First days

New mayor begins tenure with resolutions, cell phone savings

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

It’s been more than a month since former U.S. attorney Jerry Cunningham was sworn in as Blount County mayor. In his 30 days, the new mayor has drafted two resolutions to present to the County Commission on Oct. 19 that support two amendments to the Tennessee state constitution and has changed the county’s cell phone plan to one that he says will offering savings of up to $90,000 annually.

The two resolutions support freezing property taxes for senior citizens and upholding the sanctity of marriage.

"I support both resolutions whole heartedly," Cunningham said. Copies of the resolutions were in the packets prepared for the Oct. 19 County Commission meeting. The full text of the resolutions can be found on the Blount Today website at www.BlountToday.com.

According to Cunningham, the tax relief act has been compared to the Homestead Act in Florida. It could give relief they’re looking for and help those 65 or older and keep property taxes from going up, he said.

If the amendment passes, seniors would not see a property tax increase between appraisals, even if the tax rate increases.

"The only down side in it is we will attract more retirees, and I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. We’ve got wonderful people. Becoming a retirees’ Mecca - that might not be what’s best for Blount County after a certain saturation point," Cunningham said.

Regarding the marriage resolution, Cunningham said that on a personal level, he strongly believes marriage is ordained by God to be between a man and a woman.

"My Christian ethics dictates that," he said. "My constituents out there, 99 percent or better, believe there should be a ban on gay or same sex marriage, and I strongly support the community on it."

The state resolutions will be on the November ballot.

"These resolutions reflect what constituents are telling us," Cunningham said. "They want it expressed in no uncertain terms, there’s no in-between. If you allow gay marriage, it’s the wrong message to children. I see where gay groups are going to put $6 million to $10 million to defeat this.

"I think Blount County people are not homophobic and fully support equal treatment for all folks regardless of race, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation," he said. "We’re talking about individual rights versus recognition of same sex marriage, which doesn’t sit well with 99 percent of the people in Blount County. This is Tennessee, not Massachusetts."

Cunningham said he hopes all 21 of the commissioners will co-sponsor both resolutions.

Cunningham said a new phone deal with the county with wireless phone provider Verizon for all the county’s cellular phones will save the county "80,000 to $90,000 annually."

"We contracted with Verizon. All cell phones in the county are to be through Verizon," he said. "We’re estimating savings of $80,000 to $90,000 annually."

According to Cunningham, department heads will have open cell phone packages with 57,000 shared minutes. Other
employees will have restricted packages, he said.
"
It’s an immense savings," he said. "We’ve done a lot of things in a month’s time."

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said the phone deal also improves the communications abilities of deputies because many only had pagers. The new Verizon cell phones replace those pagers.

"There are 150 or so deputies who had pagers. For those 150 people, we’re paying $3,000 a month for phone service. They’ll have a cell phone instead of a pager. It will be restricted," he said.

Bennett said they also will be able to call other Verizon phones, whether it be to other deputies or to their own family members. Bennett said nights 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. and weekends also will be free.

Cunningham said, "It’s really going to enhance the mission of the sheriff’s office. Being on the road they can talk to each other Verizon to Verizon, giving them more capability to communicate."

Cunningham also wants to improve how county records are maintained and stored. He praised records custodian Jackie Glenn for her work in dealing with records. Currently records are kept in the courthouse basement and at the closed Everett High School. Records at the courthouse could be moved to Hubbard School which has four large classrooms, a new roof,
and an up to date sprinkler system. "We’re going to free up space in the courthouse," he said.

Cunningham said he and his team are starting the process of hiring an emergency management director. "We’ve got to do something about that quickly," he said.

Cunningham also said he’s been impressed with the county’s benefits program and their clinic concept. Bennett said a wellness initiative is starting for county employees which will involve a fitness program. Cunningham said employees who stay with an exercise program will be rewarded with one day off personal leave per year.

Cunningham said he has been praised for using his personal vehicle rather than expecting the county to buy him a vehicle. "I think I set an example of frugality that has resounded well," he said. "My office is being redecorated, but the expense have been donated and not cost the taxpayers a dollar."

Cunningham said he’s been very pleased with the professionalism shown by the staffers at the courthouse.

"I’ve been impressed. There’s no lollygagging. This bunch works from the time they get here to the time they leave. They’re
very dedicated," he said.

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