County officials express opposition to student voucher bill

By Richard Rourk

A controversial bill recently passed in both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee State Senate that would allow for student vouchers to be used in Davidson and Shelby Counties.

A school voucher, also called an education voucher in a voucher system, is a certificate of government funding for a student to attend school chosen by the student or the student’s parents. Current Tennessee House Bill 939 (HB939) and Tennessee Senate Bill 795 (SB795) propose that education funds be allocated to a voucher system.

There have been more than 50 school systems, including Unicoi County, and organizations oppose these bills. During the April Unicoi County School Board Meeting, the board voted unanimously to oppose HB939/SB795.

“I’ll tell you tonight that this bill has legs if we don’t speak out against it, and it is nothing more than an attack on public schools,” Board of Education member Steve Willis said during the April meeting.

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English recently spoke with The Erwin Record about his disappointment in the bill.

“I absolutely and wholeheartedly oppose any and all bills that divert any public tax dollars away from public education. Period,” English said. “I would say reach out to legislators and let them know how you feel about this, but having said that, many reps have said openly they were overwhelmed with emails, calls, and texts opposing these bills but voted for it anyway. So, I am not sure that makes a difference, but we have to do all we can do and that’s our avenue.”

According to English, this bill takes away from an already underfunded public school system. “Public education in Tennessee, which is presently underfunded by approximately $500 million will be even more so with this bill,” English said. “Tennessee ranks 45th in the US in public education funding, but this bill takes public dollars and invests it in private institutions, which  doesn’t have the same accountability as public education.”

English took offense to the lack of concern the representatives showed for educators.

“This is yet another example of a decision made by those not in the (teaching) profession, and most have never been, who ignored their constituents,” English said. “The gap they say they are trying to close will only be widened even further, and the lack of trust legislators have shown in administrators and public educators is very frustrating.”

English also took offense to the representatives that voted in favor of the bill, as long as it didn’t affect their districts.

“It says a lot that most who voted yes openly said they did so after assurances were made it wouldn’t impact their districts, and it says plenty about the bill,” English said. “If it’s a good thing why would people not want it in their areas? The answer is pretty clear to me.”

Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle released the following statement to oppose the bills:

“I am writing to express my firmest opposition to the Education Savings Account plan passed by the Tennessee General Assembly’s House and Senate. As you know, the bills will now be reconciled in a conference committee. What I believe is most telling is that only a handful of the legislators representing Shelby and Davidson Counties – the only counties affected – voted in favor of this legislation.

“I have always stood for full funding of our public school system in Unicoi County and across Tennessee. The public schools do so much more than just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic today. Now, we support children in their social development, teach crucial coping skills which are often not found in the home, and create a loving, supportive atmosphere for every boy and girl, regardless of his or her starting place. It is my sincere hope that those lawmakers who voted in favor of this reckless bill will reconsider their stance.

“As students are disenrolled from the public schools, counties must make up for lost revenues. Unfortunately, this will lead to a cycle of worse performance in public schools and higher and higher taxes. Too, the household income limit of $66,000 means that the poorest Tennesseans – the very people this program was designed to assist – may become disadvantaged by it as more people become eligible.

“Further, the present bill does not require ESA (Education Savings Accounts) recipients to take the same number of tests per year as their public school peers, immediately putting public school children at a disadvantage.

Unicoi County will eventually feel the effects of this bill as public dollars (to the tune of $25 million each year) begin to flow out of the state’s general fund into the Education Savings Account system. Whether it’s through decreased grant opportunities or through increased taxes, we all know that you can’t spend more money without more income.

“The Unicoi County Board of Education took a hard-line stance on this issue at its April 16 regular session meeting. The school board passed a resolution opposing Education Savings Accounts and vouchers for private schools. The public-at-large can get involved by calling or e-mailing their elected representatives in Nashville and telling them to vote ‘no’ on any upcoming legislation related to Education Savings Accounts. If we truly wish to see Tennessee succeed, we need to fund the public school system we’ve worked so hard to build, not tear it down.

Unicoi County Commissioners passed a resolution in opposition of the bill as well during their April meeting.

“The Commission passed a resolution in opposition and I totally agree with that position,” Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, who previously served on the Unicoi County Board of Education, said. “As I understand the current bills they only pertain to the four largest systems, but that will only expand in future years. I believe that the problems in those systems should be fixed instead of taking funding from public schools.”

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas agreed with Evely.

“I don’t think this bill will immediately impact Unicoi County schools, but it does open the door to negatively affect funding for our school system in the future, and it was disappointing to see some of our local representatives and senators vote in favor of this bill, knowing that the school boards and county officials they represent were opposed to it,” Thomas said. “In the future, if this deal is expanded into all other Tennessee counties, it will pull a significant amount of funding away from public school systems, which will affect teacher’s pay, sports programs, and possibly increase taxes.”

Unicoi County Commissioner John Mosley also argues that the bill takes away from the funding of public school systems.

“I think it hurts public schools, and I am not for it,” Mosley said. “It takes away from the public school system, which is the heartbeat of the nation.”

One county commissioner that sees how the bill affects all aspects of public schools is Unicoi County Commissioner and high school educator Glenn White.

“Vouchers are still public money, and education is not a business. In this arena children are involved,” White said. “In my opinion, let the local school boards decide what educational initiatives should be implemented.”

White took offense to the political influence that affects public schools today.

“The influence of the lobbying machine for the testing industry has persuaded the general assembly that this is the only way of accountability, which is ridiculous,” White said. “All students in high school should not be required to take the ACT test, this test is primarily for those students who plan on a four-year college education, whereas, a young man who plans on being a welder, should not be tested in this area.

“There should be two exit tests, one the ACT, then the other a CTE (career technical educational) exam that exemplifies what the student has learned,” White continued. 

Unicoi County is represented in the Tennessee General Assembly by State Senator Rusty Crowe and State Representative John Holsclaw.

Erwin Great Outdoor Festival expands for 2019

The 2019 Erwin Great Outdoors Festival will be larger than before and will include a kickoff on Friday, May 3. The festival will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 4. (File photos)

By Richard Rourk

Spring is finally here and festival season in Unicoi County has arrived along with it. With NOLI Fest, Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention and Fiddlers and Fiddleheads finished, it is time for downtown Erwin to get outdoors. On Saturday, May 4, starting at 10 a.m., the 4th Annual Great Outdoors Festival will officially be underway.

This year will also have a Friday night kickoff that partners with the First Friday events in downtown Erwin. The Friday night kickoff will be on Friday, May 3, starting at 5 p.m. The First Friday events will include the First Annual Union Street Chili Cook-Off sponsored by Erwin Outdoor Supply, a beer tent set up by Union Street Taproom, Union Street Gallery LLC will be open for business, and Movie Night with Bite Food Truck. What’s the Scoop will be hosting a Creative Canvas party and will feature free toppings. A Crystal Generation will be giving away a free small Rose Quartz with a purchase. There will also be specials from Beauty by MC and CHIPS is offering a free bracelet with purchase. There will also be live music downtown and the popular Erwin Cruise-In will be set up at the Unicoi County Courthouse parking lot.

Joining the Great Outdoors Festival this year is the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce’s Triple Threat Competition. The Triple Threat Competition pushes competitors to raft down the Nolichucky, compete on an 18-obstacle, obstacle course, run a 5K race and cross the finish line downtown.

All registered participants will receive a race shirt, racer goodie bag, Triple Threat completion medal, and free beverage compliments of Union Street Taproom. For more information, call the Chamber office at 743-3000.

Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice is excited at all the events planned during the Great Outdoors Festival.

“The new Gathering Place park has been redesigned and will be used for the first time, and there will be a 50 foot demo pool located on First Baptist Parking to allow paddle boarding and kayaks,” Rice said. “Cabela’s will sponsor a live trout pool. Middle Man Ministries is sponsoring a mobile skate park again, which will be at First Baptist, and Scott’s Strawberries will be bringing their first fruits of the season and ice cream.”   

According to Rice, that’s not all that will be available.

“Erwin Outdoor Supply is offering all kinds of hospitality events for the day, and there will be a doctor and veterinarian on premises, hot foot soaks, and free pancake breakfasts,” Rice said.

There will be lots of music downtown as well. My New Favorites will take the Union Street Stage at 11 a.m. and 49 Winchester will be playing downtown at 5 p.m. For more information on My New Favorites or 49 Winchester please follow their Facebook pages.

The one thing that is missing from this year’s festival is the new crop of elephants that have decorated Downtown Erwin in the past.

“We have had a little setback with the Elephant Statues this year, as our supplier in Nebraska had a terrible flood, and has gotten a few months behind,” Rice said. “There will be 20 small painted concrete elephants sprinkled all over downtown in June, with the large ones returning for 2020.”

Rice hopes everyone can come out and enjoy the festival.

“This event could not exist without the entire community pulling together to make it happen. Our most successful events are those that are driven by volunteer grassroots effort, including the Great Outdoors Festival,” Rice said. “We do not have huge donations from area sponsors, and this festival’s spirit comes from those with a passion for our natural resources and their volunteer attitude.”

According to Rice, the festival is entirely free and includes more than 30 free interactive activities for children and adults. For more information, please follow RISE ERWIN and the Town of Erwin’s Facebook pages.

Ambulance service interlocal agreement, RFPs move forward

The Unicoi County Commission voted to move forward with a possible interlocal agreement with Washington County during a meeting on Monday, April 22. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Richard Rourk

The future of ambulance service in Unicoi County was once again on the agenda for the Unicoi County Commission when the panel met on Monday, April 22, at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

During the meeting, the Commission voted unanimously to enter into discussions with Washington County EMS to develop an interlocal agreement to provide ambulance service for Unicoi County on an interim basis. The approval allows Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley, and Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults to negotiate an interlocal agreement with Washington County EMS.

During a meeting of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee on April 9, Washington County EMS Director Dan Wheely offered to speak to the Washington County Emergency Services Board.

“I feel we would have a desire to help in the short term, but if we are talking several months then we would require an interlocal agreement,” Wheely said during the April 9 meeting. “Again, I can’t speak for the board, but I feel we would be willing to help as long as it doesn’t take away from Washington County residents.”

After much discussion during Monday’s meeting, and several failed amendments, the Commission voted to approve to add a representative for the Town of Erwin (Mark LaFever) and Town of Unicoi (Johnny Lynch) to the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. The amendment was made by Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White to approve the additions of Lafever and Lynch, but decided to exclude Stacy Wigand, who is currently employed by MedicOne.

“I’m not against Stacy Wigand being on this board,” White said. “Sometimes in government it’s about compromise.”

White’s amended motion came after several amendments failed. The final vote was 6-3 with commissioners White, Todd Wilcox, Stephen Hendrix, Jason Harris, Marie Rice and Matthew Rice, who made the initial request to remove Wigand as a voting member, voting for Lafever and Lynch to be voting members of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee. Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, Vice Chairman Jamie Harris, and Mosley voted against the amendment.

