On Monday, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen gave second and final reading approval to a $2.3 million budget for 2019-20 that includes just over $100,000 to establish a town police department.
The $101,928 allocation will cover salary, benefits and equipment for one officer that Aldermen Jeff Linville said will be enforcing town ordinances, controlling speeding and performing other duties that will assist the county sheriff’s department.
The budget was approved by a vote of 4 to 1, with Alderman Kathy Bullen opposed. In a board discussion prior to the vote, Bullen said the funding for the police officer was not included in the budget document reviewed by aldermen during their recent budget workshop.
And she also expressed concern that the Mountain Harvest Kitchen is costing more than was anticipated and the grants used to start the kitchen will have to be paid back if the kitchen fails.
The budget was also met by opposition from two Unicoi residents who spoke during a public hearing prior to the vote.
Debrah McWhorter said for the past two years the cost of operating the kitchen had exceeded the anticipated $60,000 annual town supplement by more than $40,000. McWhorter also said the $101,000 cost of hiring “our own Barney Fife” would be enough to pay the salaries of three school resource officers.
Judy Ray asked the board members what the town has done to help promote economic development, and noted that no one has ever visited or inquired in any manner about development needs at her place of business.
Linville defended the allocation for “a policeman,” saying, “We have ordinances on the books in Unicoi. It is not the sheriff’s responsibility to enforce our ordinances. The sheriff doesn’t have time to enforce our ordinances.
“During the day, all the businesses complain about speeding on Unicoi Drive. And there are other items an a police officer could be doing to provide additional support to our sheriff’s department,” he said.
Addressing funding for the kitchen, Mayor Johnny Lynch said most of the town assets have been acquired through grants that provide “good return” on the town funds that are invested.
Vice Mayor Doug Hopson defended the kitchen funding, saying many people do not understand the process through which local funds are invested and reimbursed by the grants.
Hopson agreed with Ray about the lack of economic development, saying the town pays about $25,000 annually for county and regional economic development initiatives that have benefited Erwin and other communities but not Unicoi.
Following the budget vote, the board approved a resolution to continue the town’s commitment of $450,000 in federal Economic Development Administration grant funding for the operation of the Mountain Harvest Kitchen for first five years of its operation. The resolution passed by another 4 to 1 vote with Bullen opposed.
Mountain Harvest Kitchen Director Lee Manning told the board the kitchen is “an economic driver” that is “growing jobs and creating opportunities” for people in surrounding counties and communities.
Manning noted increasing use of the kitchen as a food business incubator and a growing number of project partnerships that she encouraged the town to focus on in order to make the kitchen succeed.
In other business Monday, the board approved an interlocal agreement through which Washington County/Johnson City EMS will provide ambulance service to Unicoi County for the next year with an amendment that stipulates the county should “make every attempt to put this contract out” for commercial bid.