After numerous comments and passionate views expressed by both sides, a majority of the Greene County Commission voted Tuesday against a resolution opposing local refugee resettlement.
In a vote of 12 against and six in favor with one abstaining and two commissioners absent, the commission rejected a resolution that sought for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to to inform federal settlement agencies which maintain operations in the state that “they may not place arriving refugees in non-consenting counties including specifically Greene County.”
The failed resolution also sought for Lee to retract his consent for initial resettlement in the state and, if he did not retract that statement, that counties be provided an exemption if they do not want to participate. The proposal also made a statement that Greene County does not want to be forced into participating in the federal refugee resettlement program.
Although there were comments from both sides, there were more members of the public who spoke against the resolution, among them one person who identified herself as a refugee.
Drocella Mugorewera told the commission that she had to flee her native Rowanda because of her political views and cannot return while the current government is in power. “America saved my life,” she said. “I will fight for this country as much as I can.”
Now a resident of Knoxville, Mugorewera said that the refugee screening is a stringent process to go through and that the refugee resettlement program is a life-saving program for many.
“The goal of the resettlement programs is to help refugees become self sufficient as people,” she said.
Richard McKinney, who said he was born in the United States but later settled in Ecuador, said he found acceptance and assistance when he moved to Greene County after returning to the United States and started a successful business.
“Greene County is one of the best places to live,” he said. “We need legal immigration, not illegal. I hope that you will vote to have legal immigrants come to Greene County.”
Resolution sponsor Commissioner Jason Cobble said the proposal was not meant as an expression of hate to foreigners and noted that he had several friends from other countries.
Rather, it was focused on allowing the county a right to choose whether it wants to participate in the refugee resettlement program, he said.
“What I don’t like is that we cannot choose who to accept and how many,” he said. “Every decision we make around this table is a trade off. It will cost us in some way or fashion.”
In researching the issue, Cobble said he was concerned after reading about towns in Michigan where Somalian refugees have formed their own communities and not assimilated into the larger culture. One news article, he said, referenced rapes of teenage girls attacked while walking through the refugee community, and he wants to prevent a similar situation in Greene County.
“I don’t want to see that happen here,” he told fellow commissioners. “I don’t think bad policy will provide for a good outcome.”
Commissioner Clifford “Doc” Bryant was a vocal supporter of the resolution. While it is good to help refugees, he said, there are Americans who need to be taken care of first.
“The proverb ‘charity starts at home’ may not come from the Bible, but it is a good one,” he said. “We need to take care of our people first and then others.”
The first to address the refugee resettlement resolution during the comment period was Buffy Seaton, who told the commission that she was in favor of the resolution, referencing the communities in Michigan where there have been issues and a concern about some refugees using that status to conceal terrorist activities against the United sates.
Seaton said that there are people in Greene County who need help before the community can welcome more people in who may need help. She quoted Matthew 7:6 in which Jesus states that jewels should not be given to the swine because they will trample them.
Scripture was quoted on both sides of the issue.
Samantha Cooper referenced Jesus’ statement in the gospels that the greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Of the 30,000 refugees allowed in the country in 2019, 79% were Christian, she said. When asked by Bryant how many were Muslim, she said she did not know but it should not matter as Christians are also called to love their enemies.
Lena Kendrick Dean, speaking on behalf of Indivisible Green County, said the organization asked the commissioners to reject the resolution.
“I am not here to appeal to your politics,” she said. “I am here to appeal to your humanity.”
The United States has a moral obligation to take in refugees, particularly from countries where it has engaged in military operations, she said.
Describing the proposed resolution as “appalling,” she said, “This resolution sends a message that Greene County is not caring and is unwelcoming.”
Adam Hughes, who volunteers with the Bridges refugee program in Knoxville, said that one of the refugees who resettled there has been recognized as having the friendliest restaurant in the nation.
“Refugees come not as a danger, but come a frightened people who just want a path to freedom,” he said.
As discussion of the resolution began, Commissioner Bill Dabbs said in listening to some of the viewpoints, he heard some prejudices against others and could not support the resolution.
Bryant responded to Dabbs’ comments.
“Yes, I am prejudiced,” he said. “I am prejudiced for America, American veterans and America first. Everyone is prejudiced against something. If you say you are not prejudiced, you are a baldfaced liar.”
The commission should not wait to learn what a judge or federal or state officials may say, as the decision of the local people is more important, Bryant said.
“We are the people,” he said.
Commissioner Robin Quillen made a motion to table the issue because of the uncertainty of what the county can or cannot do because of a federal court ruling last week and take it back up once there was a clearer definition of what could be done locally through the courts. Quillen later abstained in the vote about the resolution.
That motion failed with a vote of 10 in favor and nine against. For passage it required a majority of the entire commission membership to pass rather than a simple majority of those present.
