Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas discusses issues facing the county in the coming year. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County officials took time on Thursday, Nov. 7, to reflect on the accomplishments of 2019 and begin planning for 2020.

Unicoi County Commission Chairman Loren Thomas called the 2020 Vision Work Session for Unicoi County to start addressing items that the commission would like to accomplish for the upcoming year.

The first item that the county discussed last week was the declining numbers in the school system.

“There is declining enrollment in Unicoi County Schools,” said Thomas, whose wife, Cathy Thomas, serves on the Unicoi County Board of Education. “The school system is trying to make up for this by not replacing teachers as they retire. There is going to come a point that they are going to need additional funding.”

According to Thomas, students attending homeschool and population decline are serious threats to the area school systems. Thomas acknowledged that this is an issue that the commission must begin to look at.

According to Unicoi County Commissioner Matthew Rice, the county needs to attract more people, especially younger people.

“It’s the millennial generation that are child-rearing age, and right now our demographic of millennials is pretty low compared to the rest of the state. So our number of children is going to be low compared to other areas,” Rice said.

The next item that the commission is preparing to address in 2020 is finding a way to assist the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in providing competitive wages for his employees. According to Thomas, the UCSD has been losing officers to neighboring police forces due to wages and benefits.

Thomas acknowledged that one way the county could start generating more funds is by housing more state inmates. According to discussion during a February meeting of the Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee meeting, the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) pays Unicoi County $39 daily per state inmate that the county houses.

According to Thomas, the county is looking at expanding more beds at the jail annex that currently houses records for the county.

“I think the records will be moved out pretty soon. I know that they are looking at a couple of temporary buildings. We then have to decide what to do with that space,” Thomas said. “We could spend money and renovate it and place 20 more inmates in that space. That is something that we need to decide in the near future.”

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Thomas also commended the panel for a job well done in 2019.

“This is the seventh straight year we were able to accomplish our goals without raising taxes, which is phenomenal,” Thomas said. “We were able to accomplish so much last year including securing $5.1 million for the school system that will go towards renovations. We were able to partner with Washington County/Johnson City EMS for ambulance service and we can now potentially be on the path to starting our own ambulance service.

“We were able to relocate the ambulance service to a really nice facility thanks to Christian Care Center of Unicoi County,” Thomas continued. “Solid waste sites are the cleanest they have ever been and are compliant with state regulations. We were able to get a pay scale for our county employees. We’ve been working on getting better communication for our public safety, which is a huge benefit for our citizens. We will have SROs in each school going forward We purchased six new patrol cars for UCSD. We were able to address the years-old fencing issue at the jail annex, upgraded uniforms, bullet proof vests, and security cameras at the jail. I am very proud of our accomplishments.”

The Unicoi County Commission is scheduled to meet for its November session at the Unicoi County Courthouse on Monday, Nov. 25, at 6 p.m.