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/Ben Garrett

About Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist and web designer from East Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau region. He and his wife, Melanie, reside on the edge of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area outside Oneida, where he is the editor of the local newspaper and she is a fourth grade teacher. The couple have two children, twins Toby and Rachel, and a mutt dog, Scooter, who thinks he's a pedigree. Views expressed here are the author's and none other. Contact: bengarrett at highland dot net.

A fight over a ‘road to nowhere’

Litton Covered Bridge Road east of Huntsville hasn't been touched by a road maintenance crew in decades. So why is it stirring such debate?

Litton Covered Bridge Road east of Huntsville hasn’t been touched by a road maintenance crew in decades. So why is it stirring such debate?

HUNTSVILLE — Steve Howard considers himself a man of his word. So his message to Scott County Commission is clear: “If they think I’m not going to do what I say, they’re in for a surprise.”

Howard doesn’t mince words. The days for mincing words, he says, are over. If those days didn’t pass in May 2016, when County Commission rejected a petition to close Litton Covered Bridge Road, they’ve passed at some point since, as the battle over the deteriorated road has played out before the commission and in the courts.

“At this point, I don’t care what they think of me,” Howard says of County Commission. “I’m over it.”

The final straw may have been when he had words with a commissioner in a hardware store last month. Or it might have been when another commissioner visited the property he owns with his wife, Marla, and told the Howards it was wrong for them to deny the public access to their property. It might have even been when an anonymous caller to a local television talk show — R.L. Gibson’s “Scott County Issues” — called for the Howards to be arrested.

Chances are, though, that the final straw came on May 16, 2016 — the day County Commission rejected his plea to close the old road. Howard vowed that night he would never step foot before the commission again. Fourteen months later, he still hasn’t.

But that doesn’t mean the fight is over. Not by a long shot.

A contentious debate

The subject of Litton Covered Bridge Road was quiet for much of the summer of 2016 and the winter that followed, after County Commission voted in May 2016 to reject a petition by the Howards and fellow landowner Daniel Posey to permanently close the road through their property that borders New River and Paint Rock Creek. But by the time commissioners met in work session earlier this month, the heated topic was back to a boiling point.

It was at that meeting on July 3 that 4th District County Commissioner Rick Russ — one of three commissioners who have opposed the idea of closing the road from the beginning — called Road Superintendent Dick Sexton to the mat over Sexton’s refusal to reopen the road, which has ostensibly been closed for repairs.

“I’m asking you professionally now, please open the road up,” Russ told Sexton, implying that Sexton was ignoring commissioners’ directive to keep the road open.

Sexton declined, saying the road will remain closed until the road department obtains the funds to repair it or unless the county agrees to accept liability for the deteriorated roadway.

To this point, neither has happened.

Three weeks later, with County Commission and the road department apparently at an impasse, the locked gate remains in place where J.R. Hembree’s property ends and the Howards’ begins. Sexton has not ruled out reopening the road — “I’m not saying I won’t open the road,” he said at the meeting earlier this month — but simply opening the gate isn’t going to end the battle, either.

Historical connotations

Litton Covered Bridge Road may be rutted and fit only for four-wheel-drive vehicles these days, but it wasn’t always that way. It was once a major thoroughfare between Huntsville and Jacksboro — the only way to get from the Scott County seat to the Campbell County seat.

In those days, before State Highway 63 and Interstate 75 were built, Litton Covered Bridge Road was known as the Huntsville to Jacksboro Road. Some property deeds along the roadway still refer to it that way. Exactly when it became a public road is unclear; the Howards’ deeds refer to it as a wagon road. But it is known when it ceased to be a public thoroughfare: its namesake over Paint Rock Creek was burned twice in the 1970s and was not rebuilt after the second time. In 1980, the county court — a forerunner to County Commission — deemed the road closed on the eastern side of the creek; the road easement from the creek to Railey Lane near Winona reverted to private property.

Ironically, one of those on hand when Litton Covered Bridge was being rebuilt in the 1970s was a young kid named Steve Howard. His father, local builder Ray Howard, was supervising the crew tasked with building back the bridge, and Howard tagged along with his father to the job site.

Howard never envisioned that he would one day own the property on either side of the bridge, much less be involved in a contentious debate over the road leading to it. But these days, he himself is a bridge-builder. The bridges he builds are much larger; his company, Twin K Construction, contracts with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to build concrete behemoths that make the old Litton Covered Bridge pale in comparison. But he says one day he will rebuild the old bridge across Paint Rock Creek. And it will be a covered bridge — just like the old days.

Part of Howard’s inspiration is nostalgia. Another part of it is simply a desire to build things. I’m a bridge-builder,” he says. “It’s what I do.”

His wife has grander plans. Marla Howard envisions a place where couples can hold rustic wedding ceremonies. The covered bridge would be a perfect backdrop for photos, and it has always been a romantic destination of sorts; the Howards recall a story by Huntsville alderman Jim Morrow, who proposed to his wife, Angela, on the bridge.

Howard isn’t so certain about his wife’s plans for the property, and he says so. But one thing they’re both sure of: everything is on hold until the legal battle over the old road bisecting their property is behind them.

Battle lines

If Steve Howard is steadfast in his will to fight Scott County over control of the old Litton Covered Bridge Road, his wife may be even moreso.

“I’m mad,” Marla Howard admits.

It isn’t hard to sense that anger when she speaks. She is vexed that County Commission rejected their bid to have the old road closed. After all, she says, it hasn’t been touched by a county road maintenance crew in decades and serves no useful purpose. Even if motorists can drive on the road, they can’t get out of their vehicle. To do so would be to trespass on the Howards’ property. They own either side of the roadway, which by definition is a maximum of 15 ft. in width. They don’t own the waters of New River, which by state law is considered a navigable waterway and therefore belongs to the state. But they do own the waters of Paint Rock Creek. And they own the shoreline along New River.

The Howards admit that they expected County Commission to side with them in their bid to close the old road. Initially, it appeared that might happen. Commissioners gave an initial okay to close the road by a 10-3 vote. Only Russ, 3rd District Commissioner Sheila Buttram and 5th District Commissioner Trent Cross voted against it.

