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With capacity down, can Johnson City lower an alcohol tax to help restaurants?

Businesses selling liquor onsite had until Dec. 31 to pay their annual privilege tax to Johnson City, a fee that for restaurants can be in the range of $600 to $1,000 depending on their seating capacity.

But one local restaurant owner is questioning whether it’s fair to charge those fees during a year in which public health officials have encouraged restaurants to cut their maximum capacity to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“It just feels like a bureaucratic entanglement,” said Nathan Brand, one of the co-owners of Timber on West Walnut Street.

According to city codes, restaurants with a seating capacity of 75 to 125 seats must pay $600 annually, which increases depending on the number of seats. At max, businesses with 276 seats or more pay $1,000.

This year, Brand said, Timber’s state license says the business has 88 seats, but he added the restaurant has been operating at a fraction of its maximum capacity and currently only has a few tables set up inside. Businesses submit their occupancy numbers to the state of Tennessee.

“If the city could forgive that tax it would such a boon to people like us,” Brand said. “$600 is a lot of money to us. We’re a tiny business.”

Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise brought the issue up during a City Commission meeting on Dec. 17.

Rather than forgiving the tax, Wise said recently, he’s hoping to see the city charge a fee that better reflects the occupancy restaurants have been encouraged to maintain during the outbreak.

“All I’m suggesting is that for the year we’ve encouraged people to be at 50% occupancy we don’t charge them like they’re getting to be at 100%,” he said.

City Manager Pete Peterson said that, as of 2003, state statute was modified to prevent the city from raising its privilege tax rate.

“We certainly know we can’t raise those privilege fees … and we have questions as to whether or not, if we were to lower those fees for a year, if we could legally raise them back to the existing amounts since the statute says that they can’t be adjusted,” he said in December.

He said city officials would need to do more research before they could provide a definitive answer to commissioners.

Peterson said Friday that the city hasn’t yet received a specific answer from the state explaining whether the city can re-raise the rate to normal levels if the city temporarily lowers it because of the pandemic.

“That’s the question we’re trying to get the answer to,” Peterson said.

Restaurants reeling

This conversation occurs as restaurants across Tennessee, including Johnson City, are trying to stay afloat.

Jamie Dove, the owner of Main Street Pizza Company in Johnson City and Kingsport, said most independent restaurants are likely operating at a loss right now, and temporarily adjusting the privilege tax could be a fair way to help local business owners.

He noted that the fee isn’t a huge amount of money, but every little bit helps, especially for smaller, independent restaurants.

“If the city can get a little relief going, that would certainly help some people,” he said, but if not, there might be other ways to save more money.

Dove said Main Street Pizza Company is still allowing in-person dining, but it currently has very few tables. He estimated that the business is operating at around 30-35% capacity.

Because many people have neglected to follow health precautions, Dove said, the COVID-19 outbreak been a “long trudge.” He is optimistic, however, that the stimulus package Congress recently passed will extend how long businesses can hang on.

But if the pandemic continues longer than anticipated, Dove said, communities will lose more and more independent restaurants on a weekly basis.

“That’s how dire it is,” he said.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Tennessee was one of 36 states in the U.S. that lost restaurant jobs between October and November. The state’s employment at restaurants plummeted from 266,200 in February to 154,000 in April. The numbers have been ticking back up throughout the remainder of the year, but employment in November stood at 247,000, which is still roughly 7.2% lower than it was in February.

In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported employment in the leisure and hospitality sector in the U.S. dropped by 498,000, with three-quarters of that decrease — 372,000 jobs — attributed to declines in food service and drinking places.

“It’s not up for debate whether the restaurant industry is the hardest-hit industry in all this,” Brand said. “It’s just a fact.”

Washington County seeks a return of vital historical documents

Washington County commissioners are being asked to back efforts to return an important piece of the county’s history to Jonesborough.

Ned Irwin, Washington County’s archivist, said the county is working to retrieve its very first property deed book, “Deed Book A,” which was sent to Nashville in 1897 as part of its contribution to the Tennessee Centennial Celebration.

The deed book was eventually moved to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, where it remains today.

The historical document is a 1830s copy of Washington County’s original deed book, which was created between 1717 and 1782.

“It is a Washington County record, and should be returned to Washington County,” Irwin told members of the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee on Thursday.

He also said he was “not exactly sure why” the state library has resisted Washington County’s calls to return the deed book.

“They (state officials) did return other early Washington County records, including the first minutes of the Washington County Court in the handwriting of John Sevier, the first county clerk of Washington County,” he said.

Irwin said he and members of the Washington County Public Records Commission have spent the past two years recovering missing county records from the 18th and 19th centuries.