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee met on Tuesday, April 16, and agreed to send out request for proposals (RFPs) on May 8. Interested ambulance service providers will have until June 10 at noon to return the RFPs to the county. The ambulance committee is scheduled to meet on June 10 at 1 p.m. to review bids.

• • •

Also on Monday, the Commission next focused on and approved the resolution for Capital Projects for Unicoi County Board of Education in an amount up to $5 million, pending finalization of funding agreement between the government bodies.

During the April 10 Unicoi County Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Stephens Inc. Senior Vice President of Public Finance Ashley McAnulty laid out a number of scenarios for the capital improvements plan, which includes work at Gentry Stadium and the Unicoi County High School track. According to McAnulty’s report, the county could accept roughly $5 million without a property tax increase. According to McAnulty’s report, repayment would be funded through sales tax and would be paid back in 20 years.

• • •

Shifting gears on Monday, Vice Chair Harris made a motion to waive the agenda to discuss paying the Unicoi County Solid Waste operators $500 per month to compensate for loss wages since the operators will no longer be selling items at the solid waste facilities. Mosley seconded the motion.

“We are operating in an emergency situation,” Vice Chair Harris said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Jason Harris disagreed.

“These contractors bid on these jobs,”Jason Harris said.

White agreed with the Vice Chairman.

“We are looking at two months before we rebid,” White said. “If we don’t pay them more money, they are going to walk off.”

Commissioner Marie Rice agreed with commissioner Jason Harris.

“This wasn’t a problem before – when these contractors were allowed to sell items,” Marie Rice said. “We either increase their pay or allow them to sell items again.”

The Commission voted 7-2 to pay the three contractors $500 a month for May and June. The $3,000 to cover the $500 payments will come out of the Solid Waste budget. Thomas, Jamie Harris, White, Mosley, Matthew Rice, Hendrix, and Wilcox voted for and Jason Harris and Marie Rice voted against the motion.

The bids go back out for contractors on June 1.

• • •

The Commission then got back on track to vote unanimously to approve a request by Reneau Dubberly to limit access on Temple Hill Road for Bicycle Race Time Trials on June 1.

The commission also voted unanimously to approve a resolution requesting that the State of Tennessee provide a regional inpatient treatment center for the eight county region.

During a March 8 meeting of the Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee, area judges suggested the commission reach out to other representatives to create a regional inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center. The idea came as a cost cutting measure for area jails.

“Eighty-five percent of the docket is drug-related and it costs half to keep a person in a rehab facility as opposed to jail,” Judge Lisa Rice said during the March 8 meeting.

Judge Stacy Street suggested that the counties of Northeast Tennessee get together and push for a regional intensive drug rehab facility.

“Judge Rice and myself have pushed Congressman Phil Roe and Senator Lamar Alexander to commit to opening a regional facility,” Street said during the March 8 meeting. “It’s time they put their money where their mouth is on this issue.”

At the time, Street suggested that area county commissions could push the state to find funding for a regional intensive inpatient rehab facility. Street backed up his comments by stating that he would send drug addicts to the rehab.

“I would love nothing more than for everyone that has a drug problem, to sentence them to a drug rehab,” Street said at the March 8 meeting.

Also on Monday, the commission approved to accept a grant from the Tennessee Department of Health from “Access to Health through Healthy Built Environment” for $20,000 to be used for a Natural Playground at the Pinnacle Tower Trailhead off Exit 32.

In a final order of business, Evely and Thomas recognized Kortney Bailey as Miss Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Commission votes to issue RFIs for ambulance service

During a meeting on Monday, April 15, the Unicoi County Commission voted to issue requests for information for ambulance service. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County Commission held a special called meeting on Monday, April 15, to discuss the future of ambulance service in Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely joined Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris and Unicoi County commissioners John Mosley, Glenn White, Stephen Hendrix, Matthew Rice, Jason Harris, and Marie Rice. Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox was absent as he was on a call. Wilcox is an officer with the Town of Erwin.

The commission voted unanimously to authorize the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to advertise for a request for information (RFI) in providing county ambulance service. The motion was made by Marie Rice and seconded by Mosley. According to Mosley, the RFIs will go out later this week and can take up to two weeks to get responses back.

The commission voted to table the authorization of the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to advertise for request for proposals (RFP) for county ambulance services. The motion was made by Mosley and seconded by Hendrix to table the RFP discussion.

“I recommend we wait until we have sent out the RFIs,” Mosley said. “We can revisit this at the next county commission meeting.”

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet again on Monday, April 22.

The commission had to first authorize Evely to provide a notice of termination of the current interlocal agreement that the county has with both the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi before moving forward with any new agreements for ambulance services. The commission voted unanimously to allow Evely to terminate the current interlocal agreement. A motion was made by White and seconded by Jamie Harris. The interlocal agreements had to be terminated due to MedicOne Medical Response’s termination of the proposed contract earlier this month.

“We are just recognizing that MedicOne isn’t going through with the contract, so we are just hitting reset,” Unicoi County Attorney Doug Shults said.

The final order of business for the commission was to ensure that the county would have ambulance service in the interim. The commission voted unanimously for the emergency provision of ambulance service by MedicOne Medical Response until a new ambulance contract has been approved by the Unicoi County Commission.

“We are just recognizing that they are here on a handshake deal,” Matthew Rice said.

Evely said after Monday’s meeting that he would be working out a temporary deal with neighboring ambulance services.

“My concentration will be working on an interlocal agreement with Washington County to provide services in the short term, for the next 90 days to 6 months,” Evely said. “We are trying to make the most of a bad situation.”

Ambulance service search begins – again

By Richard Rourk

During a Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting on April 9, officials decided that all options are on the table in regards to the future of ambulance service for the county.

The county is at a crossroads and two options were discussed, including starting a county-run service. The committee also discussed sending out a wider scope for request for information (RFI) and request for proposals (RFP) to bid the services out.

The new search began last week as less than 24 hours after MedicOne was to begin a new four-year contract that would run through 2023, the company’s CEO Jim Reeves announced that the ambulance service would be pulling out of its contract with Unicoi County.

“Due to incessant local media attacks on MedicOne Medical Response, as well as recent citizen litigation against the county, we are not only unable to keep existing employees working, we are unable to effectively recruit and hire new employees to backfill those staffing loses, a recurring problem we have been working diligently to solve,” Reeves stated in an email sent to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely and Unicoi County commissioners on April 2 after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for the April 3 issue.

Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely released the following statement:

“Last night, we received an email notice that MedicOne Medical Response was withdrawing from consideration for the contract to provide ambulance service to the citizens of Unicoi County. They respectfully requested that we seek another service provider. MedicOne committed to providing service until the County Commission can take action to secure another provider. The commission will be meeting and moving forward with the process as quickly as possible. We have a mutual aid agreement with the other county services to provide backup support for services.”

Also on Wednesday, Evely told The Erwin Record that the move was “unexpected.”

“It was unexpected to me, but they (MedicOne) are going to provide service while the commissioners find a new provider,” Evely said. “We also have mutual aid with adjoining counties if we need help.”

Evely said he hopes the county can find a quality ambulance service in a timely manner.

“We will move as quickly as possible to rectify the situation,” Evely said.

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas told The Erwin Record last week that officials are working to address the situation.

“The county commission is committed to working with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to provide an adequate ambulance service to our citizens, no matter who the provider is, whether it is another private provider or a county-run service,” Thomas said.

Unicoi County Commissioner and Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said he is confident that the county will work with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to find a solution.

“We will get through this and, hopefully, we will be better for it,” Mosley said. “I am reaching out to the Town of Erwin and (Unicoi County Commissioner) Jamie Harris is reaching out to the Town of Unicoi to get feedback.”

Also on Wednesday, April 3, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley responded to MedicOne’s decision.

“I hope the county will be diligent in rebidding for the service and I’m pleased to know that we will be involved in the selection process,” Hensley said.

Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch also responded to the news on Wednesday, April 3.

“It’s unfortunate and hopefully we can work something out going forward,” Lynch said.

John Day, the former Unicoi County mayoral candidate who recently filed a lawsuit against the county over the MedicOne ambulance contract, also responded to the news last week.

“It’s a good day for Unicoi County residents and the current MedicOne employees working here,” Day said. “Both will benefit from a different, better managed, better equipped, and more financially stable ambulance service provider that has the depth of resources necessary to provide the highest level of service at the lowest cost.”

Local officials who expressed their concerns for the citizens of Unicoi County also expressed concerns for the employees of MedicOne and their future.

“There is such a shortage of paramedics, we are hoping that whoever we bring in will retain them,” Evely said. “I think it is of the utmost importance that whoever we negotiate with that the employees are discussed.”

Mayor Hensley agreed.

“Our best wishes go out to (MedicOne employees) and it’s a difficult time, but hopefully whoever the county selects as the next provider they will be needing paramedics,” Hensley said. “I feel certain those employees will be put back to work if they choose to.”

Mosley, who has been in contact with the employees of MedicOne, told The Erwin Record they are devastated by the company’s decision.

“This is the eighth change some of them have faced,” Mosley said. “They risk losing vacation, overtime and benefits, and it is a terrible situation they are in.”

Despite all of the uncertainty, Mosley said he was impressed with the strength and dedication of the employees.

“This will tell you a little bit about the people down there – they are willing to stick it out and to serve this county; it’s a great group down there,” Mosley said. “I had one medic tell me that if he had to come here with his personal equipment and sit in his car with his scanner, he would do it just to serve this county.”

On Tuesday, April 9, The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee held a meeting to discuss options for ambulance service in Unicoi County.

Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley was joined by committee members Glenn White, Marie Rice, Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch and Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever. The committee was joined by fellow Unicoi County commissioners Loren Thomas, Jamie Harris, Jason Harris, Stephen Hendrix, Matthew Rice and Todd Wilcox. Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, Unicoi County Hospital Administrator Eric Carroll, Town of Unicoi aldermen Doug Hopson and Jeff Linville and Unicoi County Mayor Evely also attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Interim Unicoi County MedicOne Manager Stacy Wigand, Johnson City/Washington County Emergency Services Chief Dan Wheely and Emergency Medical Services Consultant John Dabbs were also on hand during the April 9 meeting.

Mosley called the meeting to order right at 11 a.m.

“It’s unfortunate that MedicOne has pulled out, but now we have to move on,” Mosley said.

Mosley inquired about MedicOne’s commitment to serve Unicoi County until the county has a replacement to which Wigand responded.

“According to corporate, that is the plan,” Wigand said.

Wigand acknowledged that staffing has been a struggle.

“I know they don’t want to hire new employees, so if employees leave to go somewhere else, MedicOne will not be filling those positions,” Wigand said.

If MedicOne was to pull out completely, Unicoi County got some reassurance that Washington County could help out. Wheely offered to speak to the Washington County Emergency Services Board.

