Commission hears woes caused by fire, looks at streams, pediatric care and committee meetings

Martha Ridings wants a new home and says the county should pay for it. She said the county should pay more than $100,000 for causing a fire that destroyed her Walland home.

During the Feb. 21 county commission meeting, Ridings recounted how a Blount County Highway Department truck struck a power line, causing a fire that destroyed her uninsured home on Sept. 6, 2007.

The government tort liability act says on personal injury the county has exposure of up $300,000 and for property damage exposure up to $100,000. That means that the county only pays $100,000 on property damage.

Ridings said it would be difficult to build a home for $100,000. Today, she is living in a trailer on the property. “I live in a trailer that has a tarp on it because it leaks. The stove and furnace don’t work, and I have no bathroom and no hot water,” she said.

Realtor/builder Ace Sandlin said after the meeting that Riding’s home was appraised at $117,728 and that if the county would at least give that much, he might be able to build Riding’s a home. “I could probably build it,” he said.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said Blount County Risk Management had made Ridings an offer of $157,000 not realizing they were limited to $100,000.

“The offer exceeded their authority,” Cunningham said. “In any event, she turned it down, got a lawyer and that put everything back to square one.”

Blount County Risk Manager Don Stallions said the tort liability act was put in place years ago so counties could continue to do business with liability to pay if the county caused damage to citizens. The county is self-insured as opposed to being fully insured through an insurance company. The money to self-insure the county comes from a fund.

“We pay directly out of our account. As with any county account, the state regulates what we can and can’t do. That’s what the tort liability act is,” Stallions said.

Because Ridings’ comments were part of the “Input for items not on the agenda,” no action was taken.

In other business before the commission, the commissioners discussed stream setbacks, children’s pediatric care, eliminating committee meetings and hashing out a new charter for the Blount County Children’s Home.

The setback that commissioners were to vote on was to protect water quality in streams throughout the unincorporated county by creating a buffer near streams. Justin Teague, storm water coordinator for Blount County, said the county could be fined by the state for not having a setback ordinance. Teague said the Knox County setback is 50 feet. On average, stream setbacks in surrounding counties have been between 35 to 50 feet, he said.

“It’s a federal mandate that we have a buffer program adopted in our storm water program,” he said.

Linda King of Blount County spoke out against the measure. “A resolution like this is an open dictation of usage of a person’s private property,” she said. “You should step back and study the proposal.”

Gordon Wright of Blount County said there was no mitigation clause for special circumstances and no appeals process. “It would present a hardship to our residents,” he said.

Wright spoke out against a 50-foot setback. “A 5-foot setback would be a big improvement. I’d be first in line to protect our streams and mountains,” he said.

When commissioners discussed the issue, commissioner Ron French said he disagreed with creating the setback. “I am not in favor of giving a third party control of anyone else’s property,” he said.

Samples made a motion to table the resolution adopting the setback, and it passed 16 to 4.

Caring for children of county employees brought more discussion. Commissioners discussed the planned start up of pediatric care for dependents of county employees at the county employee clinic in the Blount County Justice Center.

Dr. Tim Thurston, a long-time area pediatrician, spoke out against the county providing the care, saying it was not of the quality care the children would receive from a pediatrician. “We find it unfortunate our patients are steered away from our office and steered toward doctors who are not pediatricians,” he said. “We attempt to compete on quality, not cost.”

County employee and parent Julie Talbott spoke up in favor of giving county employees the choice of having a clinic. “I feel parents know what is best for their children and know if they need to go to a clinic or if they need to seek more professional help,” she said.

Commissioner David Graham made a motion to refer the issue to the Human Resources committee so as to give commissioners more time to discuss and study providing the service.

Commissioner Gary Farmer asked what would happen when general practice doctors protested that the clinic wasn’t providing adequate care to adults. Commissioner Mike Walker echoed Farmer’s concern. “You’re getting ready to open a can of worms,” he said but Graham disagreed.

“Pediatricians didn’t open a can of worms. They didn’t get a seat at the table until this decision was made,” Graham said.

Commissioner Mark Hasty spoke up in favor of providing the pediatric service to dependents of county employees. “I just see this as another benefit to county employees. It gives a choice,” he said. The motion to refer the issue to committee failed. The clinic will begin seeing children on March 1.

The debate on adopting a new charter for the Blount County Children’s Home was successfully tabled and referred to the March meeting.

Commissioner Steve Samples made a motion to refer the proposal to the March 20 meeting, saying he had attended a meeting earlier in the day with the mayor, the chairman of the children’s home board and the home’s attorney to discuss the charter resolution. “It became obvious there is common ground,” he said.

Samples also moved to allow the county mayor and his attorney to negotiate with the children’s home regarding the resolution. “I think that saves the children’s home money and the county money,” he said.

The commission passed the measure. Terry Elmore, children’s home board chairman, said tabling the measure gives them more time to prepare. “We do have common ground, but there’s still things to work on,” he said.

A change in the way the commission operates also received a majority of “yes” votes. The commission addressed dissolving several committees -- such as the Beer Board, the Intergovernmental committee, the Public Services committee -- in favor of a work session 10 days before each commission meeting to deal with issues normally brought before those boards, as well as others.

Commissioner Gary Farmer supported the measure. “Hopefully this will decrease discussion in full commission meetings,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Proffitt had a concern. “What does this do to public input?”

Commissioner Mike Walker said it wouldn’t affect input. “Under normal rules, the agenda would flow as it would for any other meeting,” he said.

The measure passed 15 - 2 with one absence as commissioner Brad Harrison wasn’t present.

Mayor Cunningham said the move would get rid of repetition and duplication. “Plus each commissioner is going to be a member of the work session,” he said. “It just makes sense. It streamlines things.”

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