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John Thompson

Elizabethton Bureau Chief
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Carter Co. group OKs spending despite mayor’s opposition

November 22nd, 2011 5:58 pm by John Thompson

ELIZABETHTON — The Carter County Commission overwhelmingly approved several spending recommendations from its Budget Committee on Monday even though Mayor Leon Humphrey expressed opposition.
Humphrey had been at the center of the first question the County Commission considered. At the start of the meeting, Commissioner John Lewis asked his fellow commissioners to allow Humphrey to take a seat on the front bench, next to Commission Chairman Thomas Bowers and County Attorney Keith Bowers. Lewis said it irritated him to see the mayor reduced to sitting in the audience.
Chairman Bowers had ordered Humphrey to take a seat with other elected officials last month. Humphrey complied without comment.
On Monday, Bowers said the seating arrangements were the chairman’s prerogative, but he would bend to the wishes of the commission.
Lewis’ motion to allow Humphrey to sit at the bench was defeated by a 15-6 vote. Commissioners Lewis, Nancy Brown, Joel Street, Ronnie Trivett, Charlie Von Cannon and Robert Gobble voted for the motion. Pat Hicks passed. Commissioners Lawrence Hodge and Scott Sams were absent.
Following the vote, the mayor rose from the audience to ask that the agenda be changed to move the time for citizens to speak. He said they should be heard before the commissioners vote. The agenda change was defeated by a 17-5 vote, with Brown, Trivett, Von Cannon, Lewis and Gobble voting for it.
One of the most contentious budget issues was a recommendation to authorize $15,000 to hire a part-time clerk in County Clerk Mary Gouge’s office. The additional employee would assist in keeping the records and correspondence of the County Commission.
Gouge inherited the County Commission duties from Humphrey this year. Prior to that time, the mayor’s secretary had done the work.
Humphrey said he did not think it was necessary to hire an additional employee.
“I don’t have anything against Mrs. Gouge and I want her to be able to run her office efficiently,” Humphrey said. He argued that Gouge’s staff of seven employees is currently working 15 percent less hours than the other county offices, averaging 32 hours instead of the 37.5 hours that other employees work.
He said if the average work week was increased to the 37.5 hours of the rest of the courthouse, there would be no need for the additional part-time employee.
Commissioner Lewis said the responsibilities for Probate Court were transferred from Gouge’s office to the clerk and master’s office several years ago, but Gouge retained the employees.
Commissioner L.C. Tester said the responsibilities for the County Commission has placed a great burden on Gouge’s already busy office. He said her employees have a good work ethic and he recommended granting her the additional worker.
Commissioner Steve Lowrance said “Mary Gouge has been here since 1978. Mrs. Gouge knows what it takes to run the office. We can’t put extra work on her and not give her some help. We need to quit playing politics and give her what she needs.”
The Commission voted 18-4 to grant the additional part-time worker. Lewis, Brown, Trivett and Von Cannon voted against the recommendation.
In other matters, the commissioners unanimously approved a stream mitigation proposal that would allow Gap Creek Highway improvements to proceed. The proposal called for the county to designate a portion of the county-owned community park in Roan Mountain as stream mitigation for the damage done to Gap Creek by the highway project.
The proposal called for the planting of trees along a 1,000-foot strip along the riverbank in the park. The county would agree not to cut the trees or mow the grass in an effort to improve the stream.
Carter County Planning Director Chris Schuettler warned that the proposal might violate an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in which the area was designated a floodway.
A few hours later, Schuettler said he was told by federal officials that the TDOT mitigation plan did conflict with the floodway agreement the county had with FEMA. Schuettler said he thought he could work out a solution in a few days so the project could be let in December.
The Commission had already approved the mitigation contingent on an agreement with FEMA and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
The commission also approved the nominations made by Humphrey for members of the Ethics Committee. The members are Sheriff Chris Mathes, Audit Committee Chairman David Wortman, and commissioners Brown, Sams and Von Cannon.

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