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Funds for buying development rights to preserve green space, sheriff’s office upgrade to firing range focus of March commission meeting

The idea of preserving farmland and open green spaces to keep Blount County beautiful got nothing but support at the Blount County Commission meeting.

Until the question of funding the program came into focus.

On the agenda at last Thursday’s (March 20) commission meeting was the funding of the Growth Management Advisory Committee that the commission formed in June of 2007. A program under that entity to buy development rights on property to help keep more greenspace caught some negative feedback at the meeting.

The Growth Management Advisory Committee was charged with recommending a program and funding sources to procure development rights of farmland and open green space. When the committee’s chairman Jonathan Sitzlar reported at the March 11 commission workshop, one of the funding mechanisms mentioned was to increase the hotel/motel tax rate from 4 to 5 percent and use one-half of a percent to help fund the program.

Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said that while he supports the idea of saving land from development, he didn’t support funding a program to do so out of a 1 cent increase in the hotel/motel tax reserved for the bureau’s mission of drawing tourists to the area.

“We want to see this happen,” Handly said of the committee’s goals. “We think it’s good for Blount County. We just don’t believe using tourism dollars is the right way.”

Commissioner Mark Hasty didn’t understand why Handly was hesitant. “Don’t the two go together? Why would you be opposed to a 1 cent increase?” he asked.

Handly said the dollars raised through the hotel/motel tax have a purpose. “We use those dollars to market Blount County for tourism,” he said.

Handly said there is stiff competition to attract tourists to Blount County. Pigeon Forge has their convention and visitor’s bureau, as does Gatlinburg, but those towns also have attractions like Dollywood, WonderWorks and Ripley’s Aquarium that also spend millions to market those areas. “The only thing we have to promote Blount County as a destination is the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau,” he said.

Sitzlar said the money from hotel/motel tax is is just one way to fund the effort. “We recognize the importance of tourism,” he said.

Not everyone supported the idea of the county buying property development rights at all. Gordon Wright, a Blount County property owner who has developed subdivisions in the past, said he was speaking on behalf of other property owners who weren’t in favor of any proposal to create a county program to buy development rights on property.

Wright said the group of property owners recently organized to stand against the county’s initiatives to buy development rights on land. “We feel the county doesn’t have any business getting into the business of buying property development rights,” Wright said.

Wright said buying development rights takes land off the property tax rolls. “That creates a deficit. When you do that, it has to be made up. When you do that, you create an extra tax burden. It’s going to create a higher tax burden on our children.”

Commissioner Steve Samples said the matter needed to be discussed elsewhere and not during full commission meeting. “This is a matter that needs to come before the Budget Committee,” he said. In a voice vote, the item was sent to the Budget Committee.

Regarding the budget, commissioners discussed a $173,500 transfer of funds to the education department. Commissioner Mike Walker said he was concerned because this transfer makes about half a million dollars that has been sent to the schools above what they were approved for at the beginning of the fiscal year.

“I understand the need, but the economy is not doing good, and this is going to have a direct impact. It’s going to come back to bite us,” he said.

Troy Logan with the Blount County schools said the funds were for a variety of expenses, including a new portable classroom for Porter Elementary School.

Commissioner John Keeble said this is the kind of expense the commission should expect. “Until we get another school built, we’re going to have to go through the expense of having portables moved in,” Keeble said.

The commission voted in favor of transferring the funds to the schools. Commissioners then questioned Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett and Assistant Chief Deputy Jeff French regarding the proposal to upgrade the existing Blount County Sheriff’s Office firing range facility.

At issue was an approval of funds of almost $700,000 to upgrade the current firing range and target system owned by the Blount County Sheriff’s Office. The upgrade is in partnership with the Air National Guard, which received federal funding in the amount of $700,000 for a firing range and target system to be located at the Blount County training area. The BCSO has to oversee the project, and order materials.

In a letter of explanation, Bennett wrote, “These ANG funds would be transferred to Blount County Government and the Blount County Sheriff’s Office would pay the bills from these funds for materials. No Blount County tax money would be used.”

Opposition centered around the process and contracts, with questions about liability, scheduling and maintenance. Comments from the public included Jim Folts, who took issue with a contract the county mayor signed in March of 2007 for a new construction project at the firing range, taking issue with the mayor signing the contract before it was brought before commission.

Bennett explained that the mayor has the authority to sign such agreements, but they are not executed until approved by commission.

Judy Dixon, a neighbor who lives near the shooting range, shared concerns about the noise and law enforcement vehicles driving too fast on the narrow road leading to the facility. “The speeding drivers are often rude,” said Dixon. “Before they spend all this money, fix these problems first. Plant trees and do what is necessary to reduce noise,” she said.

Commissioner Monika Murrell asked if Risk Management had been consulted regarding the project, and Sheriff James Berrong said it had been approved by Risk Management. The additional training capacity would lesson liability, he said.

The commissioners voted 16 - 4 to allocate $691,642 to upgrade the facility in partnership with the ANG. Commissioners David Graham, Monika Murrell, Bob Proffitt and Wendy Pitts Reeves voted against the measure.

Commissioners also discussed reforming the Education Committee, which was dissolved in February when the commission went to a full commission workshop format.

Keeble made the motion to reinstitute the Education Committee. Several commissioners said they liked the idea of being able to get more involved and have more input regarding the schools by having the committee. Commissioner Mike Walker said it could lead to duplication of efforts. The committee was reinstituted by a vote of 19 - 1 with Walker dissenting.

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