“We’ve been successful in this endeavor, and we’ve recovered more than 12,000 records, but there is one record we have not been able to see returned,” Irwin told committee members last week.

He said that is why he is asking the Washington County Commission to approve a resolution calling for the return of Deed Book A, and giving its authority to the county archivist and the county attorney to purse its recovery.

Irwin said he has also asked Washington County’s legislative delegation to the state General Assembly — Sen. Rusty Crowe and Reps.-elect Rebecca Alexander and Tim Hicks — to support a request for state Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who oversees the state archives, to return the deed book to Jonesborough.

The Washington County Archives Building in downtown Jonesborough and its adjacent annex in the old jail of the Washington County Courthouse hold almost 10,000 linear feet of county records in more than 4,252 boxes and 3,674 bound volumes. Those records cover a period from British colonial rule to the early 21st century.

Washington County, which was the first county created in Tennessee, also has an 1803 court disposition written by Andrew Jackson when he served as a Circuit Court judge.

The archives house some of the oldest public records in the state. That includes records dating back to the Watauga Association in 1771.

Documents signed by legends of this state, including Sevier and Jackson, are among the county’s historic documents. One such prized document is Jackson’s admittance to the bar in 1788.

Officials say these items tell the early history of Washington County, and include State of Franklin records, pre-Civil War slave documents and summonses from early Superior Court and Circuit Court cases.

Erwin elephants nearly double in size and funds raised for 2020

Imagine waking up on snowy Christmas Day 2020 and seeing a 5-foot, brightly painted elephant in your yard.

It can happen, and it did for one lucky elephant lover.

The Coat of Many Colors elephant, along with seven other elephants of various designs, raised $35,000 in a silent bid auction Dec. 1, according to Jamie Rice, communications specialist for Erwin.

David Baines, of Elizabethton, surprised his wife, Mary, with the elephant of her dreams.

“In previous years we had maybe raised $12,000 to $16,000. In 2020 we raised $35,000,” Rice said. Bids ranged from $1,700 to $12,000 for the statues last year.

The Erwin Elephant Revival, started in 2017, was designed as a way to put a more positive light on the town’s notorious image related to the elephant Murderous Mary. The circus elephant killed her trainer in Kingsport, and officials determined she had to be killed. The only place to do the deed was at the railyard in Erwin.

“We had nothing to do with the hanging,” Rice said. “It’s a stigma that’s been with us for 100 years.”

The Elephant Revival was created in such a way as to honor Mary. The first year, all proceeds from the open auction — public at that time — went to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, located south of Nashville.

After that first year, proceeds were divided between the sanctuary and a charity of the winning bidder’s choice.

Rice said 2020’s 60-inch elephants were taller than previous years’ 30-inch-tall pachyderms. The town had previously ordered them from a manufacturer in Denmark, but could no longer get those. Now, the elephants will come from a company in Nebraska; the commissioned molds were designed specifically for the Elephant Revival.

“We have our exclusive design now,” Rice said.

And while the money from the auction doesn’t go directly to the town, there are benefits.

“We benefit from this auction because these elephants are on Main Street and we get foot traffic downtown,” Rice said. “The merchants love them … and instead of telling a grisly story of 100 years ago, it’s something positive.”

From the 2020 auction, the elephant sanctuary received $3,565.

“We have an open call for any volunteer who wants to paint an elephant. They submit their artwork and we have a small panel that looks through the submissions and we pick the top eight,” Rice said. The artists are all volunteers and supply all their own paint and supplies for the project.

Sponsorship and artist applications are already being accepted for the 2121 Elephant Revival. To submit an application, visit www.ErwinTn.org.

Outside investigation touches on Johnson City's relationship with developers

While investigating an employee’s official complaint against City Manager Pete Peterson, Knoxville attorney Benjamin Lauderback also addressed an issue that has long dogged city officials: Is Johnson City friendly to developers?

“During the course of my investigation I heard about citizens and developers complaining of the unforgiving, uncompromising and negative attitudes of the employees in the fire prevention, and to a lesser extent, the codes enforcement offices in the Development Services division,” Lauderback wrote in a report he submitted to city commissioners in December.

Johnson City has three departments, Lauderback notes, that enforce various codes, two of which are under the Development Services Department: One of those is codes enforcement and the other encompasses trades and building inspectors. Additionally, the fire department has employees who focus on fire codes and fire prevention. Most of the people he talked to, Lauderback wrote, seem to agree that there is a lack of cohesiveness and communication between employees in development services and the fire department.

One of the most important job duties of trades inspectors, code enforcement officers and fire prevention officers, Lauderback said, is to say “no” if a code has not been met by a developer.