Last week, a federal judge in Maryland issued a preliminary injunction halting an executive order by President Donald Trump requiring written consent from both the governor and the chief executive officer of the local county government for the initial resettlement of refugees into specific communities.
While Lee has given his consent to resettlement in the state of Tennessee, the federal court ruling focused on whether the president had the authority to give the state and local governments an option regarding refugee resettlement, explained Greene County Attorney Roger Woolsey.
Last week’s ruling will most likely be appealed, Woolsey said, with the argument focusing on whether authority for decisions about refugee resettlement lies with the president or with Congress.
The average inmate count was down slightly in 2019 from 2018 at the Greene County Detention Center and Workhouse.
Still, the average number of inmates remained at about 400 at any given time in 2019, presenting daily challenges to jail and workhouse staff, said Roger Willett, jail administrator.
“The median used to be at about 430 in 2017 and 2018. It’s about 400 now,” Willett said.
The combined inmate count at the jail and workhouse as of Tuesday morning was 384, including 275 men and 109 women. Of that total, 206 were housed in the jail and 172, including most of the female inmates, were in the workhouse.
The rated capacity of the jail is 167 and the workhouse capacity is 272. Bed space capacity at both facilities totals 439.
At least 90 percent of the inmate population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses or crimes committed to get drugs, a continuing trend challenging law enforcement and the justice system.
“It’s mostly (methamphetamine). I see a drop in opioids. Meth seems to be making a comeback,” Willett said.
As drug use continues to ravage some segments of the community, more women are being arrested, a trend that has been noted for several years.
“The only increase we’re seeing is in the female population,” Willett said. Modifications made several years ago at the workhouse help to accommodate the number of female inmates.
“It made a big difference,” Willett said.
There are three female inmate pods at the workhouse on West Summer Street, Willett said. One houses those charged with felonies, another for women charged with misdemeanor crimes and a third for those who work outside the facility.
Because of the increase of women inmates, Willett said hiring more female corrections officers this year is a possibility.
The Greene County Detention Center on East Depot Street was built in 1987 and was designed to house 152 inmates. As a result of jail overcrowding, the Greene County Workhouse was built and became operational in 2002.
Both have been remodeled and reconfigured over the years to fit changing needs.
Inmate pods in the jail were repainted in 2019. A major flooring renovation at the jail is currently underway, Willett said.
“You’ve got to work around the inmates in the jail,” he said.
The 33-year-old detention center requires constant maintenance, Willett said.
Proactive steps taken by administrators and Sheriff Wesley Holt have quieted talk from previous years about the need for a new county jail. The Greene County Detention Center has many of the same challenges as jails in surrounding rural counties, some of which do need expensive new facilities.
“I think (the) jail serves Greene County well. We’re tight in certain areas, but we’re not anywhere near what certain counties are experiencing,” Willett said. “It’s a struggle, and you have to look at your numbers every day.”
The jail and workhouse population currently includes 55 state inmates, some of whom have been sentenced and are awaiting transfer and others whose sentences of 2 to 3 years or less will be served in Greene County’s facilities.
Non-violent offenders are often assigned to work crews, Willett said.The county is compensated for housing the state inmates.
The Greene County Detention Center and workhouse were recertified for a third consecutive year after a July 2019 Tennessee Corrections Institute inspection.
No deficiencies were found at the jail or Workhouse Annex, according to TCI documents.
The TCI inspection includes categories such as the physical plant, administration and management, personnel, security, discipline, sanitation and maintenance, food services, mail and visiting, inmate programs and activities, and medical services.
The fact no oversight is required from the state indicates the facility is well-run, according to a letter dated July 1, 2019, to Holt from TCI Deputy Director William Wall.
The 2020 TCI inspection can happen any day, Willett said. Greene County officials receive no advance notification when an inspection is conducted, so constant upkeep and maintenance is done to ensure the facilities are in good condition.
The jail and workhouse have 84 staff members, including corrections officers, cooks, medical personnel and other employees. Willet praised their dedication.
“I’ve got a great staff. I have great officers here and they do a tremendous job,” he said.
The Greene County Board of Education will consider a proposal for the district to participate in the Comprehensive Instructional Program for Upper East Tennessee at Thursday’s meeting.
The program, modeled on a successful program in Southwest Virginia, would allow teachers in participating school systems to share successful lesson plans and materials that would be available for other instructors searching for good classroom resources.
Director of Schools David McLain said that a lack of textbooks addressing state standards means teachers are spending significant amounts of time searching for materials, and these materials, mostly found online, still may not adequately cover everything students are expected to learn.
Superintendent of Hamblen County Schools Dr. Jeff Perry, who was involved with the Comprehensive Instructional Program in Virginia and is now involved with the creation of the program for east Tennessee, said he saw similar issues in Virginia that he now sees across the state of Tennessee.
“Teachers are constantly looking for resources and materials during the school day, and all our teachers are looking for the same things,” Perry said.
