ERWIN — Although the official end of the winter is still some time away, mowing season is not far from Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley’s mind.
Hensley said that throughout the year, sheriff’s department work crews maintain more than 40 public- and county-owned sites in the county by providing mowing and maintenances services. These sites include Gentry Stadium, the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center, the Unicoi County YMCA, the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and small cemeteries throughout the county.
But Hensley said the ongoing renovation of a storage shed at the Unicoi County Jail Annex to house the sheriff’s department’s investigative offices and the county’s 911 center has caused his department to lose the space used to store the equipment necessary for these maintenance projects. Aside from this, Hensley said he may lose the garage building the department currently uses for cruiser maintenance.
Several months ago, Hensley asked county officials to consider the possibility of constructing a metal storage building on the jail annex property to be used by the sheriff’s department to not only store equipment such as mowers and weedeaters, but also to house two MedicOne Medical Response ambulances that have lost their home due to the 911 center and investigative offices’ renovations.
Hensley said this building would also serve as a maintenance garage to replace the building in downtown Erwin, which has a leaky roof, lacks heat and running water and may be torn down to make way for a records-storage facility.
In August, the County Commission voted down a motion to advertise and accept bids on the storage building, but the following week, the county’s building and grounds committee again discussed the topic. Hensley said the 50-by-60-foot post steel building would include three bays to store equipment, an area for vehicle maintenance and a place to house the ambulances.
County officials voiced concern over the building’s estimated price, then around $100,000. A $60,000 cap was placed on the project and it was put out for bid, but the lowest bid, which included only the wall, concrete and roof, came in at around $73,000.
Although it was not on the commission’s agenda, Hensley again brought the matter before the panel at its Jan. 27 meeting. At that meeting, Hensley asked commissioners to again look into the building’s purchase, adding that the work completed at the maintenance garage and by work crews save the county thousands of dollars each year.
“I want you all to investigate what I am telling you,” Hensley said to commissioners. “I am in desperate need of a building to continue with what I have been doing. Now if I don’t get that building to operate out of, there’s nothing that says the sheriff has to go out here and do all this work. I can sell the mowers, I can sell everything I’ve got, I can send my cars to these businesses out here to do the oil changes and the mechanic work, and I will assure you next year’s budget will greatly, greatly increase.
“I would like for you all to take this under serious consideration because it is coming mowing season. Either I get a building to operate out of, try to save the county money, or I’ll have to make other necessary plans.”
Hensley’s request was met with some contention. Commissioner Kenneth Garland said he was against the building, as the commission has granted a number of the sheriff’s department’s prior requests.
“Sheriff, let me ask you something: We borrowed $715,000 to build you a building out there (for the 911 and investigative offices). We got you out of this building over here. We gave you more than $400,000 this year than we gave you last year,” Garland said. “How do you feel the taxpayers are going to foot all this stuff?”
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch suggested the commission once address the building issue in February.
Days after the meeting, Hensley reiterated the need for the building. He said regardless of whether the commission ultimately grants his request, he would not cut the mowing and maintenance services conducted by his department. But he said the proposed storage building would pay for itself. Equipment previously housed in the area being renovated for the 911 center and investigative offices is currently being stored in three pods, which are each costing the county $60 per month to rent.
“I am not asking for anything extra,” Hensley said Thursday. “I am just asking for the space that I had to accommodate what we do.”
Hensley also said he is aware of the impact that the building project could have on the taxpayers, but he said he would not make the request if the project was not necessary.
“As an elected official, I hold myself accountable and I want the taxpayers to hold me accountable of everything I do,” Hensley said, “but I also want them to know my reasoning in anything I ask for. And that is why I said it would take a fool to stand up before the governing body of this county and ask for something in an election year that was unnecessary or I could do other things. I’m frustrated because it’s not something where I’m asking for extra. I’m just asking for a replacement.”
The building’s original plans could be modified, which would cut down on its proposed cost, Hensley said. The bays to house the ambulances may not be necessary, as the county is helping MedicOne pursue options to house its local billing and administrative offices — space that may include an area to house the ambulances.
Lynch said Thursday that the county Records Committee does have tentative plans to tear down the garage building at the corner of Tucker and Church streets currently used by the sheriff’s department for vehicle maintenance to make way for a records-storage facility. Older records that the county is mandated to maintain are currently being stored at the Unicoi County Jail Annex.
“We’ve had it looked at by an architect, and he has told us how much it would cost to refurbish it, which was way high,” Lynch said. “He’s actually given us a ballpark figure on how much it would cost to build a building. It wouldn’t be a real fancy building, but it would be good enough for a records room and archives.”
This records building could be constructed using funds generated from a previously enacted archiving fee, which means it would not lead to an increase in the county’s property tax rate, Lynch said. He also said the town of Erwin may partner with the county on the building.
“Things have worked out, but I do think in the next year or so we need to be looking at taking that building down,” Lynch said. “As far as building a building out there at the annex, I have been kind of for that. I was concerned about the approach to it, but I’ve since talked to the sheriff and he’s a little bit more comfortable with the situation right now. ... I think we need to at least put the building back on the table.”