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County again delays annex decision

Loudon County Commission is taking a step back in hopes of getting detailed information on options for a new courthouse annex.

After lengthy discussion, commissioners voted Monday to have architectural firm Michael Brady Inc., develop a side-by-side comparison on costs for a structure on the old Bacon Creamery property in Loudon and on the current Loudon County Courthouse site.

Commissioners Kelly Littleton-Brewster and Van Shaver initially motioned and seconded, respectively, to consider those options and the justice center property at Highway 11 and Sugarlimb Road. However, Littleton-Brewster made an amendment, seconded by Commissioner Matthew Tinker, because the justice center land is located outside the county seat of Loudon. The amendment passed 8-2, with Shaver and Commissioners Harold Duff opposing.

A formal vote on the motion as amended passed 7-3, with Shaver, Duff and Commissioner Julia Hurley opposing.

“I think MBI’s going to be getting us a detailed cost and idea of what each location’s going to cost and I think that’s important if we can go to the old courthouse and 10,000 or 15,000 (square feet) — hopefully 10,000 can go in the back and save us $3 million, I don’t know,” Adam Waller, county commissioner, said. “... Maybe a little hallway connecting too so we don’t put it right against the old courthouse, I don’t know. That’s why I’m curious to see what they come back with.”

Commission during its December workshop discussed at length the creamery property, but Waller said public comment Monday was a factor in the county’s decision to take a step back.

“I think hearing from the sheriff in terms of what he thinks, operating costs, but I also don’t want to forget what the court systems need in terms of Lisa Niles and Steve Harrelson and we can’t leave out what they need so their needs need to be met in whatever we do either place,” Waller said. “There’s a lot of things to consider.”

MBI representatives Jay Henderlight and David Matlock were present Monday. Loudon and Loudon Utilities Board representatives were also present.

Henderlight initially said evaluations for all three initial properties, including the justice center, could be at least $20,000 apiece.

Henry Cullen, commission chairman, said the county budget committee will meet again Jan. 21. He hopes to have funding for the evaluation figured out in time for the February workshop.

Cullen said too many questions were unanswered to give the creamery site “blanket approval.”

“And then $7 million. Can you do it for $7 million?” Cullen said. “... I think we’ve got to take a deep look. A lot of people are rushing off the bridge, ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ I’m not there.”

Commissioners in June authorized issuance of debt for up to a $7 million bond.

Commissioner David Meers initially motioned to open dialogue with LUB on the old creamery site, but he later withdrew the motion for lack of support. He sees benefits in getting more information on both sites.

“If you have a breakdown, if you have matrix, both proposals, I think it could give us solid information to make a decision that would be best for the county,” Meers said.

Shaver opposed both votes and maintained his desire for the justice center property.

“At this point, if the justice center is out then obviously people are making decisions not what’s best for our men and women in our uniform but they’re making political decisions,” Shaver said. “It’s disappointing to say the least. There’s still a long way to go. This could still change again. I’d like to think more reasonable minds will come together, and the justice center is the really only logical place to go.”

In other news, Loudon County Commission:

• Removed a Priority Ambulance contract on the agenda so that it could be discussed more this month.

• Approved a resolution to consent and authorize execution of a license and lease agreement between Loudon County, Loudon Utilities Board and Loudon.

• Passed board and committee term updates for the Loudon County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Construction Board of Adjustment & Appeals, Planning & Zoning Study Appeals (ad hoc) and Loudon County Visitors Bureau Board of Directors.

• Authorized a bond resolution for Tellico Area Service Systems and passed a resolution for the county to submit a 2020 Community Development Block Grant application for TASS.

• Amended the county’s zoning resolution, article 7, pertaining to administration and enforcement of Tennessee Code Annotated, section 13-7-105.

• Agreed to send a letter to Gov. Bill Lee opposing refugee resettlement.

• Accepted a $5,000 donation for the construction of a cattery at Loudon County Animal Shelter.

• Approved application and acceptance of $25,000 technology no-match grant for the Loudon County Elections Commission office.

• Amended the County General Fund by increasing full-time staff by one employee and reducing part-time staff by one employee in sessions court.

• Passed reclassification of employee rank structure for the sheriff’s office and jail. Commission increased patrol corporals by one and decreased patrol deputies by one. Three corrections sergeants were added, while three corrections officers were decreased.

Slow progress on U.S. 321 project

Drivers traveling at the intersection of U.S. Highways 321 and 11 in Lenoir City have noticed recent updates and should see more additions later this month.

Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Nagi said the project is on time and should be fully completed by late spring or early summer.