“I feel we would have a desire to help in the short term, but if we are talking several months then we would require an interlocal agreement,” Wheely said. “Again, I can’t speak for the board, but I feel we would be willing to help as long as it doesn’t take away from Washington County residents.”

Mosley inquired about Washington County Emergency Services possibly leasing equipment and ambulances to Unicoi County.

“We have the vehicles and equipment but if the state inspects Unicoi County, you would need permits,” Wheely said.

Mosley then shifted to question Dabbs about how long it could take for permits.

“If paperwork and checks are cut, it could be done in a matter of days,” Dabbs said.

According to White, starting an ambulance service could be a viable solution.

“It looks like we would need to get three ambulances and hire the staff,” White said.

Wheely agreed.

“I think it’s that simple,” Wheely said.

Hensley addressed the committee to discuss the Town of Erwin purchasing ambulances with a $500,000 State Grant.

“The grant could purchase two new ambulances and a possible third ambulance for transport,” Hensley said.

Marie Rice acknowledged that Unicoi County still has $440,000 left over from the payment that Unicoi County received when Unicoi County Hospital was sold to Mountain State Health Alliance, which is now Ballad Health.

According to Hensley, there could also be up to $150,000 that can be used from the Hospital Foundation Funds to start an ambulance service.

Lafever said Tuesday that he would like to see something in writing.

“Before anyone starts a business, and this would be a business, there needs to be a solid business plan, but I’ve yet to see it,” Lafever said. “I’m not against starting our own services; we just need to get it right for the taxpayers.”

Jamie Harris agreed.

“We need an unbiased study done, then figure out our revenue and if it works, that is what we should do,” Harris said.

Wigand praised the staff of roughly 20-30 employees that serve Unicoi County.

“These employees are very loyal to Unicoi County,” Wigand said.

Wigand told the committee that it would cost a rough estimate of $1 million a year for employee’s salaries and benefits to run three ambulances 24 hours a day.

“My personal opinion, if the time was ever so present to start your own ambulance service, it’s now,” Wigand said.

Wheely suggested using a third party service for billing.

“I know we use Digitech for our billing,” Wheely said.

The alternative to starting a county-run ambulance service would be to send the services out for bid to outside agencies.

Mosley advised the committee to send out a larger net for RFIs.

“I suggest that we send out RFIs to local papers and regional papers, like Knoxville,” Mosley said. “I would also like to send them out to Atlanta and Charlotte, and for all municipalities to post on their websites.”

White made a motion to send out RFIs to the wider areas and Mosley seconded the motion. The committee voted unanimously to bring the matter to the special called Unicoi County Commission meeting on Monday, April 15, at 5 p.m. at the Unicoi County Courthouse to be voted on by the full commission.

According to Mosley, if the commission votes to send out the RFIs, they will be sent out sometime next week.

“It can take around two weeks to hear back from the RFIs, then the commission must decide if we want to send out RFPs, and those can take another four weeks to get back,” Mosley said. “We want to be sure we get this right.”

The Unicoi County Ambulance Committee will meet again on Tuesday, April 16, at 2 p.m. in the conference room at the Unicoi County Courthouse.

BREAKING: MedicOne decides not to move forward with ambulance service contract

By Richard Rourk

Less than 24 hours after MedicOne was to begin a new four-year contract that would run through 2023, MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves announced that the ambulance service would be pulling out of its contract with Unicoi County.

“Due to incessant local media attacks on MedicOne Medical Response, as well as recent citizen litigation against the county, we are not only unable to keep existing employees working, we are unable to effectively recruit and hire new employees to backfill those staffing loses, a recurring problem we have been working diligently to solve,” Reeves stated in an email sent to Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely and Unicoi County commissioners Tuesday evening.

The announcement came after The Erwin Record’s press deadline for the April 3 issue, in which county officials discussed the beginning of the new contract on April 1.

In his email, Reeves also referenced updated requirements in the new contract as reasons for MedicOne opting out of the agreement.

“Currently, we are having significant difficulty in staffing the two ALS units we are obligated to provide, and under the proposed new arrangement which requires two ALS units, along with one BLS unit, we have an even greater concern with appropriate coverage,” Reeves said in the email. “This would not be an insurmountable task to complete if we had the ability to properly staff or the ability to hire new employees from the area, but with the ongoing statewide ambulance staffing crisis as well as the continuous negative media attention from the locals, it is proving to be near impossible.”

On Wednesday, Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas told The Erwin Record that officials are working to address the situation.

“The county commission is committed to working with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to provide an adequate ambulance service to our citizens, no matter who the provider is, whether it is another private provider or a county-run service,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, MedicOne has agreed to remain in Unicoi County until the county has transitioned into another ambulance service. This commitment was made via email and verbally to both Thomas and Interim Unicoi County MedicOne Manager Stacy Wiggand.

“MedicOne will continue to do what it takes to provide ambulance service in the interim,” Thomas said. “They have been pulling paramedics from Nashville to come work here in Unicoi County, and will continue to do so. They have been meeting the new contract requirements since deciding to pull out.”

Around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely released the following statement:

“Last night, we received an email notice that MedicOne Medical Response was withdrawing from consideration for the contract to provide ambulance service to the citizens of Unicoi County. They respectfully requested that we seek another service provider. MedicOne committed to providing service until the County Commission can take action to secure another provider. The commission will be meeting and moving forward with the process as quickly as possible. We have a mutual aid agreement with the other county services to provide backup support for services.”

Evely told The Erwin Record that the move was “unexpected.”

“It was unexpected to me, but they (MedicOne) are going to provide service while the commissioners find a new provider,” Evely said. “We also have mutual aid with adjoining counties if we need help.”

Evely said he hopes the county can find a quality ambulance service in a timely manner.

“We will move as quickly as possible to rectify the situation,” Evely said.

Thomas said that the next step is for the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee to meet. A meeting of that committee has been set for Tuesday, April 9, at 11 a.m.

“We will have a special called meeting hopefully on Monday, April 15, with the full commission to discuss the future,” Unicoi County Commissioner and Unicoi County Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said.

Mosley said he is confident that the county will work with the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi to find a solution.

“We will get through this and, hopefully, we will be better for it,” Mosley said. “I am reaching out to the Town of Erwin and (Unicoi County Commissioner) Jamie Harris is reaching out to the Town of Unicoi to get feedback.”

Also on Wednesday, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley responded to MedicOne’s decision.

“I hope the county will be diligent in rebidding for the service and I’m pleased to know that we will be involved in the selection process,” Hensley said.

It was decided during the March 25 Town of Erwin Mayor and Aldermen meeting that Vice Mayor Mark Lafever would represent the Town of Erwin on the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.

John Day, the former Unicoi County mayoral candidate who recently filed a lawsuit against the county over the MedicOne ambulance contract, also responded to the news.

“It’s a good day for Unicoi County residents and the current MedicOne employees working here,” Day said. “Both will benefit from a different, better managed, better equipped, and more financially stable ambulance service provider that has the depth of resources necessary to provide the highest level of service at the lowest cost.”

Town of Erwin OKs interlocal agreement for ambulance service

Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever, far left, addresses a joint meeting of the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor & Aldermen and the Unicoi County Commission. Seated next to Lafever are, from left, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, Erwin Alderman Gary Chandler and Erwin Alderman Gary Edwards. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Following many weeks of discussion, the Town of Erwin officials have decided to once again enter into an interlocal agreement with Unicoi County for ambulance services. The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen unanimously voted to approve an updated interlocal agreement during a meeting at Town Hall on Monday, March 25.

The updated interlocal agreement allows the Town of Erwin the ability to pull out of the contract with 60 days notice instead of the proposed 90 days. The updated interlocal agreement also removes the words “MedicOne” and replaces them with “ambulance service.”

The Erwin BMA’s decision came after a joint meeting between that panel and the Unicoi County Commission at Town Hall on Thursday, March 21.

Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley was unable to attend the meeting, as she was at the First Tennessee Development District (FTDD) meeting in Johnson City. Hensley is the chairwoman of the FTDD and was unable to reschedule the FTDD meeting. Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice was also absent from the meeting.

The Town of Erwin’s attorney, Tom Seeley, had some questions for Unicoi County’s attorney, Doug Shults. On Thursday, Seeley asked about the status of the lawsuit against the county in regards to the upcoming contract.

“It’s a very preliminary motion for a dismissal of the lawsuit,” Shults said.

Seeley expressed concern about the lawsuit.

“The Town of Erwin would like to know the pending outcome before moving forward with the interlocal agreement,” Seeley said.

Shults expressed urgency in the matter.

“If the court refuses to dismiss the lawsuit, we still need an ambulance service in the county, so we need some kind of agreement,” Shults said.

The lawsuit in question was filed by former Unicoi County mayoral candidate John Day against Unicoi County and Unicoi County officials. In it, Day, who is representing himself in the lawsuit, argues that the bidding process performed by the county before awarding a contract to MedicOne for ambulance services was unlawful, among other issues. The contract in question was approved by the Unicoi County Commission in December and is set to begin on April 1.

Day filed an amended complaint with the Chancery Court for the State of Tennessee First Judicial District, Unicoi County on Feb. 4 and Unicoi County filed a motion of dismissal on Feb. 21. Judge John Rambo heard the case for dismissal on March 15, and as of The Erwin Record’s deadline, no decision has been made yet for dismissal.

During the March 15 hearing, Judge Rambo promised a decision by March 29.

“In fairness to both parties the court should take additional time to issue a ruling later,” Rambo said.

Seeley requested that the interlocal agreement be modified to remove MedicOne out of the interlocal agreement in case the county has to rebid.

“The interlocal agreement has MedicOne listed in the interlocal agreement,” Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said.

According to Rosenoff, “MedicOne” should be replaced with the phrase, “ambulance service.”

Rosenoff also said on March 21 that the Town of Erwin is also concerned with the clause that allows a 90-day written notice to pull out of the contract. Rosenoff proposed a 10-day notice to terminate the contract if needed.

However, Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Jamie Harris disagreed with the 10-day notice.

“Ten days is a little harsh, it takes five days just to call a meeting,” Harris said.

Town of Erwin Vice Mayor Mark Lafever acknowledged that the right number is somewhere between the two options.

“Ten days seems a little small, but 90 days seems a little much to me,” Lafever said. “So if we can meet in the middle somewhere, that would be great.”

Below is the section in question from the interlocal agreement:

“In the event the contract with Medic One is terminated for any reason, the County retains the right to terminate this agreement upon providing ninety (90) days written notice to the Town. In the event an issue arises with the service of Medic One within the corporate boundaries of the Town, then the Town shall make any complaints in writing to the County regarding problems with Medic One’s service. The County shall take action to correct the problem by enforcing the contract entered into between the County and MedicOne. If MedicOne does not address the Town’s complaint to the Town’s satisfaction, the Town reserves the right to terminate this agreement upon providing ninety (90) days written notice to the County.”

Rosenoff explained that if all of the requirements of the contract were met, then the section calling for the right to terminate would never need to come in to play.