Perry said he and his colleagues in Virginia hired a regional curriculum director to collect materials from successful area teachers. This material was then reviewed by a board and put online in a “one stop shop,” Perry said, where teachers throughout the region could quickly find it.
“Instead of looking in 10 different places, everything you need is in one place and was produced by some of the best teachers we have,” Perry said.
Perry said that in terms of teacher success, it isn’t just test score rankings he looks at when seeking out the most successful teachers.
Perry said teachers who have particularly challenging classrooms, due to issues like economic disadvantage, and are still making progress “have figured out something others may not have figured out about how to make sure students are mastering skills.”
Perry stressed the collaborative nature of the project.
“It’s all of us together,” Perry said. “This is too big for one person.”
Region 1 for upper east Tennessee will include school systems from Bristol to Hamblen County that choose to participate.
Perry said a steering committee will be created including representatives from each participating school system.
Perry estimates the cost would amount to $2 per student to hire the necessary personnel, like the curriculum director, who Perry hopes can be in place by the end of March.
A law firm with expertise in school funding legal action has been retained to further investigate options for the Town of Greeneville to obtain funds officials assert its school system is owed from Greene County’s education debt service.
The Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted Tuesday to retain the services of the Knoxville law firm of Owings, Wilson and Coleman to give the town its opinions of what legal recourse it may have recover the school funds.
The board also agreed to continue exploring the establishment of a municipal emergency medical service, briefly addressed the Church Street bridge project, deferred action on a request to partner with the school system and private donors to share the cost of replacing the Hal Henard Elementary School gymnasium floor, and approved a plan to improve safety at the McKee and Main streets intersection.
In question is whether the town is owed funds from the Greene County Schools’ education debt service following action last year by the Greene County Commission. The town sent an invoice last July to the county for $2.84 million, which county officials indicated they did not believe state law requires to be paid.
City Administrator Todd Smith said the Knoxville firm has much expertise from its experience in dealing some well known school funding issues in court.
“We have a very unique situation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone else has dealt with it in the state.”
The letter regarding the retainer states that charges of between $175 and $300 per hour for attorneys and $85 per hour for paralegal or law clerk will be assessed for the firm’s services.
While there is not a limit on the amount that can be charged, the research that has already been completed by City Attorney Ron Woods into the issue will reduce the amount of legwork that the firm will have to complete, Smith said.
Mayor W.T. Daniels said the firm will be able to assist the town in determining its options.
“They will give us their recommendations,” he said. “I think it is something we need to do.”
The school funding issue arose after the Greene County Commission set a single property tax rate of $2.0145 per $100 of assessed value for all landowners within the county as it approved its 2019-20 fiscal year budget in June, which would have resulted in a 16-cent increase for those inside the town over last year’s rate.
Then in August, the County Commission amended its earlier action and set separate property tax rates with the one for those inside the Greeneville limits at $1.98 per $100 of assessed value while keeping the same $2.0145 rate for those outside the town’s boundaries. That rate is a 13 cent increase for Greeneville landowners over the previous year’s rate, and a 3 cent reduction from the formerly proposed rate.
There is disagreement between county and town officials about the tax rate related to tax funding for county education debt service, with both sides having different interpretations of state law.
Tennessee Code Annotated regulates how taxes are to be shared for school operations if there are separate municipal or special school districts operated in a county besides a county school system. State law also addresses debt that is incurred for capital projects or other improvements for school systems.
According to that state statute, a county taking out a bond for a school project has two options: it can borrow enough money to give a municipal school system within its border its share based on average daily attendance or it can borrow just the funds needed for the project and only charge county property taxpayers for its repayment.
For decades, it had been the practice of the county to do the latter, setting two property tax rates for those within and outside Greeneville in relation to the education debt service for the Greene County School System.
As according to state law, the “inside” rate for those in Greeneville was determined by separating the amount of taxes that would be designated for use in payment of debt service for the county school system.
When individual bonds or loans in the debt service were retired, the tax rate inside the city was adjusted to reflect the reduction of the amount the county had to use from property tax, thus causing increases in that rate. A debt was retired in the 2018-19 fiscal year year, which accounted for between 3-4 cents of the debt service, which would have resulted in an increase in the tax rate for those in Greeneville of that amount if that pattern had been followed.
However, during the county’s budget approval process, local sales tax revenue was designated for use to make the debt service payment rather than property tax.
With the single tax rate, the town asserted that the county has to share a portion of the existing county debt service with the Greeneville school system based on the average daily attendance.
The outstanding Greene County School System debt service at the time was $8.8 million, and the $2.84 million was calculated by multiplying the total debt by the Greeneville School System’s average student daily attendance percentage of .323.
The county disagreed with the town’s interpretation of the state law. Following the commission meeting where the the tax rate was revised, Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison said the county had been advised setting two separate rates would strengthen its legal standing.