennessee Corrections Institute Bob Bass was in the room on behalf of the state of Tennessee. “Your actions tonight are being recorded and will be presented to a federal judge,” he stated. “If you say no tonight, your jail will be decertified. You [commissioners] need to be in the driver’s seat making these decisions.”

“What happens when a jail gets decertified,” asked Commissioner Austin Carroll. Bass responded, “Your insurance quadruples, TCI will not train you at your facility, so you’ll have to travel to other facilities to train your employees. Of course, you won’t be able to house state inmates, and the biggest issue is you open yourselves up to lawsuits. If you don’t have proper certification, you can’t separate the rapists from the drug addicts from the mentally ill. That’s a problem.”

Other options to the jail project were desired, but not proposed. Commissioner Robert Brewer did suggest splitting the project to do it in pieces, only building what the additional wheel tax (if approved) would be able to fund, including the additional beds, additional staffing and other overhead costs. “This wouldn’t change the blue print,” Brewer said. “We are being decertified because of lack of bed space. So, let’s at least get those in there. It would be really nice to have an all new, modern facility that’s completely finished, but this wheel tax just isn’t going to cover every cost associated with the project. It’s like buying a Ferrari, but not being able to afford the insurance.”

At this point, Commissioner Timmie Hinson followed by Wendell Kelley motioned to call for a vote. The eight voting nay were Ashmore, Larry Hensley, Hinson, Wendell Kelley, Patrick Halfacre, T.J. Hinson, Billy W. Dyer and Jason Fite. Brewer first passed, then changed his vote to a yes. The other eight commissioners also voted yes.

“I’m a conservative and don’t want to spend a dime, but I’m also here to do what’s best for Lewis County,” said Commissioner Austin Carroll of his vote.

The resolution to rescind resolution 12-14E-18 was approved. With only Brewer, Halfacre and Jim Grinder voting nay, the employees at the Sheriff’s Department and Jail will continue to be paid every two weeks.

The commissioners seemed to wrestle with this decision heavily. With the Indian Creek community members taking up nearly half of the court room and quite a few standing to speak to make their needs known, they were not to be easily dismissed in this vote.

“Please, please, for the love of God, come up with a plan,” argued Lester Skelton, who has been fighting for city water on Indian Creek for 18-19 years.

After asking for Jonah’s email, Michael Smith, experienced project manager in Maine, asked the commissioners to vote in favor of the water project. “I know this can be done without having to do all the digging and boring that’s claimed to have to be done. Smith asked for a response via the local newspaper.

Gary Reeves agrees. “I realize the estimated cost is high, but with the bids, I believe we’d be much under. Let’s please consider that when voting.”

Leo Hinson has lived on Indian Creek for 60 years and says, “The creek is changing. When the creek rises, it’s nearly into my house now. Property isn’t going to be worth anything if we don’t get some water down there.”

Charlie Baker bought his house in 1991 with assurance from the real estate company that they would have city water within two years.

“We built our house in 1999 and was told we’d have city water at some point. We have a well, water filters and water softeners and it still isn’t sufficient. It’s expensive,” said Shane Baker. “Also, it may or may not be related, but in the three mile range out there, eight people have developed cancer. Six of those eight have died. The possibly contamination sulfur water issue is worth looking into.”

According to the ENR Construction cost index from January 2019, the total estimated project cost is $870,000. Grant funds would cover $525,000 which would leave $345,000 of new money that the city would need to come up with to fund the extension. Although this is a county grant, the project would need to include the city due to the water being a city utility.

City Vice Mayor Don Barber explained how the grants are split between city and county. “In a community block grant, the county gets the money. Because this is city water, the county takes the money to the city, and the city will use the money to put the line in.”

“Y’all need water,” he continued, “and I want to do whatever I can to help make that possible, but the cost of the Indian Creek project is more than we have right now [at the city].”

Commissioner Allison Tanner agreed that something needs to be done and asked fellow commissioners for help to come up with a plan. “There are other options. This isn’t something we can continue to sweep under the rug. These people are Lewis County citizens, and this is not a third world country. Let’s get serious here. The money is out there somewhere, and we’re going to find it.”

Commissioner Brian Peery saw the sulfur water first hand and agrees with three-term commissioner Connie Sharp who stated, “I strongly encourage this administration to come up with a long term plan. I’ve seen this come and go with no fruitful outcome.”

At this point, Commissioner Kelley motioned for a call to vote to fund the water extension with Dyer seconding. With the majority voting no or passing, the resolution failed.

Commissioner Micheal King, at this point, made the call to vote, “Instead of losing the entire grant, we should vote on whether to use it on the county fire truck needed by the fire department. Carroll seconded the vote. With Connie Sharp passing and Kelley, Hensley and Dyer voting no, the resolution passed to use the CDBG grant to purchase a county fire truck which would only cost about $35,000 compared to the $345,000 of new money. After making the request for the fire truck known, Steve Vineyard thanked the commissioners, “Thank you for all the help you have given us.”

This story will continue to unfold as Mayor Jonah Keltner goes before the TCI board in March with the results of this commissions votes. “My second day in the County Mayor’s office back in September, I had to travel to Nashville and appear before the TCI board to plead our case as to why our county shouldn’t be de-certified. They told me that the plans had been approved for the $7 million dollar project but no funding source had been approved by the commissioners and that’s what was missing, and that I needed to develop a plan for that. I had to return before that board again in Decemeber and told them the commission had agreed to vote on a Wheel Tax in January that would fund the project. They delayed the decertification and told me to come back in March to let them know if that passed or not. So all I can tell them now is that the commission failed to provide the funding source for the project. What happens next is up to TCI.”

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