Hensley previously voiced concerns that could have prevented the Town of Erwin from signing the interlocal agreement. She also offered the idea of finding ambulance services elsewhere. Hensley had previously mentioned during a Feb. 25 town work session that Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has offered to allow Washington County Emergency Medical Services to serve the Town of Erwin. According to Hensley, Grandy was in talks with Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable to create a regional ambulance service that would be available to serve Erwin.

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas recently addressed the issue with the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

“I received an email on Friday, March 8, from (Washington County-Johnson City EMS Chief Executive Director) Dan Wheeley that stated that we have never been contacted about providing services for the Town of Erwin or Unicoi County,” Thomas said.

According to the email sent out to the Board of Directors for Washington County EMS from Wheeley, there have been no talks between Washington County EMS and the Town of Erwin or Unicoi County.

Lafever voiced concerned about the lack of written offers from other competing ambulance services for the Town of Erwin.

“We keep talking about Washington County coming over here, and that may be an option, but we can not rely on somebody without some kind of written agreement,” Lafever said.

Going forward, Unicoi County officials said they would like Town of Erwin officials to participate in Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meetings.

“We are trying to provide an avenue for the town to address issues monthly with our ambulance committee meetings,” Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas said during Thursday, March 21’s joint meeting.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White also suggested that the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Alderman send a representative to take part in the monthly Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meetings. It was announced during the Monday, March 25, Town of Erwin BMA meeting that Lafever would represent Erwin on the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee.

“It would be beneficial to have someone from the board become an ambulance committee member, that way we can hear concerns from the town,” White said.

Also on Thursday, Town of Erwin Alderman Michael Baker said that he would like to see the contract.

“We, as the town, would like a contract with teeth,” Baker said.

Town of Erwin Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz asked if the county had a backup plan and how the county planned on holding the ambulance service accountable.

“I will be coming in unannounced a couple times a month to get data, do an unannounced ride along once a month, and continue to have monthly ambulance committee meetings to keep track of the service,” Unicoi County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley said in response.

Thomas said this commission is committed to getting the right service for the county.

“This is a different commission than before with new faces, and we are committed to providing the best ambulance service that we can,” Thomas said.

Mosley agreed with Thomas.

“This commission will get it right,” Mosley said.

Lafever acknowledged the urgency and importance of the interlocal agreement.

“In my opinion, from the city’s standpoint, we are out of time,” Lafever said. “We have nothing in writing as it pertains to a plan B and I feel like we need to move forward and get this thing done. There is some verbiage that needs to be looked at, so there needs to be a meeting between the lawyers and the mayors to hash this out so we can present this before the boards and move on.”

After both Seeley and Shults met to come to a compromise, MedicOne was removed and replaced with ambulance service and the 90-day opt out period was shortened to 60 days.

The Town of Unicoi officials agreed to sign the interlocal agreement during the March 18 Town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. During the Monday, March 25, Unicoi County Commission meeting, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve and accept the interlocal agreements for both the Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi. Currently, MedicOne is set to start a new contract with the county to be the counties ambulance provider starting April 1, and the contract is set to run through April 2023.

High school’s Second Chance Breakfast program wins award

Pictured, Unicoi County Director of Schools John English, Unicoi County School Board Member Tammy Tipton, Unicoi County High School Principal Dr. Chris Bogart, Unicoi County Schools, Unicoi County High School Vice Principal Catherine Edwards, School Food Service Director Maggie Fair, Unicoi County Schools Executive Secretary Melissa McIntosh, Unicoi County High School Food Service Manager Tracy Foster, Tennessee Department of Education Healthy Schools Executive Director Lori Paisley, Unicoi County High School students Trent White, Brandolyn Thomas, Tammy Rogers, Shelby Miller, and Hannah Bowman receive the No Kid Hungry Tennessee Breakfast Champion 2019 award thanks to the successful Second Chance Breakfast program at UCHS. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

On March 6, Unicoi County High School was presented with the 2019 No Kid Hungry Tennessee Breakfast Champion award thanks to its successful Second Chance Breakfast program.

The Second Chance Breakfast program at UCHS started in 2012 and it continues to give students a second chance at the most important meal of the day.

“We started in 2012 and we served roughly more than 1,500 students a month,” Unicoi County Schools School Food Service Director Maggie Fair told The Erwin Record. “The next year we moved the program out into the commons (area at the high school) and we were serving roughly more than 4,000 a month.”

By 2014, Second Chance Breakfast was serving roughly more than 7,500 students a month. “We are averaging 327 students a day and that average includes days, like snow days and senior week, when there is little to no one here, so we are doing really good,” Fair said.

Also on March 6, UCHS students and staff had a round table discussion to discuss the award-winning program and its impact on the school.

“The staff is super nice and they all know my name and ask me about my day, which means a lot,” UCHS student Brandolyn Thomas said.

The benefits of Second Chance Breakfast are easy for both the students and staff to see.

“You know some days I don’t want to wake up and eat breakfast, so to be able to come here and have the option of Second Chance Breakfast allows me to be able to get breakfast in my system, it helps me get through my day and I appreciate that,” Thomas said.

UCHS student Trent White agreed with Thomas.

“It is a great opportunity for students that may have to take their siblings to school, so they may not have time to eat,” White said. “Second Chance Breakfast allows them to get that second chance at eating breakfast and that helps them with their day.”

UCHS student Tammy Rogers also saw the benefit in the Second Chance Breakfast.

“It makes you happy,” Rogers said. “I like to eat, and I’m not always here on time.”

The program has been rewarding for the staff as well.

“It’s great to be on a first name basis with the students and to get to know them,” Unicoi County High School Food Service Manager Tracy Foster said.

It was an easy decision for the administrators to get behind the Second Chance Breakfast program.

“It was a no brainer,” Unicoi County High School Principal Dr. Chris Bogart said. “Why would schools not do this? It’s easy and so beneficial.”

Bogart elaborated on the benefits that the Second Chance Breakfast program brings to UCHS.

“We did have a bump up in the test scores since we implemented this program,” Bogart said. “It’s hard to draw a line and say that the program was the sole reason, as we were doing other things, but I am positive that it is a piece of the success. There is no instructional negative to it, only positive.”

Bogart acknowledged that the teachers saw the positive influence of the Second Chance Breakfast program as well.

“The instructional benefits far outweigh any distractions,” he added.

Bogart explained that the “old school” way of thinking that students shouldn’t have food in the class is outdated.

“If that biscuit is keeping those students from learning in your classroom, that’s a you problem, not a biscuit problem; let’s be honest,” Bogart said.

Fair followed up Dr. Bogart’s point.

“I had a veteran teacher come up to me and thank me, stating that her students are more focused and attentive, and that surprised me,” Fair said.

Erwin Outdoor Supply opens downtown

Pictured from left, Erwin Outdoor Supply owners Tyler Bevins, Brandy Bevins and Mark Lafever. (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

A new business has officially opened in downtown Erwin.

Erwin Outdoor Supply, located at 113 Union St., held a soft opening event on Saturday, March 2, then officially opened its doors the following day.

During the soft opening, owners Tyler and Brandy Bevins and Mark Lafever welcomed friends and family to the newly renovated store.

“We are super excited, it’s been booming since 2 p.m.” Brandy Bevins told The Erwin Record. By 5 p.m., there were already more than 200 customers that passed through the doors.

The owners hope their store will showcase the importance of the outdoors and promote an active lifestyle. The Bevins and Lafever also hope the store will help people identify Erwin as a trail town on a larger scale.

“We want to be a place for locals and visitors,” Brandy Bevins said.

It’s estimated that more than 2 million hikers come through the area each year, according to information released by the store. The owners want to capture those hikers and be a place for them to rest, recharge and buy necessary gear.

Brandy Bevins also said that they hope to leverage their proximity to the Appalachian Trail, Rocky Fork State Park, Nolichucky River, Cherokee National Forest and other outdoor assets to help make their business more successful.

Erwin Outdoor Supply plans to host classes on basic outdoor adventures to get more people participating in outdoor recreation. The store will also rent Trek bicycles and sell Pyranha kayaks.

Erwin Outdoor Supply will offer a variety of supplies, gear, services and knowledge for outdoor lovers at every level, from beginners to experts. The store will offer everything from to-go food for hikers and gear from top outdoor brands and a community gathering place to relax and refuel.

“Erwin is doing big things,” Brandy Bevins said. “We are also looking at having live music here as well.”

On Saturday, the owners welcomed those who came to share the experience with them.

“Tyler and Brandy shared their idea with me, and I’m very thankful to be a part of this,” Lafever said. “There are so many people I would like to thank, there are too many to name, I just want to thank all you that have helped along the way.”

Lafever mentioned spending time as a child downtown while his father was working in the neighboring building for more than 30 years and what it meant to him to be here today.

“I want to thank Tyler for believing in me, and Mark as well,” Brandy Bevins said. “We all found our place. When we started we ran into a couple from Greeneville, South Carolina, and they advised that everyone needs to find a place and your business will run much more smoothly.” Bevins continued by thanking all of those who have supported them along the way.

A grand opening and ribbon cutting for Erwin Outdoor Supply is slated for Saturday, March 30. Survivor contestant Gavin Whitson, brand representatives, food trucks, giveaways and more will take place at that time.

For more updates follow Erwin Outdoor Supply on Facebook or visit them during store hours. The regular business hours for Erwin Outdoor Supply will be Tuesday through Thursday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., and Sunday from 1-5 p.m. The store will be closed on Mondays.

Town of Erwin exploring ambulance service options

The Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen is considering not entering into an interlocal agreement with Unicoi County for ambulance services. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The future of ambulance services in Unicoi County has been a question on the minds of local officials for many months. Currently, the county is being sued over the Unicoi County Commission’s decision to give MedicOne Medical Response the contract to provide ambulance services to the county from April 2019 through April 2023.

For many years, the Town of Erwin has entered into an interlocal agreement with Unicoi County to use the ambulance provider selected by the county to provide ambulance services to the citizens of the town. However, this could change.

On Monday, Feb. 25, the Town of Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen held a work session and meeting at Town Hall to decide whether or not the town would be entering into that interlocal agreement once again.

“If we choose not to sign this interlocal agreement we have options,” Mayor Doris Hensley said.

According to Hensley, Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has offered to allow Washington County Emergency Medical Services to serve the Town of Erwin. Hensley also said that Grandy is in talks with Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable to create a regional ambulance service that would be available to serve Erwin.

Hensley expressed concern about MedicOne being able to have enough EMTs to serve Erwin.

Hensley took exception to some of the wording in the contract the county has with MedicOne.

“It says here that they will have at least the minimum personnel,” Hensley said. “What is the minimum personnel and who determines the minimum?”.

Hensley also questioned the amount of time that MedicOne would have to fix a vehicle that is in need of repair.

“The contract says they have 15 days to fix it,” Hensley said.  “I thought that was a long time to have a vehicle down.”