But after an angry audience packed the Scott County Office Building’s conference room at a public hearing a month later, the vote was reversed, and commissioners voted 10-3 to keep the road open. Only 1st District Commissioner Blue Day, 3rd District Commissioner Ernest Phillips and 5th District Commissioner Robyn McBroom voted to close it.

The members of the public who showed up to state their case won over a majority of the commissioners with their pleas to keep the road open.

“What gets me is they think 10 or 20 people who ring their phones off the hook are representative of what the majority want,” Marla Howard says. “And even if they were, right is right and wrong is wrong.”

The Howards understand the nature of the fight: those who agree that closing the road is the right move for Scott County aren’t the ones who are apt to show up and state their opinion in a public forum. Those who oppose the road’s closure are passionate about the issue, and are always going to show up.

Those who fall into the latter group are driven mostly by nostalgia. One by one, they stood up at last spring’s public hearing to talk about how they’ve used Litton Covered Bridge Road to visit the river and the falls of Paint Rock Creek over the years. Among them were a lawyer, a doctor and plenty of just ordinary, everyday people.

One of those is Jennifer Allen. She lives on Litton Covered Bridge Road — before the proposed point of closure — just like generations of her family before her.

“this is a hot subject for the people that live on this road,” Allen said. “My great-grandparents have had access to this road for many years that we have lived here and why should we be punished for stuff that others have done?

“I’m tired of fighting for it but the elders that live here aren’t and they say they are gonna fight until the end,” she added.

That is the nature of this battle. It has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Even the two 3rd District commissioners who represent the Howards are split on the issue. Buttram, who recently visited the property and talked with the Howards, has steadfastly opposed closing the road, while Phillips is one of only three commissioners to consistently vote to close it.

One of the commissioners who was swayed by the arguments against closing the road was the 2nd District’s June Jeffers. She accompanied Buttram and road superintendent Sexton to visit the Howards on a recent trip to the property and says she is not ready to change her mind.

“How long has that road been there?” she asks. “It’s been there longer than me or you either one. It needs to stay open.”

To a point, the Howards say they understand the argument against closing the road. Steve Howard admits he used to visit the property in his youth, as well. “I never gave a thought to who owned it,” he says.

But that was then and this is now. Now the Howards own the property. They say their interest is in protecting their investment.

“You can’t let the public have free reign over your property. You just can’t,” Howard says. “It’s not like it was a hundred years ago.”

Not that the Howards are the first property owners to fight the battle against trespassers on Litton Covered Bridge Road. Posey, whose property they are in the process of acquiring, had a gun pulled on him by trespassers 20 years ago.

The Howards are different in that they were thrust into the spotlight by their request to have the road closed — and by their refusal to take no for an answer. But even on that point they may not be alone. Another property owner along the road — J.R. Hembree — has let the office of County Mayor Dale Perdue know that he wants the road closed at his property line, which begins shortly after the road’s intersection with Natural Bridge Road. That also just happens to be the point at which routine maintenance of the road ends.

Hembree’s request hasn’t been formally taken up by County Commission, and its resolution will likely depend on the final outcome of the Howards’ battle to close the road further down.

Continue reading this cover story in this week’s Independent Herald.

By | July 24th, 2017|Categories: Scott County|0 Comments

Summer: No return in sight

It continues to look as though our brief flirtation with a true mid-south summer will not repeat itself anytime soon.

After two scorching weeks in the Cumberlands, models are consistently portraying cooler temperatures to close out the month of July and begin the month of August, as summer vacation ends and the new school year begins for students.

Technically, there’s still plenty of time left for summer’s return; our average daily temperature has just now plateaued, and its decline is typically stubborn over the next 5-6 weeks on the calendar. The average daily high in Oneida is 86 for this time of year, drops to 85 by the last day of July, and then has dropped only to 84 by the last day of August, at which point the descent into autumn accelerates its pace.

But in a topsy-turvy summer that has featured far more below-average temperatures than above-average temperatures, there’s no safe bet on whether we’re going to see the scorching temps of late make a return once they’ve left us later this week.

The next couple of days will continue to be quite warm, perhaps even above-average. The GFS forecast model’s output statistics suggest a high of 86 on Tuesday and 87 on Wednesday with little chance for rain either day. But then a frontal boundary swings through to close out the week, and temperatures will fall on the back side of it. The latest run of the GFS suggests highs that struggle to get out of the 70s for several consecutive days beginning Friday, with quite a bit of rain from Thursday into Saturday. The National Weather Service’s forecast is a bit warmer than that, with highs in the low 80s through the weekend and a return to the mid 80s on Monday, but the general idea is that cooler weather is approaching.

After that, we may stay relatively cool for this time of year for a while. The GFS suggests that after Wednesday, we won’t see a temperature reading higher than 85 degrees for the next 13 days, which takes us nine days deep into August. And that mid-80 projection occurs just one day on the GFS. Overall, the model’s current look features far more days with temps in the 70s than with temps in the 80s for the next 15 days. And considering the GFS has consistently been a few degrees too warm this summer, who knows if we’ll even be as warm as the model is currently suggesting.

The GFS is also quite wet for the next 15 days. Today’s run suggests a total of seven inches of rain for the northern plateau, which would be unusual for this time of year if it pans out.

Not surprisingly, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is now forecasting below-average temperatures for much of the nation’s mid-section, including Tennessee, for the next 14 days (beginning later this week). For weeks 3-4 (Aug. 5-18), the CPC shows the cooler air retreating as warm air builds into Texas and the southern plains, but it keeps colder-than-normal air centered over the Great Lakes and much of the Midwest, with equal chances for warmer-than-average or colder-than-average temperatures in between.

If we do manage to make it three weeks into August with temperatures that are below-average, we’ll be on the downhill side of summer for sure. Labor Day will mark the unofficial end of summer just a couple of weeks later, and September almost always features falling temperatures.

What happens after that is a guessing game. For what it’s worth, the CPC is forecasting above-average fall temperatures for the entire U.S. — both the continental U.S. and Alaska — for the months of August-October. I would hardly take that forecast as the gospel at this point, though. Chances are, if Alaska sees above-average temps through the fall months, someone in the Lower 48 is going to experience below-average temps.