“Frankly, that does not seem overly complicated,” Lauderback wrote. “The complications seem to arise when after being told ‘no’ contractors, business developers and business owners go to air their grievances to city commissioners and, though not as commonly, Mr. Peterson.”

City commissioners, he said, then apply pressure on Peterson because of a “perception” by contractors and developers that Johnson City is “not ‘business development’ or ‘builder friendly’ and its codes officials are unyielding and unwilling to compromise.” Lauderback added, however, that further complications arise when employees enforcing codes do not explain the reasoning behind their decisions to the developer.

“Several codes employees did not see that as part of their role,” Lauderback wrote. “It is unclear to me why they do not. Mr. Peterson seems to be caught in the middle of these two opposite sides.”

Lauderback pointed to the City Commission’s written objectives for Peterson as evidence of their expectations, which included determining which city codes are essential, increasing building permits in the city, and encouraging customer-friendly service.

“While these expectations by the commission are not necessarily unreasonable, it does seem they come with a general lack of awareness about the importance and significance of the codes officials and their job duties,” Lauderback wrote.

Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise said that statement appears to be only based on the perception of some of the people Lauderback interviewed.

When commissioners have talked with staff about the importance of ensuring the city is “developer-friendly,” Wise said, commissioners have reiterated that they don’t want to take shortcuts on life-safety issues. Commissioners, he said, want staff to continue prioritizing compliance with life and safety rules while also streamlining the process and ensuring employees help applicants understand what they can do to be in compliance with the city.

Wise said in December he believes Lauderback focused on the issue of codes enforcement in his report because that was an explanation Peterson provided during the investigation.

The city hired Lauderback to investigate a complaint against Peterson by a fire department employee. That employee filed an official complaint against Peterson after the city manager berated him for looping the state Fire Marshal’s Office in on a conversation about the use of the former Ashe Street Courthouse as a quarantine building for homeless people with COVID-19.

“How you treat employees becomes how they treat your customers,” Wise said in December. “I don’t think that has anything to do specifically with development services or the interaction with builders. They’re just one of a myriad of stakeholders we as a city serve and interact with.”

Peterson said staff and elected officials both past and present have received feedback that service in the codes and fire inspection divisions hasn’t always been customer-friendly. He said commissioners have told him on multiple occasions that the city needs to improve that relationship.

“I don’t know how Mr. Lauderback could have done his investigation and subsequent report without addressing that aspect of the situation,” he said.

Asked why he was upset that Davis included the state Fire Marshal’s Office in the conversation, Peterson said in December he has talked to department heads for several years about customer service.

“When you have to tell somebody you can’t do what it is the customer is wanting to do, the answer isn’t ‘no’ and then walking away from it,” Peterson said. “The answer is, ‘You can’t do it that way, but let me show you how to get to the same spot.’”

In the case of the Ashe Street Courthouse, Peterson said, employees didn’t make an effort to reach out to Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy or Washington County/Johnson City Emergency Management Agency Director Rusty Sells about the use of the building. That’s the first thing they should’ve done, he said, before including an outside agency in on the matter.

Additionally, he pointed out that Johnson City exempted itself from state building codes in 2014.

Over the past few years, Peterson said, officials have internally reviewed operations and met with builders and developers to get their assessment of the city. Lauderback’s report indicates there’s still room for improvement, he said.

He said the city will be conducting another internal analysis of its fire inspection division and building department. He also wants to do an external analysis of strengths and weaknesses with the development community.

Northeast Tennessee COVID-19 deaths continue to mount

The number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths in the region pushed past a weekly record set Friday, followed by a similarly grim figure from the state.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported five new deaths Saturday in Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties, increasing the death toll since Monday to 68, 10 higher than the previous record set during the week of Dec. 14 to 20. Since March, 725 deaths in the region have been attributed to the virus.

Statewide, Tennessee also set a new record for weekly deaths Saturday, hitting 679 with one day left in the week. That total is already 70 higher than the previous record.

Patients decrease at Ballad hospitals

Ballad Health reported 336 COVID-19 patients in its facilities on Saturday, down 10 from the day before.

Five fewer patients were in intensive care compared to Friday, and the same number of people were on ventilators.

There were 53 COVID-designated beds still available Saturday, an increase from Friday’s report, but down from 62 on Thursday.

Active cases continue rise

Northeast Tennessee’s active case count rose again Saturday by 305, reaching 5,157. The reported active cases are the highest they have been since Christmas.

Sullivan County led the active case increase with 121. It was also the county with the most new cases reported, 136.

All counties in the region reported new active cases. Washington County’s was the second-highest in the region with 61. Greene (44), Hawkins (34) and Carter (31) followed.