According to Hensley’s reading of the contract, MedicOne would still make money if they are penalized when they are understaffed or underequipped.

“It says (MedicOne) will be penalized $500 when they don’t have the staff or vehicles to serve us, but the county is paying them $625 a day, they will still be making money,” Hensley said.

Some Town of Erwin officials were hesitant to abandon the idea of signing the interlocal agreement again.

“I’m a little worried going down that road with nothing in writing from Washington County,” Vice Mayor Mark Lafever said.

Lafever and Alderman Michael Baker expressed concern about the effects for Unicoi County. Hensley expressed concern for Unicoi County, but said she had to think about what was best for the municipality she serves.

“We are responsible for the citizens of Erwin,” Hensley said.

Lafever suggested tabling the BMA’s decision on the interlocal agreement to buy the town more time to get more information in writing from Washington County

The board voted unanimously to table the vote on an interlocal agreement with Unicoi County for ambulance service within Erwin corporate limits. No further meetings were planned as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, but it was announced by Hensley that they could call a special meeting once town officials have more information in writing from Washington County.

• • •

The next order of business during the regularly scheduled meeting of the BMA on Monday was to approve a rebid for the landscaping project and reconstruction at The Gathering Place as part of the Tourism Enhancement Grant.

During the Dec. 17 BMA meeting, it was announced that the lone bid for the project came in at $75,135 and was made by Earth Effects, LLC. The amount is roughly $6,000 more than the Tourism Enhancement Grant would cover. At that time, Hensley had suggested the budget be adjusted for the overage. The design was supposed to be the same as the park has looked in the past, but would consist of steel structures. The Gathering Place has been stripped down to the soil currently, but is being bid to be rebuilt to the same dimensions with more sturdy seating and an irrigation system.

According to the Town of Erwin’s City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, the project had to be sent out for rebid due to the Earth Effects reportedly not having the proper contractor license.

“Any bid that is $25,000 or greater is required to have a licensed contractor to bid on the project,” Rosenoff told The Erwin Record.

Earth Effects, LLC, is a landscaping business owned by Chase Willis and John Day. Day recently filed a lawsuit against the Unicoi County Commission and the Unicoi County Mayor’s Office over the bidding of the contract for Unicoi County’s ambulance service. The lawsuit questions, among other things, if the bidding process was competitive since there was only one bidder.

On Monday, it was announced that the town again received only one bid for the landscaping project at the Gathering Place.

“We received one bid with Horton Enterprises for $77,020,” Rosenoff said.

Lafever made a motion to approve Horton’s bid. The motion was seconded by Alderman Gary Chandler. The board voted unanimously to accept the bid from Horton Enterprises.

• • •

Also on Monday, representatives from Valley Beautiful Antique Mall and Village Treasures addressed the board to express the need to renew the $1,256.64 yearly expense to keep the current Antique District interstate signage up at exit 37 for another year.

“We get a lot of foot traffic downtown from that sign,” Valley Beautiful Antique Mall co-owner Joey Lewis said.

A motion was made by Lafever to approve the Antique District interstate sign and Chandler seconded the motion to keep the sign up. The board voted unanimously to approve the Antique District interstate sign.

Also on Monday, Lindsey Harris, PE representing S&ME, Inc, was on hand to address the board regarding the bidders for the Second Street Industrial Site Project on Monday.

The Second Street Industrial Site Project is a project that enables the property at the former Morgan Insulation site to be pad ready to attract business. King General, Inc. will be in charge of grading and drainage at the site. The $323,938.80 will be covered by the $500,000 grant that the town received from the ECD Site Development Grant. The ECD Site Development Grant required a five percent match from the town.

“We received three bids and they all had the necessary qualifications,” Harris said.

King General Inc. came in with the lowest bid at $323,938.80. Lafever made a motion to approve King General Inc.’s bid and Chandler seconded the motion. The board voted to accept King General Inc.’s bid unanimously.

Also on Monday, the board unanimously approved of closing a section of Gay Street from the corner of Main Avenue to First Tennessee Bank as part of the Unicoi County Middle School eighth grade banquet at The Bramble, Friday, May 17, from 5-11 p.m.

In the final order of business Mayor Hensley thanked all those that worked during the recent storms.

“I want to thank the police officers and firefighters who braved the weather this past weekend to serve the community,” Hensley said.

Gavin Whitson makes ‘Survivor’ debut

Unicoi County native Gavin Whitson is competing on the newest season
of Survivor. (Photo courtesy of CBS)

By Richard Rourk

For fans of the television show “Survivor,” it’s time once again to “outwit, outplay and outlast.”

For Unicoi County residents, there will be a more personal reason to tune in to the popular CBS show as Erwin resident Gavin Whitson will be a contestant on season 38 of “Survivor,” called “Edge of Extinction.”

Whitson recently spoke to The Erwin Record about his experiences and what drove him to try out for the show.

“I was probably 8 years old when I saw season one, and I knew that it could be me on the show,” Whitson said. “Once I turned 18, I started sending in audition tapes and 5 years later, I’m finally getting that chance.”

Whitson, who is the program director at the Unicoi County Family YMCA and has a background in sports, understands the importance of stamina when it comes to playing the game “Survivor.” “Sports, being outdoors with my family, and working out at the YMCA helped me prepare physically,” Whitson said.

Once Whitson received notice that he had made it onto the show he did not have long to prepare.

“I found out about a month before I left, and instead of preparing for ‘Survivor’ I was actually preparing for my wedding,” Whitson said.

Whitson and his wife Carly had to move their wedding date up so he could appear on the show.

“Instead of learning how to start a fire, I was moving furniture,” Whitson said.

The Whitsons were able to go on their honeymoon two weeks after Gavin returned.

“I’m not sure I was ready to travel to a tropical paradise again, but that is what we did,” Whitson said. “I’m joking, it was great; it’s exactly what I needed.”

The one thing Whitson wasn’t prepared for was dealing with being away from family and loved ones.

“I got married two days before leaving for the show, and being away from my family was a shock to my system,” Whitson said. “Whenever I got back it made me more appreciative of my family because I didn’t realize the support system I had until I lost that.”

The “Survivor” experience for Whitson was life-changing.

“Everyone should have a chance to experience it,” he said. “You come out a better person and you appreciate what you have.”

Whitson said he was humbled by the experience and hopes that he can help other kids achieve their dreams.

“I got lucky,” he said. “I was at the right place at the right time, and if I can turn other kids into ‘Survivor’ fans that would be the greatest thing about the experience.”

Whitson was quick to say “thank you” to those who have made him who he is.

“I would like to thank my wife, Carly, for making this happen, and my mother, father, and brother who are my support system, and also my papaw who is very excited,” Whitson said. “The (Unicoi County) Chamber of Commerce has been amazing as well in supporting me.”

For the latest updates of Whitson and his time on “Survivor,” please follow TeamGavin on Facebook. If you see Whitson, he cannot give out details about the show due to contract restrictions.

The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce will host a viewing party for the “Survivor: Edge of Extinction” premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the Unicoi County High School auditorium. The event will begin at 6 p.m. with a pre-show party including games, food trucks and other activities. Whitson will be on hand for photos and autographs and Team Gavin merchandise will be available for sale. The show will be broadcast at 8 p.m. The event is open to the public. Admission and games are free.

“Survivor: Edge of Extinction” will air weekly on CBS starting Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m.

Erwin Great Outdoors Festival returning in May

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, pictured, approved the 2019 Erwin Great Outdoors Festival during a meeting on Feb. 11. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen met to discuss several topics on Monday, Feb. 11, at Erwin Town Hall.

The board approved the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival to be held on Friday, May 3, and Saturday, May 4. To prepare for the festival, Union Street will be shut down around noon on Friday, May 3, to allow for set up to begin.

A motion to approve hosting the festival again was made by Alderwoman Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz and was seconded by Alderman Michael Baker. The board voted unanimously to approve the festival and the festival dates.

“This year Erwin Outdoor Supply wanted to sponsor a Friday night kick off to be added to the festival,” Town of Erwin Communications Director Jamie Rice told The Erwin Record.

The Friday night festival will include a soundstage set up in the parking lot of the former Mountain Commerce Bank and a chili cookoff. The events on Friday, May 3, will begin at 5:30 p.m. and will run to about 9:30 p.m.

Saturday’s events will kick off at 6:30 a.m. and run to about 5 p.m. This year the Town of Erwin Great Outdoors Festival will partner with the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce in bringing the Chamber’s Triple Threat event to the festival.

Also on Monday, the Erwin Beverage Board approved a permit beer to be served at the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival to be held on Friday, May 3, and Saturday, May 4, and only within the board approved designated area. The motion to approve the beer permit was made by Vice Mayor Mark Lafever and was seconded by Hyder-Shurtz. The request was approved with Baker abstaining.

The designated area will be in a tent outside of the Union Street Tap Room, which Baker owns. The designated beer garden will be outlined by a picket fence and signage. No alcoholic beverages will be allowed outside of the beer garden, according to the request.

• • •

The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen then shifted gears to address some tweaks to area projects.

The board considered adding electrical upgrades on Union Street between the corner of North Main Avenue and Nolichucky Avenue in the amount of $5,500. The $5,500 would be for three electrical posts to be added to the side streets for festivals.

According to Town of Erwin City Recorder Glenn Rosenoff, there are funds in the current capital that could be used for this project. The electrical towers are quoted at $1,700 each.

Vice Mayor Lafever questioned if it would be more cost effective to get all six posts that are needed long term at once or if the board should go with the three electric towers that were included in the bid.

A motion was made by Hyder-Shurtz and seconded by Baker to table the request until the next Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting to allow Rice more time to get more information. The board voted unanimously to table the item until next meeting.

Also during the meeting, the board approved to add irrigation to the Gathering Place Tourism Enhancement Grant Project in the amount of $4,750.

“We have the funds available under our current year’s capital to fund this and would keep the area beautified and lower the maintenance and labor costs on the back end,” Rosenoff said. The motion to approve was made by Alderman Gary Chandler and seconded by Hyder-Shurtz. The board unanimously approved adding the irrigation system.

Moving on, the board approved the purchase of a Robotic Ridgerunner Slope Mower (CMI Equipment Sales – NJPA Cooperative Purchasing) in the amount of $44,216.15 and for this purchase to be included with the Bond Series 2018 Loan. The Bond Series 2018 Loan is in reference to the loan that the Town of Erwin received from the City of Clarksville. The loan was approved during a September Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. The funds were allocated for this purchase, as well as other public works projects.

“Public works and the street department strongly recommended this purchase to cut down on safety concerns and labor,” Rosenoff said.

The motion to approve came from Chandler and was seconded by Baker. The motion carried by a unanimous vote.

“These are key pieces to help forward this department,” Lafever said. “We have to look to build long term.”