The really weird thing about this summer? Even as warm as we’ve been the past couple of weeks, we’ve still seen only two days thus far with temps of 90 or above (we hit 90 on June 14 and July 21). Those are official NWS readings in Oneida. (The data for Saturday-Monday has not yet been recorded, but it seems doubtful that we quite made it to 90 on any of those days.) Contrast that with last summer, which featured more than 30 days with 90+ temps.

I know what some of you are saying — Garrett is off his rocker. After all, we’ve all seen the Facebook photos of thermometers reading in the upper 90s and even low 100s, right? The problem is, those home readings are notoriously inaccurate. They’re usually taken from a thermometer that is placed in direct sunlight or, even worse, a car thermometer. Neither is reliable for a correct temperature reading.

Just to be sure, I glanced at this summer’s data from both Jamestown and Crossville, the two other northern plateau towns that are similar in elevation to Oneida. Neither location has hit 90 degrees even once this summer.

By | July 24th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Beware of this social media network…

A new social media network that is taking the digital world by storm should probably raise a few red flags for parents.

It’s called Sarahah, and it has quickly become all the rage among teens and preteens.

Designed by a Saudi developer earlier this year, Sarahah is an anonymous instant messaging platform. It was originally intended to allow employees to send “constructive” messages to their bosses — anonymously, obviously. Or, as it describes itself, “Sarahah helps you in discovering your strengths and areas for improvement by receiving honest feedback from your employees and your friends in a private manner.”

It caught on quickly in the Middle East, then was introduced to the Apple App Store last month. It has been trending in the app store for the past couple of weeks after teens began linking it to their Snapchat and Instagram profiles.

This is the way it works in teen circles: kids link their Sarahah account to Snapchat or Instagram, encouraging their friends to send them anonymous messages. They then post those messages back to Snapchat or Instagram.

You can imagine the potential for trouble with such an app (which isn’t the first of its kind, but the speed at which it is being adapted by young users has raised eyebrows). And if you immediately think “bullying” and “hate,” you aren’t alone.

Sarahah does not currently allow its users to respond to the messages they receive, so there’s at least one positive. But that’s what is leading the app’s younger users to post screenshots of the messages they receive on their other social media accounts — to encourage the unknown senders of messages they like to contact them.

As someone who has been around the online world for a while, I feel like we’ve gone full circle with apps like Sarahah. In the early days of the internet, when I myself was a teen, chatrooms and messageboards were all the rage. The precursors of the social media networks that we know today, chatrooms and messageboards allowed users to post anonymously, using a fictitious moniker. Not surprisingly, there was plenty of abuse…and that’s why they largely fell out of favor with internet users. Today, one of the few holdovers from this dinosaur era is Topix, a messageboard network that allows users to post anonymously. But even it is waning in popularity.

Not much good comes from anonymous messages on the internet, which is why the predecessors of Sarahah that were built on similar concepts have fallen by the wayside. (And although they deal with a completely different audience, it’s why more and more online news sites are no longer allowing comments on stories from anonymous users.)

That isn’t to say that bad things don’t happen when there is the accountability of everyone knowing who you are. Online bullying does happen with Facebook and Snapchat and all of the other social media networks where your identity is known. But as a general rule, teens and adults alike are much less likely to be hateful or abusive when they can’t hide behind a screen name.

Frankly, if there’s something to be said that someone doesn’t have the guts to say to my face (whether it’s good or bad), I don’t need to hear it. But I can see why an app like this is attractive to young people.

I allow my kids to use some social media networks — but only cautiously. I have their login information and I check regularly to see what they’re up to. When I see some of the stuff going on among their friends, I cringe, and the first time I saw Sarahah pop up a few weeks ago, I saw disaster written all over it.

If some parents saw the things that are being anonymously said to their kids on Sarahah (and I’m talking middle school-aged kids), and that those kids are then posting publicly for all the world to see, I bet they would be shocked.

Fortunately, experts say Sarahah is doomed to failure because of its flaws. I would say that’s a good thing. In the meantime, parents will want to be extra cautious of this one.

By | July 23rd, 2017|Categories: Pop Culture, Technology|0 Comments

Scandal? What scandal?

Can you imagine if Watergate had played out in our modern political climate?

Forget the role of key Republicans — like Howard H. Baker and Fred Thompson — in bringing down a sitting Republican president. It wouldn’t have happened. Not in the current toxic climate that has enveloped Washington. In this climate, right vs. wrong takes a back seat to right vs. left.

I’m referring to the investigation into whether key members of Team Trump colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election, of course. And the subsequent screeching by Republican loyalists that it needs to stop.

Oh, there are always going to be a core group of Americans who believe their president can do no wrong. Even Richard Nixon maintained a 25 percent approval rating until he flashed that famous peace sign and boarded a helicopter to leave town, which means one out of every four Americans either believed he was innocent in the Watergate mess, or didn’t care.

Trump’s approval rating is still hovering in the upper 30s. There’s plenty of time for it to drop further, because the Russia investigation hasn’t gotten anywhere near the level of the Watergate probe. But want to bet that Trump’s approval rating never drops as far as Nixon’s?

This is, after all, the man who bragged during the campaign that he could stand in the middle of New York City’s 5th Avenue and shoot someone, and his supporters would stand by him. He wasn’t wrong. He doesn’t have enough of those loyal supporters to push him to a second term in office, or to save the Republican Party from being set back decades by his antics, but he does have enough supporters to play an obstructionist role at every turn.

This is where we are in America, willing to forgive and forget that a sitting U.S. president worked with Russian authorities to undermine our election. One of my friends summed up the attitude of the entire Trump base last week when he said, “I’m sick of hearing about Russia.”

How sad is it that we’ve become so entrenched in our partisan divide that we’d rather stick our head in the sand about such things than actually get to the bottom of the truth? Those who are attempting to get to the bottom of this — special counsel Robert Mueller and the American press — are being ostracized by Trump and his operatives.

Trump’s approach is a true shoot-the-messenger campaign. New revelations that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, lied about his involvement with Russian dignitaries during the campaign? Take to Twitter to blast the “illegal leaks” that the “Amazon Washington Post” used as the basis of its report. New revelations that his son, Donald Trump Jr., lied about his involvement with Russian operatives during the campaign? Claim that anyone would’ve done it, then launch an offensive against the New York Times.

