By Jonathan Pleasant
For the second time in just three months the Johnson County Commission was given the difficult task of choosing someone to fill in a vacated seat, this time following the death of long time commissioner Dean Stout. Having posted the position for the past month, the board followed the same procedures established with the appointment of Commissioner Evelyn Hill. Interested candidates were required to be nominated by a member of the commission, with three names coming forth overall.
Commissioner Gina Meade was the first to move, nominating Chris Pierce, and was followed immediately by Commissioner Jerry Grindstaff who nominated Dean Stouts son, Michael Stout. The final nomination came in from Commissioner Bill Adams who spoke for a long time regarding paramedic and county coroner Willie DeBord. With no further names coming forth, chairman Freddy Phipps called for nominations to cease, which opened the floor to a vote.
In the first round Pierce carried over both Stout and DeBord, seven to five and two respectively. However a vacancy can only be filled with a majority vote, requiring at least eight votes. As such, the commission had a second vote, with only Pierce and Stout as the two top recipients. Once again Pierce came out on top, winning nine to five, allowing him to take the seat on the board. Stout took the results well, thanking the commission for his consideration, while Pierce was formally sworn in by County Clerk Tammy Fenner. Ironically, Pierce was also later reappointed to his former post on the 911 board alongside Gene Hackney at the recommendation of the 911 board itself. These reappointments to new terms came alongside the new appointment of Joe Woodard, who filled a longstanding vacancy.
These important seats aside, the commission also dealt with several significant financial matters, the first coming in the form of a loan request by County Road Superintendent Tony Jennings. Having made similar requests in the past, Jenningss department would essentially be taking money from the general fund now to cover current debts and would then pay the money back to the county at the end of the fiscal year out of surplus monies left over in various line items. The total amount of the loan, as recommended by the budget committee would be up to $125,000 and would go toward covering past expenditures for stone, asphalt, and various other items. According to Jennings, most of the debt was actually acquired because of the flooding problems earlier in the year, and shortfalls from expected payments by the USDAs Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Having worked with the NRCS in the past following flooding issues, the county formerly took advantage of funding for bank stabilization projects. However, while those earlier grants were only 10 percent county share, the most recent projects were actually 25 percent in most cases and even as high as 50 percent when considering the cost of tile and crusher run gravel.
Over the course of seven separate flooding events this year, the county faced nearly $425,000 in damages, of which NRCS covered less than $298,000. The county road department was forced to bear the rest of the burden, which was made more difficult because much of the money coming into the county, including state gas tax funding, is set up on a payment schedule. Because of this, Jennings fully expects to be able to pay back the general fund before the end of the next fiscal year, but was compelled to make the loan request to the county to cover current costs.
Having successfully taken such action in the past, and with little other choice, Commissioner Rick Snyder made the motion to approve the budget committees loan recommendation, which was approved with unanimous consent. The board also discussed a separate financial transfer on the opposite end of the spectrum, as Airport manager Dave Gariss explained about potential problems with the countys federal entitlement monies. A regular grant that is received each year, the county airport now has more than $800,000 waiting in reserve to use for projects such as land acquisition or runway expansion. However, with another entitlement payment set to come in later next year, the county will now be above a surplus threshold that requires review. If it is found that the airport has more funds than it needs, it could mean an end to the money altogether. To take care of this problem, the state Aeronautics Division has made a recommendation for Johnson County to transfer some of these excess funds to another nearby airport in order to keep eligibility for future payments intact.
Basically a scenario of use it or lose it, Garrisss request involved transferring just over $200,000 of the total $800,000 to the Elizabethton Municipal Airport, which will use the funding for a runway overlay project. This would reduce Johnson Countys surplus and buy more time to finalize a land acquisition deal that will allow the airport to finally meet federal requirements by moving a fence outside its no-obstruction zone. Several of the commissioners raised concerns about giving away money when other departments actually have to borrow from the general fund, but as Garris explained, these federal funds cannot be used for any other purpose but airport improvements. Further, if the county took no action and received the extra payment next year it could seriously jeopardize the countys position in the program. Because transferring the money would actually benefit the county more than keeping it, Commissioner Jonathan Pleasant made the motion to approve Garrisss request. Following a second, the motion passed 12-2 with Commissioners Jerry Gentry and Jack Proffit voting against.
Other business of the night included a request by Bill Roark with the Trade Community Center organization concerning the removal of firewood near the old Trade School. Having been given approval to cut several large weeping willows a few months ago, Roark was concerned about what the group could legally do with the wood. County Attorney Bill Cockett was not present at the meeting, leaving the commission to discuss at length what options were available. Because the sawed blocks could technically be considered surplus material, especially if they were to be sold for firewood, the primary concern was whether it would need to be advertised according to county policy. For his part, Roark was mainly concerned about simply getting the wood out of the way as quickly as possible, even debating how much demand there might actually be. However, without legal advice the commission decided to play it safe, making a motion to declare the wood surplus and hopefully sell it as one lot to the highest bidder, however much that may be. Additionally, County Mayor Larry Potter will consult with Cockett as soon as possible to verify whether any other action would need to be taken.
Other business of the evening included approval of last months minutes, notaries, and committee reports, as well as this months budget amendments. Each of these passed without controversy, and with nothing further on the agenda, the meeting closed with many wishes for a Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year.
By Jonathan Pleasant