The project includes improving the intersection with signage, greenery and sidewalks and widening two miles of road of U.S. 321 from U.S. Highway 11 to Simpson Road East.

“The contractor has completed paving and striping, and traffic has been placed in the final configuration,” Nagi said in an email correspondence. “The only remaining work on the widening section is placement of permanent signs. The contractor has been installing curb, sidewalk and landscaping on the northern side of the intersection. They have also installed two of the Lenoir City welcome signs.”

The next phase includes the addition of new utilities and storm drainage systems at the intersection.

“The contractor will mobilize equipment to begin installing storm drainage and utilities,” Nagi said. “This work will begin the week of Jan. 5, 2020, weather permitting. No lane closures were allowed from Dec. 20, 2019, to Jan. 2, 2020. Once utilities and drainage are in place, the contractor will begin grading operations for the widened lanes. Once grading is complete, the contractor will begin installation of curb, sidewalk and signal foundations. They hope to begin paving early spring, weather permitting.”

The project was originally scheduled for completion June 30 but was previously extended due to unforeseen delays, including a “sinkhole remediation and several utility conflicts with roadway features and the local water main,” Nagi said.

Another delay involved the relocation of AT&T fiber optic cables that crossed underneath U.S. 321, which required 255 days of reinstallation and testing. Nagi said that phase was completed Dec. 20.

“The (U.S.) 321 itself, they’re finishing up the lighting and finishing up with some signage,” Tony Aikens, Lenoir City mayor, said. “The fiber optic signalization, the state actually has the paperwork now and will be getting that approved, and people will start to see better traffic flow once the fiber optic signalization is installed. We think that will be early to the middle summer when that’s completed. That fiber optic signalization will be on 321 and Broadway, so you’re going to see better improvement once that’s installed, and, of course, the intersection will be completed by then.”

Aikens admits the process has been long and frustrating for drivers, but he believes the project will be well worth it in the end.

“Anytime they complete one phase of it, and they’re beginning to put up landscaping and it’s going to be nice when it’s completed ... and look, I know it’s been very painful to people,” he said. “I go through there a dozen times a day myself, but once it’s completed and people are just a little more patient and once the finishing touches are done and everything’s completed, they’re going to be very satisfied with it. People, I think, are really going to be impressed with it once it’s completed.”

Jail addition almost done

Loudon County’s jail expansion is nearing its conclusion after more than 18 months of construction.

Joe Lane, project superintendent with Rouse Construction, said the facility is 95 percent complete.

“All we lack is the security electronics, the locks and some security glass, ceiling tile,” Lane said.

Representatives were eyeing a January completion date, but some late additions have pushed the project back to the second week of February, Lane said. The decision was made after recent meetings with county officials.

“There were some just life safety changes to ensure that the prisoners are safe during an emergency,” he said. “... They added smoke detectors in the day rooms so that the smoke evacuation system will be set off earlier in the event of a fire.”

Weather has also played a role in the project that officially broke ground May 7, 2018.

“We lost two weeks from weather over the course of the job,” Lane said. “... And then they’re allowing us a couple of weeks for the life safety changes and then they allowed us another week for the parking lot. There was a change to the parking lot. ... There’s a separate lot out front that they’ve added.”

Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider is “impressed” with how work has gone so far. He hopes the addition will serve Loudon County for years to come.

“Obviously, give us some stability at the jail, certainly us some breathing room,” Guider said. “I think it’s going to be more humane for not only the inmates but also the corrections staff.”

Total project cost is $17.5 million, with construction costing $16.25 million. The facility will have 264 beds, which includes 193 new male beds and 71 female beds. There’s also room for future expansion.

The addition should ease an overcrowded jail population, which Loudon County Sheriff’s Office Jail Administrator Lt. Jake Keener in August said reached 215. The jail is certified for 91 inmates.

As of Dec. 23, the jail had 150 inmates.

Hopes are to have an open house once the building is complete before inmates are moved over. Guider has inquired with Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw, contractor Rouse Construction and architectural firm Michael Brady Inc., to see if that would be possible.

“I certainly believe that the public has the right to view what their taxpayer dollars are going for — before the inmates are moved over there, of course,” Guider said.

Bradshaw believes the expansion has been a “long time coming.”

“I’m excited about it to tell you the least,” he said. “Overall, for us to finally get it done, finally get it behind us, you know, this has spanned over several years and two administrations as far as the mayor’s office goes. To be able to get that completion date there and be on top of it and be ready to move forward for the next chapter is exciting.”