Let’s make no mistake: the news media is vehemently anti-Trump, moreso than with any other president in American history. The press is at times making a mockery of itself in its quest to take down Trump. But Trump picked this battle. When you continuously poke a stick into a tiger’s cage, that tiger is eventually going to roar. I’m a reporter at a local level. If the county mayor’s office used every public meeting and public appearance to sling mud at me, you better believe I’d be motivated to work overtime in my effort to dig up some dirt to throw right back at him.

But all of that is neither here nor there. The bottom line is that the press is digging for the truth and finding plenty of destructive evidence. What motivation they have to obtain that info is immaterial.

So that brings us back to the investigation. While the Trump administration is attempting to undermine the press, Republicans both in and out of Congress are attempting to undermine Mueller, a well-respected career judiciary. That isn’t a surprise; look at the way Republicans cut the legs out from under James Comey, who was also once respected by the GOP — not to mention just months removed from Democrats being convinced he was trying to throw the election in Trump’s favor — before he was toppled over this same Russian debacle.

Meanwhile, Republican operatives are attempting to poison public opinion by arguing that collusion isn’t a crime. That’s debatable, legal experts say. If a foreign government used money to influence a U.S. election, that can be a crime, and depending on the level of collusion, there may also be anti-coercion or public corruption law violations facing Team Trump.

Clearly, Trump operatives are guilty of colluding with Russian operatives, whether or not it was a crime. And, clearly, Trump believes there is substance here — how else do you explain the newest reports that he’s looking at his options to pardon . . . including himself?

But whether or not a crime was committed should be secondary. It should be a cause of great concern that an American president potentially conspired with Russians to influence a U.S. election.

I’ve heard the arguments that “anyone would have done it,” and to that I say not just no but hell no. This isn’t Great Britain or Canada we’re talking about here. Russia may not necessarily be defined as an American enemy at the present time, but Russia certainly doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart. Colluding with officials of a nation that would like nothing better than to see us fail, in an effort to undermine a U.S. election, may or may not be illegal but it reeks of traitorous intent. That should concern every one of us to the core. If an American president is willing to sell his soul to that devil to be elected, what else is he willing to do?

This isn’t about some deep-rooted desire to see Trump impeached. Only liberals who are rabid in their partisanship sit around hoping that the president will be impeached. This entire process is damaging to America. It is damaging to our reputation on the global scene, it threatens to eat at the fabric of our national economy and it stalls progress on issues that really matter, at a time when we have foreign enemies working actively towards a goal of attacking us on various fronts (and not just militarily).

But that shouldn’t stop America’s quest for the truth…just as it didn’t stop our quest for the truth during Watergate.

To throw in a basketball reference here, it wasn’t the crime of having players to his house for a barbecue that toppled former University of Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl. It was the lies that followed. And it wasn’t the crime of breaking into a campaign office that toppled Nixon. It was the lies that followed.

Right now, Team Trump is lying at every turn, and those lies are being exposed. The lies of Sessions, Trump Jr. and others have eroded a rabbit hole, and someone — in this case, Mueller — must dive down that hole to see what waits on the other side.

And if what waits on the other side is damning enough to destroy the Trump presidency, so be it. One man is not America . . . never has been, and certainly shouldn’t start now.

So tell Roger Simon to stop beating the war drums and calling for a civil war if Trump is indicted, tell the GOP base to stop attacking reporters who are merely trying to do their job, and let’s see this thing through. The truth will either condemn Trump or set him free. Either way, it’s all America should be interested in.

By | July 23rd, 2017|Categories: Politics|0 Comments

It’s been a cool month

If you hate hot weather, you’re going to scoff at what I’m about to say.

July has been a bit on the cool side.

I know, right?

It has been, though. Relative to normal, July has been a touch cool. Our average high temperature in Oneida has been 84.4 degrees. In a normal July, the average high temperature is 85.5 degrees. Our overall average temperature is running about the same: 73.5 is this month’s average; 74.7 is the normal July average.

These averages are based on a 30-year period from 1981 to 2010.

It has been hot lately, of course. Our overall temperature has been skewed by the first week or so of the month, which was rainy and cool. We hit 90 degrees on Friday, marking just the second time that’s occurred in Oneida this summer (the first time since June 14). And we were 88 on both Wednesday and Thursday. That makes three consecutive days of above-average temperatures.

It has still been quite a cool summer, this current heat wave not withstanding. We’ve hit 90 degrees just twice this year, and last year we hit 90 on eight different days in the month of July alone. Throw in eight days in June, seven in August and eight in September, and we hit 90 degrees 31 days last year. Given the current look of the long-range models, I’m almost certain we won’t even hit double digits this year, and we could very well wind up with fewer than five days of 90-degree temps this year.

By | July 22nd, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Cool and rainy again

WEATHER: A return to cooler, wetter conditions across the Cumberland Plateau.

By | July 21st, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Farewell, Mike…

Mike Strange is retiring from the Knoxville News Sentinel at the age of 67. But the reason for this long-time sportswriter’s exit isn’t age…it’s the Gannett business strategy that’s causing him to pack up his office. Marvin West — the renowned Knoxville journalist who hired Strange — has the story.

This is a sad story, for more than one reason. Not only is Mike Strange truly one of the good guys in the world of sports writing, but what the corporate decision-makers at Gannett are doing to the newspaper industry in Tennessee is disheartening. As a daily consumer of news from across the state, I don’t see a lot going on right now at the Knoxville News Sentinel, The Tennessean or the Commercial Appeal (all Gannett-owned) that excites me about the direction the Volunteer State’s daily newspapers are taking.

It’s a tough time for the newspaper industry. That’s a given. When determining the fate of the printed word, you have to try to ignore the cheerleaders on one side and the doomsayers on the other, because neither are completely accurate. But the doomsayers are probably going to wind up being more accurate than the industry’s cheerleaders, at least where the metro and national dailies are concerned. (Community weeklies are still in much better shape, and will be for the foreseeable future.) So it goes without saying that radical changes are needed if these news conglomerates are to maintain a healthy bottom line. Gannett isn’t the only one struggling to find the right way forward. It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and be a critic. But I’m just not sure how gutting the editorial staff of the faces the community is familiar with is the best way forward.

