The Cocke County Legislative Body spent time again talking about issues with the overtime in the Cocke County Fire Department at it’s Tuesday evening meeting. Commissioner Forest Clevenger has expressed concern that the overtime costs have exceeded the budgeted funding. He said $90,000 has been spent in overtime this year.

But Fire Chief Keith Large said the budget issue arose because the body last year slashed $77,000 from his budget request, leaving a shortage in funding. He said to hire nine additional firefighters (three per shift) would cost $370,000 annually.

Eventually, the body agreed to transfer monies within the budget to overtime, plus an additional $34,000 was transferred from the General Fund. Finance Manager Heather McGaha said the move will cover costs at the fire department till the end of March.

Clevenger also suggested that fire districts be established. He pointed out that Newport has it’s own fire department and property owners in the city should not have to fund the county fire department. The commissioner said such a move would cut the property tax rate by 18 cents, however then residents would be billed an additional fee to cover fire protection in their district.

Clevenger also suggested that the department bill insurance companies when they respond to a call that is covered by insurance.

The body approved the establishment of a Board of Sanitation to oversee the operation of the county landfill and convenience centers. The yet to be appointed members are to be paid $50 for each meeting they attend.

Also a Recreation Board was approved to oversee county recreation. CLB Chair Clay Blazer appointed Jan Brooks, Jason martin, Ricky Morris, Jeff Gentry and Mitchell “Butch” Phillips to the board.

Brittany Vick has resigned as county attorney and so another lawyer will be appointed in the near future. The body approved a lease agreement for the building adjacent to Diane’s Beauty Shop on Broadway, for storage of archive documents.

At the request of Sheriff Armando Fontes, the body voted to accept the donation of bulletproof vests for the sheriff’s department’s two K9’s.

Partnership President Lucas Graham reported that everything that could have been done to keep Conagra in Newport, had been done. The firm announced last week that it will close it’s Newport operation in January 2021, leaving 350 workers unemployed.

Graham said the discussion now is centering on how to assist the employees who will be out of a job. Current employees also have been offered incentives to stay until production is shut down. And he said work is underway to find a firm to go into the plant.

“The sad reality of it is that what typically takes three years to close a deal to replace a company like Conagra, a large employer, we have to figure out how to do that in 12 months,” he told the body. “ So I don’t want to sugar coat it. We have a challenge ahead of us, it’s not going to be easy. But there is no reason to whine about it, we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

There have been ongoing discussions about a wheel tax to provide additional revenue for the county. Such a tax can be implemented by the commission or it can be put to a referendum. If the CLB does pass such a tax it can be sent to a referendum through a petition process.

Commissioner David Veridal said the county is in need of a new jail, and that responsibility lies with the CLB not the citizenry. And so he suggested it is the responsibility to implement a wheel tax rather than to send to issue to the ballot.