The board received two bids for the property located at 1112 Seventh Street. The first bid was for $1,575 and the second was for $10,000 with a contingency pending approval by the Erwin Board of Zoning and Appeals. The issue is that the land is unique in size and shape and it would be difficult to build a home on the location. The bidder wishes to put a manufactured home on the site and have the home facing Seventh Street. The manufactured home would be a three-bedroom, and two-bath home.

“My intent is to put a home there for my daughter and her child,” bidder Johnny Tipton Sr. said.

The board asked Rosenoff what he would recommend.

“I would recommend the $10,000 bid contingent on the variance request be approved,” Rosenoff said.

The motion to approve the $10,000 bid contingent on the variance request was made by Chander and was seconded by Baker. The board voted unanimously to approve.

If the Erwin Board of Zoning Appeals denies the variance request of placing a manufactured home on the property, the property could go out for bid again. The Erwin Board of Zoning and Appeals meets later this month.

In closing, the Erwin Beverage Board named Gary Edwards chairman of the Erwin Beverage Board. The nomination came from Chandler and was seconded by Lafever. The board then voted unanimously to name Edwards chairman of the Erwin Beverage Board.

Day sues county, officials over ambulance service contract

By Richard Rourk

On Wednesday, Jan. 30, John Day filed a lawsuit against Unicoi County, the office of Unicoi County mayor and the Unicoi County Commission challenging the county’s recent decision to award MedicOne Medical Response, Inc. a contract to provide ambulance services to the county from April 2019 to April 2023.

“The lawsuit is not punitive toward the mayor and commissioners or seeks any damages from them,” Day said. “It simply is a mechanism that will allow the commissioners to rebid the ambulance service contract in a manner that meets state law and without fear of a lawsuit by MedicOne.”

Day, a former Unicoi County mayoral candidate and leader of a group of citizens who have expressed concerns over the process that led to MedicOne receiving the contract, is representing himself in the suit. He filed an amended complaint with the Chancery Court for State of Tennessee First Judicial District, Unicoi County on Monday, Feb. 4.

The new contract with the company includes a $225,000 annual subsidy to be paid by the county to the company, which has provided ambulance services in Unicoi County for the past eight years. The county’s previous contract with MedicOne, which is set to expire when the new one begins, included an annual subsidy of $132,000.

The Unicoi County Commission voted to approve the bid and contract during its Dec. 17, 2018, meeting on a 6-2 vote. County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley made the motion to approve the contract with MedicOne and Commissioner Jamie Harris seconded the motion.

Joining commissioners Jamie Harris and Mosley in voting to approve a new contract with MedicOne were commissioners Glenn White, Todd Wilcox, Stephen Hendrix and Matthew Rice. Commissioner Marie Rice and Commissioner Jason Harris voted no on the contract. Commission Chairman Loren Thomas, whose wife Cathy Thomas is an employee of MedicOne, abstained from voting.

In the weeks that followed the December approval of the contract, Day encouraged the Unicoi County Commission to reconsider the decision, citing issues with the bidding process and contract status.

The MedicOne contract came before the commission again on Jan. 28. During that meeting, Wilcox made a motion for the panel to reconsider awarding the contract to MedicOne and put the contract out for bid again. That motion, however, failed on a 5-3 vote as only Wilcox, Jason Harris and Marie Rice voted in favor. White, Matthew Rice, Mosley, Jamie Harris and Stephen Hendrix voted against Wilcox’s motion. Thomas again abstained.

Also during that meeting, White expressed concern over a possible lawsuit MedicOne could file against the county for breach of contract that could cost $900,000.

• • •

According to Day’s amended complaint, he is “challenging the legality of the expenditure of public funds for a county ambulance service contract” the defendants awarded to MedicOne. The complaint also states that the contract was awarded “through the employment of an unlawful … ‘competitive bid’ process from May 11, 2018, through Jan. 28, 2019.”

The amended complaint also alleges that there are issues with the bid process that led to Medic -One receiving the contract with the county in both 2015 and 2018. The amended complaint alleges that companies had only 15 days to submit bids in 2015 and that MedicOne, which was already serving in the county, was the only company to bid at that time. The company was later awarded a new contract for the years 2015-19.

According to the amended complaint, county officials began discussing bids for a new ambulance service contract in March 2018. The following month, the complaint states, Lifeguard Ambulance Services and American Medical Response (AMR) expressed interest in bidding on the new contract.

“From May 11, 2018, through the end of the defendants County Commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 17, 2018, when they voted to award the new contract to MedicOne, (Thomas) failed to ever inform the other defendants that managers at Lifeguard and AMR still wanted to bid on the contract,” the amended complaint states.

“I filed separate federal and state actions against Loren Thomas for his interference with the ambulance service bidding process by withholding information regarding companies who had requested RFPs (request for proposals) in 2018, but did not receive them,” Day told The Erwin Record.

The complaint also alleges that neither Lifeguard nor AMR received the RFP from the county that was issued on May 11, 2018.

“In fact, MedicOne was the only ambulance service provider, who wanted to bid on the contract, to receive an RFP and the only one who submitted a bid on June 10, 2018,” the amended complaint states.

The lawsuit also alleges that during its years of service in Unicoi County, MedicOne has been “cited for dozens of contract violations, including, but not limited to, poor staffing and poor response times that likely resulted in at least three deaths.”

Day also discusses MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves’ status as an auxiliary officer with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department from 2011-17 in the complaint. Day states that Reeves has given “expensive equipment” to the department at no cost.

Thomas is listed as an auxiliary deputy in the amended complaint, which also states that he “receives a personal financial benefit via his wife’s salary from MedicOne.” Day’s complaint also states that Thomas opposed MedicOne receiving a contract with the county in February 2015.

The issue of whether or not the contract Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely and Reeves signed is the final contract or a draft copy is also raised by Day in his amended complaint. On Dec. 14, according to the complaint, Evely forwarded a “marked up copy of the contract” to Reeves.

“As of the date of this filing, (Evely) contends that he was not signing the ‘final contract’ by signing that marked up copy on Dec. 19, 2018 …” the amended complaint states.

Day requests in the amended complaint that the contract awarded to MedicOne by the county in December be voided and that “any and all contracts in any state” be rescinded. He is also seeking court costs and any other relief to which he could be entitled.

Evely did not wish to comment due to the pending investigation.

Thomas did provide a comment, saying: “Due to the pending lawsuit and specific accusations towards me from Mr. Day, I cannot say much at this time other than I believe the current commission and mayor has acted in good faith and according to the laws and made the best decisions we could considering the bidding process debacle that the previous commission chaired by Marie Rice left us in,” Thomas told The Erwin Record.

County Commission decides to stay with MedicOne

Pictured from left, commissioners Todd Wilcox, Marie Rice and Jason Harris were the only members of the Unicoi County Commission to vote in favor of reconsidering the contract the county agreed to with MedicOne for ambulance services. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

MedicOne will continue to provide ambulance services to Unicoi County in the coming years.

During a meeting of the Unicoi County Commission on Monday, Jan. 28, at the Unicoi County Courthouse, the panel voted to move forward with its contract with the company that was originally agreed upon in December 2018.

That decision did not come without opposition.

During Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Todd Wilcox, who recently stepped down as the panel’s vice chair, made a motion to reconsider the decision to give MedicOne the contract to provide ambulance services in Unicoi County from April 2019 through April 2023.

“We looked at the bidding process and it was done incorrectly, and I have a problem with that,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox stated he wanted to do right by the citizens of Unicoi County.

“At the end of the day I work for you, the citizens,” Wilcox said.

Commissioner Marie Rice agreed with Wilcox and seconded his motion to reconsider the contract. She questioned if the signed contract was a draft or a valid contract with MedicOne.

“I have a problem saying this is a final contract,” Rice said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Glenn White said he was conflicted on the issue, but decided he did not want to risk a potential lawsuit if the county would be in breach of contract. Some believed that taking the contract away from MedicOne could prompt the company to file a lawsuit against the county. That could have led to a $900,000 penalty.

“I agree with commissioners Todd Wilcox and Marie Rice, but there is an opinion that this is a valid contract,” White said. “That’s my hold up, a possible lawsuit. We don’t have the money for that and it would cost our taxpayers.”

John Day, a former county mayoral candidate who has led the opposition to having MedicOne provide ambulance services to the county, addressed the commission on Monday and assured them that the contract was not valid and if the county was taken to court, it would be a “slam dunk case” for the county attorney. Day also addressed the concern over losing MedicOne staff. “You heard Mr. (Christopher Blach) from (American Medical Response) AMR ask why he would go out looking for a new staff, when he has one right here,” Day said.

Day brought AMR to Unicoi County as a possible ambulance service provider.

Unicoi County Commissioner Matthew Rice addressed Day’s concerns.

“You are saying that these individuals here in MedicOne shirts would be retained by another ambulance service,” Matthew Rice said. “So what you are asking us to do is to gamble with a lawsuit to get the same staff, just with another ambulance service.”

Wilcox’s motion to reconsider the contract with MedicOne failed on a 5-3 vote. Wilcox, Marie Rice and Commissioner Jason Harris voting to reconsider. Commissioners Glenn White, Matthew Rice, Stephen Hendrix, Jamie Harris and John Mosley voted against the motion. Chairman Loren Thomas abstained.

The failed motion essentially kept MedicOne as the county’s ambulance service provider, according to terms of the contract beginning in April 2019.

• • •

The commission moved on with filling the recently vacated vice chairman seat. Commissioner Jamie Harris was voted in and is the new vice chair following a 5-4 vote. Making the recommendation and voting for Jamie Harris was Mosley. Mosley was joined by commissioners White, Hendrix, Jamie Harris and Thomas. Opposing the recommendation were Wilcox, Marie Rice, Matthew Rice and Jason Harris.

The commission also approved to update the conference room at the Unicoi County Courthouse in a 7-2 vote. A motion was made by Jamie Harris and was seconded by Mosley to accept an upgrade to install a 65-inch television for presentations in the conference room of the Unicoi County Courthouse.

The projected cost is $687 and included all the installation equipment. Joining Vice Chairman Harris and Mosley in voting to approve the upgrades were White, Wilcox, Hendrix, Matthew Rice, and Thomas. Marie Rice and Jason Harris opposed the upgrade.

In the final order of business, the commission approved an updated website proposal that will cost $131 dollars annually for licensing purposes. Students at East Tennessee State University will be working with the county to set up the new web pages. The motion was made by Vice Chairman Harris and was seconded by Marie Rice. The commission voted unanimously to approve the joint project with ETSU.

Also on Monday, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely stood up and said a few words in regards to Unicoi County Finance Director Phyllis Bennett, who is retiring.

“I hate to see Mrs. Bennett go,” Evely said. “She has been a valuable asset.”

No ambulance decision yet

Unicoi County Commissioner Todd Wilcox resigned as the panel’s vice chairman on Jan. 18. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Confusion and chaos filled the Unicoi County Courthouse on Friday, Jan. 18.