By | July 19th, 2017|Categories: Newspapers|0 Comments

Backing away from the heat

WEATHER: It looks like the summer pattern we’re currently in may break down a lot sooner than originally anticipated…

By | July 19th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Delinquent taxpayers put on notice

“Let the backlash begin.”

Those were the words of Mike Potter as he turned to me after informing a group of county commissioners Monday evening that he was going to start scheduling regular tax sales to auction off the property of landowners who are not paying their taxes.

Potter is the clerk and master in Scott County. He had just appeared before County Commission to inform them of his plans for delinquent tax auctions — the first of which has already been set for Aug. 24. Separate from that presentation, he had phoned earlier in the day to say that the tax sales were coming.

And there will be some backlash. But my words to Potter? “Far more people will love you than hate you for this.”

Delinquent taxpayers have been a sore subject among Scott Countians in recent years. While many counties routinely conduct tax sales to auction off the property of delinquent taxpayers, Scott County has been generally reluctant to do so. With a 12-cent property tax increase in 2015 and another one looming in 2017, many Scott Countians are quick to point at how many property owners are allowed to slide without paying their taxes.

But things have been changing. Two years ago, the county appointed a new delinquent tax attorney. Patrick Sexton, the son of Scott County’s former General Sessions Court judge who has flirted with his own run for the judiciary, is now handling the county’s delinquent taxes. He’s shown a willingness to clamp down on the taxpayers who have been allowed to have their unpaid taxes slide for more than 10 years — rendering them lost to the county.

Potter is still relatively new to his appointed position — he was named to a six-year term by Chancellor Elizabeth Asbury last year, after serving on Asbury’s election campaign team two years earlier — but has likewise shown a willingness to get the county’s delinquent taxes in order.

“We’re going to clean it up,” he said Monday.

By cleaning it up, he means the county is going to hold a tax auction every three months, targeting two tax years at a time, until the books are cleaned up. Then the county will hold an annual tax auction in June to prevent the backlog of unpaid taxes currently seen. Once your property taxes have been in delinquency for three years, your property will be auctioned. The three-year time period is fairly standard among Tennessee counties, giving property owners who have fallen on hard times an opportunity to catch up before their property is sold out from under them.

The law provides for tax sales as a form of relief for local governments attempting to deal with delinquent taxpayers. If the property is sold at auction, the delinquent taxpayer has 12 months to exercise an auction to pay off the tax bill and get the property back. But they owe the person who purchased the property at auction a 12% premium, plus the 18% interest penalty owed to the county.

With companies specializing in real estate transactions through delinquent tax auctions, there is never a shortage of persons willing to bid on property owned by delinquent taxpayers. After all, where else can you earn a guaranteed 12% return on your investment? And if the delinquent taxpayer doesn’t exercise his option, the purchaser can simply pay off the unpaid taxes and penalty and own the property, free and clear. Potter said he recently attended a tax auction in Campbell County, where delinquent properties from the 2014 tax year were being auctioned. There were 32 parcels of property on the auction block, and all 32 were snatched up.

Either way, delinquent taxpayers will pay the piper. Sexton has pointed out in the past that it’s actually better for the county if taxpayers don’t pay their taxes for a couple of years. That allows the county to assess the 18% penalty and collect more tax revenue than the property would otherwise generate.

Still, it isn’t hard to understand why taxpayers bristle at the subject of unpaid taxes — especially with those delinquent taxes being a matter of public record. It isn’t hard to look and see which persons and businesses are chronically late paying their taxes.

A favorite whipping child of angry taxpayers is Potters Southeast, formerly known as J&M. The road construction company contracts with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and is currently building the truck climbing lanes on Interstate 75’s Caryville Mountain. While the company paid its 2016 taxes, that marked the first year since 2007 that it had paid taxes. Its accumulated debt to the county is greater than $140,000.

But there are plenty of other businesses not paying their taxes. The Oneida Family Motel, which has drawn the ire of law enforcement and citizens alike since becoming a hotbed of illegal activity, has not paid its taxes the past two years.

It’s not hard for those who don’t have their taxes in escrow to mistakenly fall through the cracks, of course. A perusal of Scott County’s tax records finds that even the clerk and master’s former company, Groundworks LLC, has a minor amount of unpaid taxes from 2008 and 2009, totaling about $60.

And at least one county commissioner, 4th District’s Rick Russ, owes delinquent taxes, although the unpaid taxes only date back to last year.

But it’s the ones who are notoriously late paying their taxes who draw the ire of most taxpayers.

And those are the ones who will be targeted first. On Aug. 24, parcels of property with unpaid taxes from 2006 and 2007 will go on the auction block. Taxpayers who owe delinquent taxes from 2008 and 2009 will then have three months to get their taxes paid, or their land will be up for grabs in November. Delinquent taxes from 2010 and 2011 will be dealt with in February. And June 2018 will see a sale of properties on which taxes are owed from 2012 and 2013.

The message? Start paying your taxes. The free ride is coming to an end.

By | July 18th, 2017|Categories: Politics|0 Comments

Property tax hike coming in Scott County

THE COST OF DOING BUSINESS: Scott County property owners are facing a 12-cent tax increase.

By | July 18th, 2017|Categories: Scott County|0 Comments


OUCH: New Washington Post-ABC News poll places Trump approval rating at 36%; disapproval rating at 58%.

The RealClearPolitics average is only slightly better, at 40%/54%. George W. Bush dipped as low as 25% during his embattled second term. Otherwise, Trump’s approval rating would be at an historic low for the modern era.

By | July 16th, 2017|Categories: Politics|0 Comments

Hot, dry weather on the way

HOT & DRY FOR A WHILE: Summer has arrived in the Cumberlands, and it may be here to stay for a while.

By | July 16th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Summer’s heat is here at last

It has been a very abnormal summer for our region, with temperatures that have routinely found themselves stuck below normal. In fact, if you had to sum up the summer of 2017 in two words, they would likely be “wet” and “cool.” But things are changing, and the worst may be yet to come.

