Commission to stay at 15; justice center debate resumes

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By Jennifer Caldwell

With the March 1 deadline looming as to how many commissioners will comprise the commission, the group took one more stab at the issue.

Citing increased productivity and cost savings as his reasons for proposing action to reduce the number of commissioners from three to two per district at last Monday’s workshop, Commissioner Johnny Joe Dower followed through with a motion to do just that at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

After making repeated appearances on the group’s agenda over the past two years little discussion took place prior to the Tuesday vote.

While most commissioners refrained from comment, Commissioner Lynn Letner offered a statement on the matter.

“The perception of the general public is that this will save money, but that’s not been the plan based on past agenda items,” Letner said pointing to suggestions by his colleagues to use the savings produced by a smaller board to fund raises for the remaining commissioners.

Commissioner Johnny Bruce, who had success when he introduced action to reduce the commission two years ago, said he was still in favor of a 10 commissioner board, but would not support pay increases.

“I will vote for the 10 commissioners, but I will not vote to raise commissioner salaries,” Bruce said.

When the motion was put to a vote, the action failed in a 7-7 tie vote.

Commissioners took another walk down memory lane when Dower opened discussion about plans for a proposed justice center. Although the topic once dominated the group’s meetings it has been absent from meeting agendas since funding for the project was vetoed by Mayor William Baird in early 2009.

“We’ve been dragging our feet and I think we need to do something about this,” Dower said as he proposed the commission seek guidance from Jeff Marlow, finance director, on how much money is available for such a project.

Following Dower’s comments, confusion arose among the group as they debated what action needed to be taken.

Although Dower initially suggested obtaining the dollar amount the county could afford to put into a justice center, talk quickly turned to soliciting bids.

Commission attorney Kathy Parrott explained that Marlow was not requesting permission to put the project out for bid, but instead wanted to do a solicitation to find out how much it would cost.

Commissioner Adrion Baird weighed in on the issue arguing that allowing Marlow to go through with the solicitation was indicative of the commission’s support for the building.

“There must be an intent that the commission is going forward with the justice center,” Baird said in response to the suggestion that Marlow be allowed to check into the cost of the center.

County attorney Joe Coker attempted to shed some light on the situation by reporting on his communications with Marlow.

“All he was really wanting was authorization to find out how much it (a justice center) is going to cost and then find out if you want to do it,” Coker explained.

Commissioner Bobby White commented that the commission was getting ahead of itself by allowing Marlow to go forward with a cost analysis for the project.

“It seems like we are getting the cart before the horse. We have been working of this for four years, but Mr. Marlow doesn’t know what the commission wants to build,” White said rehashing multiple scenarios for the building that have been discussed over the years.

Expressing a desire to move forward with the new facility, Commissioner Ann Smith added her thoughts to the discussion.

“I think we have put this off too long. These men sitting in the back with the badges on are the ones facing the problems. I’ll sit outside the courthouse with a tin cup to raise money for the jail if I have to,” Smith told her colleagues.

When Chairman David Young called for an end to debate the group vote 8-6 in favor allowing Marlow to go ahead with the solicitation.

In other business the group decided on a process for selecting a replacement for the recently vacated second district constable position. Commissioner voted to make applications for the post available in Baird’s office. A deadline of March 8 at 4 p.m. was set for receiving the applications. Commissioner will then discuss the applicants at the March workshop.

Tentative dates were also set for a public meeting hosted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation on the proposed traffic light to be installed at the intersection of Highway 63 and Old Middlesboro Highway. Baird agreed to contact TDOT with the proposed dates of March 9 or March 11 at 5 p.m. at LaFollette Middle School.