The proceedings ended with Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Todd Wilcox stepping down in his position as vice chair and leaving the special called meeting. Wilcox handed his signed resignation as vice chairman of the Unicoi County Commission to Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely during the meeting. Wilcox will remain on the commission.

“I decided to write the resignation letter a few days prior to the special called meeting pending the outcome,” Wilcox told The Erwin Record.

Wilcox made a motion to reconsider the Dec. 17, 2018, vote to give MedicOne the contract to provide ambulance services for Unicoi County, but could not find a second.

“The citizens are always on my mind and providing an ambulance service to the citizens is one of the most important concerns to me,” Wilcox said.

After three calls for a second without response, the motion died. It was then that Wilcox stood up and addressed those in attendance, handed his resignation to Evely and exited the meeting.

“This was an important decision for you all, the citizens of this county, and I will not be put in this position thinking about what could happen,” Wilcox stated.

During the Dec. 17 Unicoi County Commission meeting, the commission voted to approve the bid and contract with MedicOne, in a 6-2 vote with Commission Chairman Loren Thomas abstaining.

The bid and contract would start in April 2019 and run until April 2023. County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley made the motion to approve the contract with MedicOne and County Commissioner Jamie Harris seconded the motion during the December meeting. The vote followed the recommendation made by the Ambulance Committee during a meeting at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Dec. 14.

During the Jan. 18 meeting, there was confusion among a few of the commissioners following the death of Commissioner Wilcox’s motion.

“I want to discuss this but I do not want to break a contract, but I would like to get all the information,” Commissioner Glenn White said.

Unicoi County Commissioner Stephen Hendrix called for civility in discussing the matter further.

“I don’t have a problem with the issues being raised,” Hendrix said. “These are legitimate issues. It’s the other stuff I take issue with.”

There was concern among some that there were flaws with the contract.

“There are a lot of flaws in the contract, and there’s a lot of questions that need answers,” County Commissioner Marie Rice said.

White asked Evely to place the item on the agenda to discuss the ambulance situation further during the Jan. 28 Unicoi County Commission meeting.

“Do your research and we can discuss it then,” Commissioner Jamie Harris stated about the future meeting.

Previously, concerned citizen John Day addressed the commission to ask for more time to explore options. Day, who was a candidate for Unicoi County mayor last year, questioned the status of MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves, who was an auxiliary officer with the Unicoi Sheriff’s Department in the past and to see if it was a conflict of interest in representing MedicOne. Sheriff Mike Hensley confirmed that Reeves was with the department in the past as an auxiliary officer, but confirmed he was not a paid county employee.

“Mr. Reeves was an unpaid, auxiliary officer and was an asset to the department,” Hensley said.

Day questioned if the contract that was signed with MedicOne is a valid one or just a draft.

“We are going to find out if it’s a contract, even if I have to pay for an attorney myself,” Day stated.

After an open forum, the commission voted unanimously to adjourn, with Thomas abstaining and Wilcox absent from the vote.

The commission will have to be cautious with their next move, according to discussions last week. The county did place a notice in a local newspaper to request bids last year, and MedicOne was the only company that responded at that time. If the contract with MedicOne is considered a valid contract, the county could be considered in breach of contract, if the contract is sent back out for bid.

“If the contract is deemed valid and enforceable then we are bonded to it, so I will then take the stance to make sure that the conditions are met in the contract for both parties,” Wilcox said. “If the contract is not valid, I will request to rebid the services the correct way.”

The Unicoi County Commission will meet again on Monday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m. in the large courtroom at the Unicoi County Courthouse to discuss the ambulance situation, among other county issues.

Ambulance debate continues

Unicoi County officials, pictured, again heard opposition to MedicOne continuing as the county’s ambulance service provider during a meeting on Jan. 11 at the Unicoi County Courthouse. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Ambulance service in Unicoi County once again faces uncertainty as the Unicoi County Ambulance Committee meeting on Thursday, Jan. 11, ended with the committee pushing for Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely to call for a special Unicoi County Commission meeting to decide if there will be a rebidding process.

Roughly 20 citizens, led by former mayoral candidate John Day, attended Thursday’s meeting to express concern over the original bidding process that ended with MedicOne receiving a new contract to provide ambulance service for the county for another four years beginning in April 2019.

The original bids were sent out prior to Evely and the new County Commission taking office. “There was a very inadequate job done sending out the request for proposals (RFP) a year ago,” Day said addressing the committee.

Day followed by attempting to get a unanimous response by the committee.

“Are we on board with saying that only one company received the RFP?” Day asked.

Evely refused to agree.

“I know it was emailed out to five companies and I do not know for sure if the other companies did not receive it or if they did receive it and declined to act,” Evely responded. “I’m not going to let you put words in my mouth.”

Todd Wilcox, who is a Unicoi County Commissioner that was not able to make the meeting due to a work conflict, did send a letter that was read by fellow commissioners. In his letter, Wilcox expressed concerns about the way the bid was handled last year. Wilcox had reached out recently to a few ambulance services that had expressed prior interest in bidding, including American Medical Response (AMR.)

AMR Vice President of Operations Chris Blach was in attendance to address the committee last week. Blach expressed interest in bidding and explained that his company could bring in many different services.

“We are 10 times larger than the next ambulance service, so we bring with us a lot of resources,” Blach said of their capabilities.

Blach also mentioned that AMR had 23 air bases statewide and held the three closest air bases near Unicoi County. The closest county to Unicoi County that AMR operates in is Knox County. AMR recently merged with Lifeguard Ambulance Services, who had also previously expressed interest in serving Unicoi County.

Commissioner Jamie Harris asked Blach if AMR was having staffing issues.

“Everyone is having staffing issues,” Blach stated.

It was previously stated by MedicOne Manager Jamie Kemp during a meeting in November 2018 that there is a shortage of paramedics.

“The big thing hurting us right now is personnel,” Kemp previously said. “It’s not just a MedicOne issue, it’s statewide.”

Also during last week’s meeting, MedicOne Operations Manager and former AMR employee Josh Logan expressed concern about the fact that competing companies already know the amount that MedicOne bid and could come in and undercut the price.

According to his letter, Wilcox asked for a special meeting to be called to reconsider the bidding process. Wilcox said he would now like to see the county commission meet to decide if the contract should go back out for bid.

A motion was made to have the called meeting by commissioner and committee member Glenn White and seconded by commissioner and committee member Marie Rice. The motion passed with commissioner and committee member John Mosley opposing.

The special called meeting of the Unicoi County Commission is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 18, at 5 p.m. The meeting will take place in the large courtroom of the Unicoi County Courthouse.

• • •

In other business 911 Committee Chair Bill Hensley expressed concerns about who to call if all of MedicOne’s ambulances were on calls.

Kemp acknowledged that MedicOne could set up a mutual agreement with neighboring counties to serve overflow calls.

It was also announced by Firefighters Association President Robert Adams, that whichever company has the ambulance service contract in April will have 90 days to look for a new frequency to use. Currently, the Firefighters Association allows the ambulance service to use its frequencies.

Park renamed to honor Alexander

Rocky Fork State Park rangers unveil the new sign at the renamed Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park. U.S. Senator Alexander, pictured above left, received this honor thanks to Governor Bill Haslam, pictured above right. The sign was unveiled during a ceremony held on Monday, Jan. 7. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

On Monday, Jan. 7, Rocky Fork State Park officially became Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park. The official unveiling took place in front of roughly 100 people who came to see the new sign.

Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely of Unicoi County, Mayor Doris Hensley of the Town of Erwin, and Mayor Johnny Lynch of the Town of Unicoi were on hand to welcome Congressman Phil Roe, Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Lamar Alexander to the event.

Excitement has spread across the county for the future of Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park, according to local officials.

“It’s going to be a great boom to the area,” Evely told The Erwin Record. “I can’t wait for the visitor’s center to be built up here.”

Evely wasn’t the only official that saw the importance of this day.

“I’m so excited for this,” Hensley said of the unveiling.

The excitement even spread to the north end of Unicoi County as Lynch sees an opportunity for tourism to grow.

“It’s a big day,” Johnny Lynch said of the naming of Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park.

Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice said she is also looking forward to the future of Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park.

“I’m just excited about the economic aspect and that the park is preserved,” Rice told The Erwin Record.

Roe, who is an avid hiker, acknowledged that Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park is one his favorite spots to hike.

“A hundred years from now, when no one knows we had this meeting, people are going to be able to take in the natural beauty of this area,” Roe said of the efforts of those that fought to save Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park.

Roe also acknowledged the efforts of David Ramsey and the Friends of Rocky Fork State Park for their hard work to save the park.

Haslam surprised Alexander with Rocky Fork State Park taking on his namesake.

“Certain people are instrumental in making things happen, that’s why we are standing here today, and I want to take the opportunity to announce that Rocky Fork State Park will for hereafter be known as Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park,” Haslam said to the crowd.

Alexander said he was humbled by the announcement.

“This is a natural treasure and is one of the most beautiful spots in our country,” Alexander said of the park.

Alexander also sees a bright future for the park.

“This is Upper East Tennessee’s gateway to the Appalachian Trail and will be a signature for this area,” Alexander said.

He also thanked those that worked hard to make this day happen.

“I want to acknowledge former (Unicoi County) Mayor Greg Lynch, Marie Rice, Mayor Johnny Lynch, Mayor Bubba Evely, Mayor Doris Hensley, Dave Ramsey and all of you that have been involved with this,” Alexander said.

Alexander acknowledged that he was amazed by what those involved were able to do with the land.

“The Conservation Fund bought the property, that was $40 million, nobody else was going to do that, the government couldn’t do that, and they bought it so the people of this country can enjoy it,” Alexander said in thanking the Conservation Fund.

• • •

Switching gears, Alexander and Roe addressed concerns about the current government shutdown on Monday.

“That needs to end, I wasn’t for a shutdown under President Obama, I’m not for a shutdown under President Trump,” Alexander said. “We weren’t elected to shut the government down.”

Alexander went on further to address what needs to happen to resolve the shutdown.

“What we need to do is act like adults, and the president should sit down with the Congressional leaders and they should come to a conclusion,” Alexander stated. “There is no courage or skill in taking a position; there is courage and skill in getting a result and it’s time to show some of that.”

Roe spoke about what the furloughed government employees can expect.

“Those folks are going to get paid,” Roe said. “It’s not their fault the government shut down, it’s our fault.”

Roe went on to acknowledge the need for a speedy resolution.

“In the short term for those that are living paycheck to paycheck it’s bad, so the sooner we can get this resolved amicably, we should,” Roe said of the urgency to end the shutdown.

When asked about the possibility that President Trump will declare a state of emergency to fund the border wall, Alexander was quick to respond by calling for unity.

“If there is a priority that is legitimate, the Democratic leaders should bend over backwards to complete it, and the president should be in return reasonable, reliable and specific and if they could all sit down and show themselves to be experienced negotiators, this could end in 24 hours,” Alexander stated.