In the short term, yet another couple of cold fronts are set to invade the region over the next few days, which is quite incredible, considering we are moving into the middle of July. But rarely does a summer come and go without at least some excessive heat, and it looks like we’re going to experience more of that in the long term.

Summer finally arrived this week, and we’re in the midst of what has been the hottest week of the season thus far. We still haven’t officially made it to 90 degrees this week, and we’ve still eclipsed the 90-degree mark just once all season (June 14). The temperature in Oneida was 88 degrees on Wednesday, after 87 degrees on Tuesday and 84 degrees on Monday. The high on Monday tied the highest temperature we had seen during the first 10 days of the month, and Tuesday and Wednesday marked just the fifth and sixth days this summer with temps above 85 in Oneida, which is pretty incredible.

Today’s official temperature isn’t yet available, but with showers arriving early and sticking around for much of the day, it’s very likely we didn’t get to 90 today, either. And cooler temperatures are on the way for the weekend, with a couple of cold fronts moving through the region. In fact, a combination of the cooler air and cloud cover from scattered showers and thunderstorms could give us temps that are actually a bit below-normal early next week.

But the heat will start to build again as we move into the middle part of next week, and things look downright steamy after that. The GFS forecast model has been consistently pumping temperatures into the upper 90s and even popping up some 100-degree temps for a week straight, beginning late next week. I’ve written on this blog several times this summer about the GFS’s penchant for projecting those very hot temps in the Days 8-15 period, which is after the model’s truncation period, when it becomes less accurate. As I’ve written in the past, every time the GFS has projected those 90+ temps in the long range, they haven’t panned out.

This time, though, there is additional model support for the idea. It may not get quite as hot as what the GFS is projecting, because temperatures that truly hit 100 degrees just don’t happen very often here on the higher terrain of the Cumberland Plateau. That is actually quite a rarity here. But it does look like the heat is here to stay.

Here’s what the latest run of the GFS model shows: For the time frame of July 21-July 29, the GFS has temperature highs in the 90s each day, often reaching the mid-to-upper 90s. Today’s midday run of the model was a bit cooler than some of its predecessors, with a maximum temperature of 96 and a minimum temperature of 63. Some of the earlier runs of the model have had us topping out at 101 degrees and not falling below 70 degrees at night for a week straight.

In all likelihood, the latest run of the GFS is more accurate, even though it is a bit of an outlier compared to the model’s other runs over the past couple of days. If I were betting, I’d say the model is coming to its senses a bit. However, the general idea remains true, and that is that true summer weather is finally here after a summer that has been decidedly un-summer-like up to this point.

By | July 13th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Heat signals are building

If you don’t like the heat we’re experiencing in Tennessee this week, you probably want to stop reading right here. Because as hot as it’s been the last few days — we’re finally experiencing a true Mid-South summer — it may get even hotter later this month.

I’ve been harping all summer on the GFS forecast model’s heat bias. The model has consistently shown heat waves in the Days 8-15 period that haven’t panned out. For the duration of the month of June, the GFS consistently showed temps well into the 90s during that extended time frame, but what we actually saw were temps in the low 80s.

With heat finally building across the region, the GFS is really going hog-wild with the heat for Days 8-15. Is it more of the same, or an indication that the heat we’re experiencing this week is merely a signal of things to come?

I wouldn’t buy in on what the GFS is showing just yet, but I wouldn’t dismiss it, either.

Here’s what the model is showing: for the entire week of July 20-28, the high temp tops out in the 90s each day, and usually in the upper 90s. That’s very unusual for the northern plateau, but it gets worse: the 6z run of the GFS this morning pops a high temperature of 101 degrees at the very end of its run. We’ve hit 100 degrees in Oneida less than 10 times since records-keeping began many years ago. So that would be quite unusual, indeed. Another indicator of just how much heat the GFS is showing: it doesn’t have us dropping below 70 degrees at night for the entire week. That sort of nighttime mugginess makes even swimming pools uncomfortable, pushing their water temperatures well into the 90s.

Now, a couple of things to point out here: that high temp of 101 was in the very last frame of the model, 15 days out. That’s hardly something that can be taken as the gospel. And it was the 6z run of the GFS, which is somewhat less accurate than the 0z and 12z runs of the same model. However, the 0z run from last night showed similar projections. It had high temps well into the 90s for the entire week, popping a high of 101 on Sunday, July 21 — about 10 days out. It didn’t show temps getting below 69.

It does look like we’ll see a brief reprieve from the heat early next week, as a cooler-than-normal air mass drops in from the north behind a cold front that is expected to bring widespread showers and thunderstorms to our region tomorrow, Friday and Saturday.

The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is currently forecasting below-normal temperatures for all of Tennessee for the July 22-Aug. 4 period, which includes much of the time frame the GFS is currently depicting as very hot. However, that CPC forecast is about five days old.

The bottom line: It’s too soon to say for sure that we’re going to see very hot weather later this month. But the possibility is on the table, as it appears true summer has finally arrived and is going to stick around for an extended period. Even next week’s slight cool-down won’t be of the magnitude we experienced multiple times last month.

Still above normal: Streamflows in the Cumberlands remain above normal, despite the recent turn to somewhat drier weather. The USGS’s gauge at Leatherwood Ford on the Big South Fork River this afternoon measured a streamflow of 502 cubic feet per second. That’s more than double the norm for this date, which is just over 200 cfs. The water depth is currently just under 6 ft., after cresting at 10 ft. on Friday.

The Clear Fork is running at 170 cfs, as measured at Burnt Mill Bridge near Robbins. That’s well above the norm of 48 cfs. New River is running at 213 cfs, as measured at the U.S. Hwy. 27 bridge south of Huntsville, and the norm is 82 cfs.

By | July 12th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

Thinking ahead

PLANNING FOR DROUGHT: After two severe droughts in a span of nine years, one northern Cumberland Plateau community is thinking about ways to increase their water supply before the next one. That might mean raising the level of Flat Creek Reservoir.

By | July 12th, 2017|Categories: Environment, Scott County, Weather|0 Comments

Butch Jones’ must-win game

joneshorizonIn just a little more than 50 days, the University of Tennessee football team will travel south on I-75 to Atlanta for a Labor Day showdown with Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Sept. 4, 8 p.m., ESPN).

