By Jonathan Pleasant
The Mountain City Town Council meeting was full of updates and potential changes to ongoing city projects this month. The first item that the council addressed was to look at the current status on a TDOT Roadscapes grant that the board has been involved in for the past couple of years. Originally the project was to fund more than a dozen landscaping sites up and down Main Street. The council has since scaled back those initial designs because of concerns about taking up valuable parking.
Engineer Connor Boyle has been working directly with the city on getting the changes approved and made an appearance at this months meeting. Boyle confirmed that the state is willing to go along with the councils wishes concerning the grant, with the exception of two specific locations near the Army Surplus building and the courthouse, respectively. In both of these situations the current parking does not meet federal sight distance requirements and to complete the grant would necessitate the loss of one parking space at each location. The issue deals directly with crosswalk spacing, and for the project to proceed the city must come into compliance.
Although the loss of any parking has been a consistent concern of the council, there is also a fear of afflicting future grant applications if the city does not follow through with their current endeavor. The Roadscapes grant was created specifically to enhance safety and bring greenery into downtown areas. Planters installed from the money would feature a variety of shrubs and flowers and will be located strategically. Having already invested much time and effort into completing the grants requirements Alderman Jerry Jordan made the motion to accept the changes, which passed with unanimous consent.
The meeting also featured two public hearings and the consequential final readings of new ordinances designed to give the city more authority over property maintenance issues. While the city has always had rules governing problems such as overgrown lots and dilapidated structures, there was little in the way of actual enforcement. With the passing of ordinances 1347 and 1348 city officials can now utilize a number of actions ranging from daily fines to liens against the property.
City Mayor Lawrence Keeble announced several updates, beginning with a conversation concerning crime and vandalism in the citys parks. An issue that has been brought up several times over the past year, officials have already taken serious steps including the installation of new cameras and the adoption of new park rules. This action has led to a noticeable drop in problems, but Mayor Keeble was still keen to speak with Police Chief Denver Church to see what else might be done.
Keeble explained that he felt the city has three options, the easiest of which would be to increase the presence of the city police. More drastic measures involved hiring a designated security guard or to try and limit hours at the park by closing at a specific time. For his part, Chief Church felt that an increase in patrols would be sufficient. Already there have been arrests made for vandalism and with a few extra patrols each hour, Church believes the issue can be brought under control. Keeble agreed that this would be the best choice for now, considering the cost of hiring a security officer and the difficulty of patrolling once the park was closed.
Chief Church had several items of his own, including an announcement that a new officer had been selected to fill the vacancy from last month. Officer Chris Brown has shown interest in working for the city and considering his experience and background, Church made a recommendation that he be hired. Alderman Jordan made the motion to approve Churchs request, which was seconded by Alderman Kenny Icenhour and approved without issue.
In addition to hiring the new officer, Church also addressed a potential change. Gary Phillips, the city animal control officer, has always operated under public works director Bob Eller. Unfortunately, because Phillips is not an actual law enforcement officer he cannot make arrests or issue citations. Even if issues arise while on duty, Phillips must return to City Hall and file for a summons before any action can be taken. As a result both Police Chief Church and Mayor Keeble looked into the possibility of transferring Phillipss position into the police department. Phillips would have to attend the police academy and become certified, but would then also have full authority as an officer. Public Works Director Eller was in support of the change, noting that Phillips has been a tremendously dependable employee and could better serve the city in this new capacity. Alderman Bob Morrison made the successful motion to accept the transfer, which will actually be carried out in December so that Phillips can attend the academy early next year.
Mayor Keeble had several other small announcements, including an update on the bridge naming ceremony near the highway 67/421 junction. Thanks to the efforts of State Representative Timothy Hill, the bridge will be named in honor of Specialist Fred Greene, who gave his life at the Fort Hood attack in Texas. The ceremony was supposed to be held a couple weeks ago but because several members of Greenes family were actually in Texas due to the court case there, the event had been postponed.
Keeble also gave updates on the progress of Doe Mountain, explaining the ongoing planning process and the week long public input session, known as a Charette, which will be held in town early in November. Keeble explained that work on the mountain is going well, and that he has been invited to attend a meeting in St. Paul, Virginia where a similar trail project has just opened.
The last update that Keeble asked about concerned improvements to crosswalks near Mountain City Elementary. Public Works Director Bob Eller stated that new signs had arrived and would be put up sometime in the following week. School officials have also indicated that curb work will be done near the school and the city will also repaint the crossings.
City Recorder Sheila Shaw explained to the council that she had been approached by local business owner Brenda Church with a request to create and place Christmas decorations this season. Church operates Shey Bray on Main Street and would like to create large ornate wreaths to be displayed on the city light posts. Church would fully fund the project with help from donations by other downtown businesses.
The council discussed the request at length and determined that it would be a good idea to allow Church to move ahead. Bob Eller explained that the city would help install the wreaths once they were completed, and went on to make suggestions about the citys decorations in general. Harkening back to Mountain Citys past traditions, Eller suggested scaling back the number of lights placed all over the city and use the extra funding to help do more decorations in the downtown area. Many of the council members seemed to like the idea, directing Eller to look into what might be possible and bring back information at next months meeting.
The last big action of the night involved a potential new grant from TDOT which would go toward the renovation of two bridges in town. The grant would be 80/20 with the city being responsible for a sizeable match, and would be used to replace a bridge on Circle Drive and the entrance of the Johnson County High School. Mayor Keeble indicated his desire to see the city accept the grant, considering the huge expense of rebuilding. The mayor went on to explain that one of the citys capital outlay projects was just about to be paid off and a new note could be created to cover the cost of the match.
Because there are still some questions about the finances of the project, Alderman Morrison made a motion to give Mayor Keeble authority to look into the grant further and potentially pursue the funding. If the city does decide to cover the costs with an outlay note, the town would be obligated until 2016. However, it is very unlikely that the city could afford to replace the bridges entirely on their own, making this a very rare opportunity. Morrisons motion passed unanimously and with no further items on the agenda a further motion was entertained to adjourn.
By Jonathan Pleasant