Governor Haslam would not rule out a future run for the U.S. Senate. Haslam is finishing up his term of Governor for Tennessee. Governor-elect Bill Lee will officially take Haslam’s office on Jan. 19.

“Chrissy and I are going to take time to think about it and to pray on it, it’s too important of a role to not give serious consideration to,” Haslam stated that he would decide soon on whether or not he will run.

Alexander has announced that he will be retiring at the end of his current term in 2020 and will not seek reelection.

Officials break ground on new Food City store

Town of Erwin and Unicoi County officials join representatives of Food City in the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for the new Food City store in the Town of Erwin. The company hopes to have the new store opened in approximately six months. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

On Wednesday, Dec. 19, the bulldozers and jackhammers stopped for a brief moment for the official groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Food City in Erwin. Representatives from Food City, including President and CEO Steven Smith were present to break ground with representatives from Unicoi County and the Town of Erwin.

“It’s good to have you here in Unicoi County,” Unicoi County Commissioner Chairman Loren Thomas said to Smith.

The groundbreaking officially starts the clock on the opening of the roughly 44,000 square foot supermarket near Taco Bell, Bojangles’ and Pal’s in Erwin. Depending on the weather this season, the construction could be done in six months.

“We hope to have a Food City here in early summer,” Smith said.

The new store is expected to generate 140 jobs to the area.

“We have about $11.5 million dollars invested in this facility,” Smith stated.

The new store will also feature several award-winning energy saving concepts, ranging from energy efficient glass cooler doors, parking lot lights and refrigeration systems to motion sensors and 100 percent LED lighting, as well as an open rafter ceiling design.

“Our customers can expect to find the same smiling faces, top quality products and competitive pricing they have come to expect from Food City, housed in a more energy efficient model, along with some exciting new features and conveniences,” Smith stated.

According to a press release from Food City, the location will include an in-store bakery/deli, complete with a hot food bar and café seating area. Full-service meat and seafood departments will offer pre-marinated and seasoned oven ready products, plus a complete selection of top quality meats that are all-natural with no solutions added, including Certified Angus Beef.  In-house meat cutters will hand-cut steaks and fresh meat to order.

Expanded grocery, frozen food and produce departments will offer a complete selection of gourmet, international and specialty items. Rapid checkout service will be provided by six traditional checkout lanes, one express lane and four self-checkouts. For added convenience, the store will include a Food City Pharmacy, equipped with a drive-thru for greater ease in prescription services, a Food City Gas n’ Go and Go Cart curbside pick-up, which allows customers to shop online and pick-up their order when they arrive at the store.

The 140 jobs are something that Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and Smith can agree is a huge boost for the people of Erwin and Unicoi County.

“The interesting thing about who we employ is, for a lot of folks it’s their first job, for a lot folks it’s their last job,” Smith said of the generational diversity in Food City’s workforce.

When Food City begins hiring for their store, according to Hensley, they should see a solid return on investment.

“We pride ourselves on our work ethic here, and in our school systems we try to teach that,” Hensley said of the workers of Erwin.

Food City is one of many businesses that have committed to the growth of the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County.

“I think with Food City here you are going to see a lot happening, and with the hospital you are going to start seeing more growth in the south side,” Hensley said.

The addition of Food City opens the doors for other opportunities as well.

“This offers so many opportunities for the people of Unicoi County,” Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County Executive Director Tyler Engle said of Food City opening in the summer.

Food City is part of a larger plan to bring more businesses to Erwin.

“We hope to be a catalyst to help Erwin to grow and prosper,” Smith told The Erwin Record.

The excitement for Food City was evident in the groundbreaking ceremony.

“We are so appreciative of Food City for coming to Erwin, this is the best Christmas present ever,” Hensley said of welcoming Food City to Erwin.

Food City representatives were also feeling the excitement of the collaboration between Erwin and the supermarket company.

“We want to be a good partner with Erwin and Unicoi County, we want to recognize the character of the community,” Smith told The Erwin Record.

Smith, who is from a small town that has similar demographics as Erwin, is invested in the growth of Erwin.

“I will commit to you that not only are we going to build you a fine supermarket, but our folks will be a great community partner,” Smith said. “We will invest in your nonprofits and do our part to make Erwin a great place to live and to raise children.”

County Commission chooses to stay with MedicOne

The Unicoi County Commission held its last meeting of 2018 at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Monday, Dec. 17. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

On Monday, Dec. 17, the Unicoi County Commission made the contract renewal with MedicOne official.

MedicOne will continue to serve Unicoi County beginning the new contract in April of 2019. The contract will run until April of 2023. The contract includes a $225,000 annual subsidy to be paid by the county to MedicOne. The county currently pays $132,000 dollars annually under the current contract which expires in April.

The commission voted to approve the bid and contract, in a 6-2 vote with Commission Chairman Loren Thomas abstaining. County Commissioner and Ambulance Committee Chairman John Mosley made the motion to approve the contract with MedicOne and Commissioner Jamie Harris seconded the motion.

Monday’s vote followed the recommendation made by the Ambulance Committee during a meeting at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Friday, Dec. 14.

On Friday, the committee viewed a response from MedicOne to a proposed contract submitted by the county for ambulance services.

“We sent a proposed contract to representatives of MedicOne on Dec. 5,” Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely stated on Dec. 14.

MedicOne CEO Jim Reeves responded back to the committee on Dec. 14, prior to the meeting with some proposed changes.

The proposed changes included removing a $2 million insurance umbrella that would cost MedicOne $63,000 in annual costs. Another change that MedicOne would like to see was a new ambulance being purchased in April 2019 and a second one to be purchased in April of 2020. MedicOne already has a 2017 ambulance currently in their fleet. This would allow the ambulance service to have three ambulances that would be in compliance of the original 5-year, 250,000-mile option in the current contract.

“We would have three frontline ambulances that should be in good shape and low mileage within the first 12 months of the new contract,” Evely told the committee.

The committee voted to continue talks with MedicOne to try and reach an agreement and discuss it at the Dec. 17 Unicoi County Commission meeting. The commission had the option of either accepting the updated contract from MedicOne at the meeting or putting the contract back out for bid. Unicoi County Attorney Douglas Shults was asked to draw up a new request for proposal just in case talks fell through with MedicOne.

The current contract for ambulance services is up in April of 2019.

“What we are concerned about is the safety of our citizens,” committee member Commissioner Glenn White said on Friday.

On Monday, commissioners Mosley, Jamie Harris, Glenn White, Todd Wilcox, Matthew Rice and Stephen Hendrix voted to approve a new contract with MedicOne. Commissioner Marie Rice and Commissioner Jason Harris voted no.

“I’d like to see this go out for bid,” Commissioner Jason Harris stated.

Once the vote was over Commissioner Marie Rice expressed her concerns about continuing to have MedicOne provide ambulance services to Unicoi County.

“I will refer the calls I get to the ones that voted for this, those calls are coming,” Rice said. Commissioner Jamie Harris was more hopeful for the contract renewal.

“This contract gives the commission more teeth. I’m hopeful this works out,” he told The Erwin Record.

The new contract calls for three ambulances instead of two, which is what the previous contract called for. The ambulances will all be Type 1 ambulances which allow for enough room for up to two people. Two of the ambulances will be staffed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The third ambulance will run on a 12 hour shift for 7 days a week. MedicOne is currently running a third part-time ambulance in preparation for the new contract.

Thomas was optimistic about the agreement going forward.

“We are paying for more because our citizens deserve more,” Thomas told The Erwin Record about the subsidy.

•••

With the ambulance service issue taken care of, the commission moved on to revisit an item that was previously shelved.

Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Representative Troy Ebbert addressed the commission concerning a proposed bike trail that would cover roughly five miles and travel through the Town of Erwin, the Town of Unicoi and a stretch of Unicoi County. The proposed grant was for $90,000 dollars and required 10 percent of the grant be paid by the three municipalities, to complete a study of the proposed trail.

The 10 percent would have been split between the three municipalities, costing the Town of Erwin, the Town of Unicoi, and Unicoi County roughly $3,000 dollars each. The Town of Erwin and the Town of Unicoi have already agreed to pay the $3,000 dollars for the study. Commissioners Glenn White and John Mosley expressed concern over the trail study.

“I have spoken to people in that district and they do not want the trail,” Mosley stated.

The commission narrowly voted to oppose the trail study in a 5-4 vote. A motion was made to approve the study by Commissioner Matthew Rice and the motion was seconded by Commissioner Stephen Hendrix. Joining Matthew Rice and Hendrix in approving the study grant was Commissioner Jason Harris and Chairman Thomas. Voting to oppose the bid was Commissioners White, Mosley, Wilcox, Marie Rice, and Jamie Harris.

•••

In the last order of business, the commission voted unanimously to update their contract with Quillen College of Medicine, Division of Forensic Pathology to perform autopsies for Unicoi County. The current contract has a 20 autopsy yearly cap. The new contract will release the cap.

A motion was made by Commissioner Jason Harris and seconded by White. The commission voted unanimously to accept the new contract.

United Way surpasses fundraising goal

Thanks to the extra funds raised, the United Way was able to give to additional organizations. United Way Vice President David Erickson, right, presents a check to Larry Rose, a representative of the Imagination Library. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County United Way surpassed its goal of $120,000 during the most recent drive thanks to the generosity of the citizens of Unicoi County.

It was announced during the United Way Victory Luncheon on Thursday, Dec. 6, that the local United Way received a total of $128,528, which will benefit 22 area organizations.

“It’s been a good year,” Unicoi County United Way Vice President David Erickson told The Erwin Record.

Clinchfield Senior Adult Center’s reception room was packed with members of the organizations that both help and are helped out by the United Way. The crowd was treated to a lunch prepared by Rachelle Hyder-Shurtz and music by the Unicoi County High School Blue Belles.

After lunch, the Development Director of Second Harvest Food Bank, Ann Rhem addressed the crowd to discuss the impact that United Way has on the community.

“The population of Unicoi County is 17,945 and of that 2,580 citizens are food deprived,” Rhem stated.

That is roughly 14.4 percent of the population of Unicoi County that could use the assistance of Second Harvest Food Bank.

Another organization on hand that United Way has been able to help is Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). CASA helps assist and represent children during court cases.

“Children can often slip through the cracks of the justice system, and we are here to help make sure that they have the same representative with them every step of the way,” Executive Director of CASA Whitney Mclaughlin said.

After recognizing the organizations in attendance and handing out special awards for those that contributed, Unicoi County United Way President Lee Brown revealed the total amount of $128,528 that was raised by the local businesses.

“This wouldn’t be possible without everyone sitting in this room, and our local industry that is committed to the United Way,” Brown said. “They are the backbone and the lifeblood of the area United Way.”

The annual United Way drive may be over, but you can always give to the United Way of Unicoi County. Donations can be mailed anytime to Unicoi County United Way, PO Box 343, Erwin, TN 37650.

Also, follow Unicoi County United Way’s Facebook page for more updates and events.