Rarely does a single game mean so much for a coach as this year’s season opener does for Tennessee’s Butch Jones. But the simple fact of the Vols’ trip to a city where they haven’t traditionally fared well is this: if UT loses, it’s difficult to envision a scenario that keeps Jones in Knoxville for the 2018 season.

That makes the Georgia Tech game the single biggest game of Jones’ coaching tenure in Knoxville. Rarely does one say that about a non-conference, non-rivalry game — particularly one that’s a season opener — but the stakes couldn’t be higher for Jones and the Vols in this one.

Jones is widely considered to be on the hot seat as the 2017 season begins. In fact, his seat may be hotter than any other coach’s seat in the SEC, and in this dog-eat-dog conference, there are always enough hot seats to go around. But the natives, as they say, are restless here in East Tennessee, after UT squandered its best chance to win the SEC East in a decade in 2016. The university has a new athletics director who has already proven he won’t hesitate to pull the plug on embattled coaches. And it all adds up to one uncomfortable truth for Jones: he has to win in 2017 . . . or else.

“Wait,” you say. “A loss to Georgia Tech wouldn’t knock the Vols out of the SEC race. How could it possibly cost Butch Jones his job?”

To be fair, I’m operating a bit on assumptions here. Obviously, if Tennessee loses to Georgia Tech (the early line is Vols -4, if you’re wondering) but recovers to beat Florida and Georgia, the Georgia Tech loss will be rendered moot. And although beating Alabama seems a pipe dream for the 2017 Vols (the early line is Bama -24, if you’re wondering), a win over the Crimson Tide would cure all sorts of ailments.

But could the Vols recover from a loss to Georgia Tech to beat their big-ticket SEC foes? That’s the question. There is a lot of pressure on this football team as the season begins. The players have heard the grumbling about their head coach, who hasn’t done himself any favors in what has been the longest off-season in quite some time, with tone-deaf one-liners about “champions of life” and “five-star heart.” The coaching staff includes many new faces who know their redemption in the unforgiving world of college football coaching depends on Tennessee’s success this season. A loss to Georgia Tech in the season opener would be demoralizing for the Vols, even if the game is expected to be a close one. It seems likely that such a loss would cause the stitches to begin unraveling. If the Vols then went on to lose to both Florida and Georgia, as expected, the hemorrhaging would begin. And Jones would be on borrowed time.

It has been argued that, in terms of must-win games, last year’s season opener against Appalachian State was bigger than this year’s game against Georgia Tech. But Tennessee was widely expected to beat the Mountaineers, and easily. Sure, there was talk about what happened to Michigan a decade earlier, but no one talked seriously about Appalachian State leaving Knoxville with a win.

To be sure, a loss to the Mountaineers last season would have been even more demoralizing than a loss to Georgia Tech would be this season. The Vols were ranked in the preseason Top 10, they were widely expected to win the SEC East, and some folks were even talking openly about the possibility of a berth in the college football playoffs. Then came the headaches of a Thursday night in Neyland Stadium, which saw Appalachian State take the Vols to overtime and nearly walk away with a monumental upset win.

But in terms of must-win games, there are key differences between Appalachian State in 2016 and Georgia Tech in 2017. Butch Jones had equity in 2016. He had recruited well and his teams had posted improved records each year during his tenure. There wasn’t much that could have cost him his job last season.

In fact, the loss to Vanderbilt later in the season was just as bad as the loss to Appalachian State would have been in the season opener…perhaps even worse. Surviving the Mountaineers allowed Tennessee fans to experience the euphoria and unbridled optimism of the first several weeks of the season, but by the time the Vols had squandered the SEC East, those first few weeks didn’t seem to matter.

The loss to Vanderbilt didn’t cost Jones his job any more than the loss to Appalachian State would have. But it cost him a lot of the equity he had accumulated. That demoralizing loss, along with the loss to South Carolina that cost the Vols their shot at winning the SEC East, ate up all of that equity. Which puts Jones in the must-win position as the 2017 season begins.

The only thing Jones has going for him at this point is his recruiting class. The 2018 class is currently ranked as high as No. 3 in the country, according to some services. It’s the SEC’s top haul thus far, marking the first time in at least one and a half decades that the Vols have entered July with the conference’s top-ranked recruiting class.

But if the losses start to mount early, how many of those verbal commitments will renege, like rats fleeing the proverbial sinking ship? And then what does Jones have that he can use to salvage his job?

On the other hand, the Georgia Tech game is an opportunity for Jones to prove that the listing ship has been righted. If UT goes to Atlanta and dominates a game that is expected to be close — much the way Derek Dooley’s Vols did to N.C. State a few years ago — spirits will begin to lift in Big Orange Country. Follow that up with a win over Florida or Georgia — or both — and the narrative will change in a hurry.

After all, Tennessee doesn’t have to win the SEC, or even the East division, for Jones to save his job. This is widely expected to be a rebuilding year of sorts, and an 8-4 season, or maybe even a 7-5 season, is all Jones needs to survive for another year, when his new quarterback will have a season of experience under his belt and his coaching staff will be more in sync and battle-tested.

But a loss to Georgia Tech throws everything in to question.

Make no mistake: This is the biggest game of Butch Jones’ career.

By | July 11th, 2017|Categories: Football|0 Comments

A moment of neglect

It was a hot morning in the summer of 2006. I was driving to work with a hundred different things on my mind.

I was a new father of twins, and as any parent of multiples can tell you, there isn’t much that can prepare you for that. With one baby, you can take turns for those every-three-hour, middle-of-the-night feedings. With two babies, there is no taking turns. When it’s time to eat, the entire house was up. I felt like I was in a constant fugue state for several months that summer.

On that particular morning, I was tired — just as I was every other morning that summer. It was going to be a busy day at work. It was deadline day. Those are always stressful.

As I pulled into the parking lot at our office, I cut the engine and got ready to jump out of the vehicle. As I was opening the door, I happened to glance over and see the twins asleep in their car seats.

I was supposed to have dropped them off at the sitter’s house that morning. I had completely forgotten.