He hopes an expansion will not be needed any time soon.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where we’re full and we are talking the same things we’ve talked about with overcrowding before it’s ever paid for, or at least close to being paid for,” Bradshaw said. “Hopefully we’ll have some, I guess, options moving forward. Of course, the No. 1 thing right now is the opioid maybe moving we’ll be able to find some option or some sort of aid to try to deter that and slow that down a little bit and help us to control the population.”

Habitat partners on new campaign

Loudon County Habitat for Humanity is gearing up to work alongside national, state and local policymakers to improve opportunities for affordable housing with the new Cost of Home campaign.

“We’ve always been about advocacy,” Sandi Byrd, Loudon County director of resource development, said. “We’ve always used that as a way to explain what we do and have people understand the fact that there’s not affordable housing because not everybody realizes that. You’ve got a nice, warm home to go to every night, and you don’t think about the fact that your county has thousands of families that don’t have affordable housing.”

Habitat’s “2018 State of Affordable Housing in the United States” shows one in six households spend more than half of their income on housing.

The organization connects the growing statistic with increased housing costs and growing income inequality. On a national level, a $22.10 per hour wage, or a $45,960 salary, is needed to afford “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom apartment in the United States rather than the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or $15,080 annually. Habitat says there is a shortage of more than 7 million affordable and available homes for “extremely low-income renters in the U.S.”

In Tennessee, the statistics are lower, but still draw concern.

Based on information from Habitat’s “2019 State of Affordable Housing in Tennessee,” one in nine households spend more than half their income on housing. Like the national level, a higher hourly wage is needed to afford a “fair market rent” two-bedroom apartment, at $15.74 per hour or $32,740 per year. There is a shortage of 133,582 affordable and available homes for “extremely low-income renters” in the state.

Loudon County’s hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent is higher than the state average at $16.44 per hour or $34,200 per year, according to a study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach 2019.”

A five-year national advocacy campaign will promote policy change for production of affordable homes, inclusive access to credit, equitable access to land and communities of opportunity.

Though the campaign is geared toward national improvements in affordable housing, Tony Gibbons, Loudon County executive director, believes more direct focus will better the county’s shortfall.

“In Loudon County we have good support from the local leaders when to comes to affordable housing,” Gibbons said in an email correspondence. “More can be done locally, so I see this national campaign helping with efforts in Loudon (County). Unfortunately, there is little happening with new housing developments that specifically help lower-income households. We need more ‘rooftops’ for local families paying high rent and living in deplorable conditions.”

Byrd believes several factors impact locally, such as a lack of housing, land and credit opportunities.

“We have a similar situation that they do around the country in that families have to spend so much of their incomes on housing that it makes them difficult to provide food, transportation, all the other things if they’re spending more than half their income on housing, when you and I know it should be more like 25 or 30 (percent),” Byrd said. “There’s a housing shortage. The average rent in our county is maybe over $1,000, and you think about a family of four who’s trying to live on a very, very low income — they can’t afford that. They’re constantly looking — either living with family or parents or just trying to find something. Living in a trailer that’s not very well kept and it’s in deplorable condition but they can get into it and live there. It’s a really big problem in our county.”

Although Habitat builds houses for those in need, the organization has also focused on maintenance and repairs of distressed homes.

“(The Cost of Home campaign is) very important for us, especially now, because land is at a premium in Loudon County,” Byrd said. “We watch all the time for land that’s being sold or auctioned off, and, quite frankly, the economy is starting to build so builders get out there and beat us to it because they can out-bid us. We’re always looking for land or for people to donate land so that we can build more houses. Right now, we’re doing as much of the critical repairs as we are the building the new houses.”

The maintenance and repair process could come in handy for future housing, especially for new workers. Gibbons believes creating new affordable spaces for new workers to live could be a benefit.

“Affordable workforce and entry level housing is also needed for expanding and recruiting businesses,” he said. “We have existing housing stock that can be preserved through home renovation and modification as well. Despite being in an area of the country where the cost of living is lower, we still have issues with affordable home ownership and rent.”

The campaign’s utmost goal is to work with officials to ensure affordable housing exists.

“It’s mainly wanting to change policies and procedures and make our government officials understand more about it so things change and credit is more available so that the supplies are more available and the preservation,” Byrd said. “We do a lot of critical repair projects, so ripping and tearing something down, we can make it accessible to families and they can stay in their homes. Land use, making more land available for housing rather than something else. Those kinds of things are the kinds of things we’re going to be working with the city and county on, and even on the state level and the national level, because we do advocacy there as well to try to make those things more accessible to us so we can provide more affordable housing.”