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Johnson City considers designs for mural at I-26 overpass

Four bare walls under the Interstate 26 overpass on North Roan Street could soon be adorned with artwork showcasing the natural beauty of Johnson City and the surrounding region.

During their regular meeting Thursday, the City Commission will consider hiring an artist to install four murals, each appearing on one of the walls under the I-26 overpass.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is reviewing an application from the city to install art on the walls. The agency needs a resolution in support of the project from the city before granting approval.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the city’s Public Art Committee reviewed more than 100 submissions from across the nation before selecting three finalists. The recommended artist is Felipe Ortiz, a Colombian painter from Massachusetts. If commissioners approve the mural, the city will pay $58,500 for the commissioned work.

Pindzola said the city wanted the artwork to follow its “Go.All.Out” theme and offer an artistic representation of the city’s identity. According to staff, the city intends for the design to convey the message that Johnson City residents and visitors can enjoy healthy and active lifestyles while convening with the natural world.

Pindzola added that Ortiz demonstrated the most vibrant use of colors compared to other submissions. The proposed murals show a hummingbird preparing to land on a flower, a kayaker and fisherman enjoying a rushing stream, a bicyclist navigating a trail on a hilly landscape, and a handful of butterflies pollinating flowers. The murals would be painted with exterior acrylic paint and would include an anti-graffiti coating.

The murals are part of a larger project on North Roan Street, which will include extending sidewalks along the roadway to Oakland Avenue. Pindzola said city crews will wrap up work on East Market Street, where they’re repaving the street following water and sewer work, before they begin construction on North Roan Street. Pindzola expects construction will start in July, but he’s unsure when TDOT will approve the mural.

First reading of budget

City commissioners are expected to cast their first vote on Johnson City’s fiscal year 2022 budget at the meeting. City Manager Pete Peterson said in May that the FY20 and FY21 budgets were anomalies because revenues actually came in stronger than anticipated.

He believes that increase can be traced back to several things: Money that would be traditionally spent elsewhere has instead gone to local retailers, stimulus dollars from the federal government have kept spending levels up, and new rules for online sales tax collection have further boosted revenues.

After those increases, Peterson said, the city is planning for traditional revenue growth in the upcoming fiscal year.

Peterson told the Press in May that the proposed general fund budget includes about $1.35 million for a 4% pay plan increase for employees, which officials say will help the city remain competitive when hiring staff.

The city is also budgeting for a roughly $500,000 increase in debt service payments, which will cover the debt issuance for the revitalization of West Walnut Street. The proposed budget includes $8.5 million in general obligation bonds for year one of improvements to the corridor.

Additionally, the proposed budget includes funding to replace about a dozen pieces of capital equipment that originally went into service in the mid- to late-1990s. The city is also buying several school buses, which will replace existing vehicles and also ensure Johnson City Schools has the capacity to handle the transition to two middle schools in 2022.

In the FY22 budget, the property tax rates for city residents are $1.71 per $100 of assessed value in Washington County, $1.83 in Carter County and $1.95 in Sullivan County.

Johnson City Finance Director Janet Jennings noted that the city’s property tax rate remains unchanged in the FY22 budget, but she added that Carter and Sullivan counties are in a reappraisal year.

As a result, the state will be recalculating the rates in all three counties to equalize them. The city won’t have those rates until early fall, but at that time, Jennings will resubmit the rates to the City Commission for adoption.

Therapy dogs bring new light to local funeral homes

Funeral homes often play host to some of our darkest moments, but a few local businesses are using therapy dogs to let in some new light.

Kibbi, a 10-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo, is one of those dogs.

Preston McKee, owner of Morris-Baker Funeral Home, is Kibbi’s owner. Kibbi became a certified therapy dog roughly a year after McKee got her, and he and his wife are both certified as her handlers. While Kibbi is available during arrangement meetings and visitation services at Morris-Baker upon request, McKee said she finds most of her work outside of Morris-Baker.

“A lot of where we use Kibbi is actually out in the community,” said McKee. “It’s doing things like fundraising walks and going to the hospital. We started taking her to the grief camps.”

McKee said part of Kibbi’s job at the funeral home is to help people who are grieving manage their stress.

“People, when they’re here, they’re in pretty high stress situations, and just to have something come in like that can kind of get them out of that moment and give them a little bit of a break from the stress,” said McKee.

Kibbi isn’t the only dog helping out in a funeral home, though.

Emmie is a 1-year-old goldendoodle who spends her days working at Hamlett-Dobson Funeral Home in Kingsport.

Carson Correll, Emmie’s owner and a funeral director at Hamlett-Dobson, said while Emmie is good with all funeral home visitors, she is especially good with children, and is often used to help keep them company during funeral arrangement meetings.

“As long as you’ll play with her she’ll play with you, so she’ll sit there and keep children occupied while their parents have to make these decisions about those who have passed,” said Correll.

Emmie is still in the process of becoming a certified therapy dog. Correll said he hopes to have her fully certified by the end of the summer, but said she’s already doing a great job at comforting nervous people at the funeral home.

“It’s their first contact with us,” said Correll. “They may not have been in a funeral home before, they may be a little bit nervous about things, and we find that she’s really good at coming in and greeting you, and she’ll kind of just make it feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Little Richie, an 11-month-old goldendoodle, is another soon-to-be therapy dog working at Tetrick Funeral Home.

Little Richie’s owner, Laura Graham, who does community outreach for Tetrick, said the funeral home decided to get a therapy dog at the recommendation of the National Funeral Directors Association.

“They just help relieve the stress that you’re going through a little bit, and make it a little bit easier for you to endure that time you’re going through,” said Graham.

While Little Richie has taken classes, Graham said he’s still got a ways to go, namely overcoming his fear of squeaking wheels, before he becomes a certified therapy dog.

Despite not yet being certified, Little Richie is still available upon request at Tetrick, and visitors are encouraged to ask to meet him.

“We have seen the positivity of having them in the funeral home and how much they do help the people when they come through,” said Graham. “I mean, we’ve had them come back from the cemetery and they’ve stopped at the grocery store and bought him treats.”

Graham said one Tetrick client even mentioned him by name in a review.

“That made me see that he is kind of earning his daily bread, he is affecting people’s lives and bringing them comfort when they are going through a great time of grief,” said Graham.

According to their owners, all three dogs have been well received, and are available to come to funeral arrangement meetings and visitation services at their respective funeral homes by request, which for dog lovers may shed a little light on a dark time.

“Every single person that I have come into contact with has just been excited to see her,” said Correll. “We have found that she has totally brought a light to the funeral home that we did not use to have.”