The crazy part is this: I was driving a standard-cab pickup truck that day. The babies’ infant carriers were strapped into the same bench seat I was sitting on. My right arm was literally resting on one of the carriers. Yet I was three seconds from closing the door and walking away.

If I had been driving any other vehicle that morning — a car, an SUV, an extended-cab pickup — the twins would have been in the back seat. And there is absolutely no doubt how this story would have ended.

I had nightmares for a long time after that incident. I knew I had been fortunate. I also knew just how close I had been to a completely different outcome.

Whenever there’s a tragic story in the news about a small child dying inside a hot vehicle, public outcry always ensues. The public wants a pound of flesh for that child’s death, demanding the responsible parent be sentenced to prison for their neglect.

Prior to the Summer of 2006, I was just another John Q. Public, demanding justice. After all, how can any parent be so careless, so reckless, so neglectful, so stupid, as to leave their child in a locked vehicle on a hot day?

I found out that day just how easy it is. If you think it can’t happen to you, you’ve never been in a situation where the weight of work and responsibility is occupying your mind. It can happen to anybody.

As Gene Weingarten wrote in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for The Washington Post in 2009, “What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the past 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

“The facts in each case differ a little,” Weingarten wrote, “but always there is a terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic spring to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.”

That day back in the Summer of 2006 did not define me as a parent. My kids are entering middle school this fall. They’re honor roll students, accomplished basketball players, and actively involved in their church’s youth group activities, with caring hearts.

It wouldn’t have taken much of a twist of fate 11 years ago for things to have turned out much differently. That day would have defined me, not just in the eyes of society but in the eyes of the law.

I am now among the growing group who advocate that a single forgetful moment — a moment of neglect — should not be considered criminal. Sadly, 60 percent of the time, it is. Lives that have already been shattered beyond repair are herded through the court system. Tens of thousands of dollars once intended for a child’s college fund are spent on legal fees. And, in the worst cases, offenders are locked away. Families already teetering on the edge are given a helpful nudge by Lady Justice. Kids who have just lost a brother or a sister also lose a father or a mother.

There’s a fundamental difference between wilful child neglect and a moment of forgetfulness. Who among us would stand to argue that a drug abuser choosing to expose their children to hunger, dirty needles or unsanitary conditions deserves mercy or forgiveness? Yet a society that cannot see that there should be no criminal element with the latter is a society that is ripe for a wake-up call. As a friend said this morning, “Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you. That kind of arrogance can give someone a false sense of security which can end in tragedy.”

I received my wake-up call 11 years ago. Some would judge me for a moment of neglect over a decade ago, and that’s okay. Some would say that my change of heart makes me a bleeding-heart liberal. And that’s okay, too.

But what I know is this: If this summer is an average summer in the United States, about three dozen children will have died from heat-related deaths in hot cars by the time it is over. It is a number that rose drastically after consumer advocates began to issue warnings about passenger-side air bags and told us to be sure our kids are strapped safely in the back seat of the vehicle.

Out of sight, out of mind.

I was very fortunate in the Summer of 2006 to not have a back seat. Otherwise I would have found myself on trial for manslaughter, just like the dozens of other parents in this country who have faced criminal charges for a moment of neglect over the past two decades.

It’s gonna be a hot week here in East Tennessee and across much of the eastern U.S. As the National Weather Service says, “Beat the heat. Check the back seat!” Go on thinking it can’t happen to you if you must. But if you glance a second time into the back seat before you lock your car door, the point has been effectively made.

By | July 11th, 2017|Categories: Human Nature|0 Comments

Have we finally seen the pattern flip?

Wet. Cool. Wet. Repeat.

That has been the story of the Summer of 2017 to this point. But as we enter the second week of July, has the pendulum finally swung?

It was downright hot in the Cumberlands today, and will be even hotter tomorrow. The National Weather Service is forecasting a high of 88 for Oneida. Model output statistics from the GFS forecast model are a touch warmer, at 89. We’ve hit 90 just one time this year (June 14), but we may get there for the second time tomorrow. And temps are going to continue to push the 90-degree mark on Wednesday and Thursday as humidity continues to increase (causing it to feel even warmer).

In fact, we’ve climbed above 85 degrees just four times this year — which is pretty incredible considering we’re headed into the middle of July — and we could easily double that number this week. (The high the last two days has been 84…so close, but not quite).

Something else unusual is happening this week, too: no rain! We recorded some rainfall Saturday morning, but have seen no rain the last two days and aren’t likely to see any the next two. We haven’t seen many four-day stretches without rain this summer, except when the flow has turned to the north and ushered in cooler-than-average temperatures.

By Thursday, the chances for those typical summer afternoon thunderstorms will be increasing. But the real threat for rain will return by Friday, as a shortwave trough moving across the Great Lakes region drags a cold front across the Mid-South.

But here’s the thing: it looks like dry weather will return for the weekend, with only slight chances of typical summer thunderstorms each day.

We’ve received 3.36 inches of rain in Oneida already this month, easily eclipsing the typical July rain total of 1.46 inches. That goes to show just how wet it was during the 4th of July holiday period.

So we know it feels like summer this week, but what about next week? Right now, the GFS model is showing even hotter weather arriving by next Tuesday and lasting for about a week after that. I’ve been skeptical because the GFS has repeatedly pumped up heat ridges across the South in the Day 8-15 time frame and they just haven’t panned out. But given the heat that’s in place this week, we can’t be so quick to dismiss what the model is showing for next week.

Just how long this typical — yet atypical for this year — summer weather will last remains to be seen. There is at least one long-range model that is showing a return of below-normal temperatures for the end of July and much of August.

But for now, at least, summer has finally arrived in the Cumberlands.

By | July 10th, 2017|Categories: Weather|0 Comments

See the eclipse

Get a front-row seat: A total lunar eclipse is coming on Aug. 21. Want to know where to see it? Check this navigable Google map for the answer. (Hint: If you’re in the Cumberlands, you don’t have to go far!)

By | July 10th, 2017|Categories: General|0 Comments

Dual QBs for UT?

No big surprise, really: Butch Jones says Tennessee may use dual quarterbacks in 2017.

By | July 10th, 2017|Categories: Football|0 Comments