From the Hill: Lawmakers hear update on ‘Race to the Top’ funds application

By State Rep. Matt Hill

I want to start out this week’s column by saying “thank you” to everyone who attended my town hall meetings last week. I enjoyed listening to comments and input as session in Nashville is in full swing. If you were unable to come out, please do not hesitate to contact me with any concerns or questions you might have.
In session news, a bill that will protect the voting process from fraud and abuse was presented in the House Election Subcommittee last week.
House Bill 270 will require that voter registration forms carry a disclaimer that clarifies giving false information to register to vote carries a criminal penalty, and also requires that the applicant affirm that they are lawfully in the United States. An amendment was offered, and the bill was discussed by the committee. It is expected to be up for a vote this week.
Another measure presented in the House Elections Subcommittee would make it easier for troops overseas to vote absentee. House Bill 2799 would allow election commissions to email ballots that troops could then print and return by mail.
Currently, election administrators mail the ballots overseas and do not utilize electronic means.
The legislation hit a roadblock in the Elections Subcommittee last year, as the bill failed on a party line vote.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the Pew Research Center for People and Press reports that one-third of states do not allow enough time for overseas voters, listing Tennessee as one of 16 states that sent ballots after the date necessary for voters to meet deadlines. Last year, at least seven states enacted legislation to authorize some form of electronic transmission. The committee will vote on the bill this week.
A bill that will prohibit certain local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus will now become law. The law was passed last year by both the House and Senate but was then vetoed by the Governor. The legislation was filed as several states, municipalities and cities began considering laws that mandated chain restaurants put calories and other nutritional information on menus.
Lawmakers arguing in favor of the bill say that mandating chain restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners.
They also argue that often, the laws are selective, targeting only large restaurant chains. In addition, if every city enacted something different, large or even medium-sized companies would have difficulty in following the laws properly.
The legislation was amended to prohibit non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus, such as a local Board of Health. It also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) released a summary of the state’s ‘Race to the Top’ (RTTT) application, taking a straightforward look at the key points in the document. The summary mirrors the application and breaks it down into seven sections: governance and oversight; standards and assessments; data systems; teachers and leaders; low-performing schools; STEM; and budget.
If Tennessee wins the RTTT funds, districts will have 90 days to submit a plan outlining how they will locally implement the program. The Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation, and Development (TN CRED) will be created, and will identify best practices and research the impact of the RTTT grant.
By 2010, the application specifies that Common Core Standards will be adopted and are to be closely related to the Tennessee Diploma Project. The application also explains how the training programs for teachers and administrators are to be set up, and includes other details on professional development.
The state’s current data system, the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) was considered by lawmakers to be one of its strongest areas in relation to other states. The application goes one step further, in expanding the ‘data dashboard’ that is used by teachers and principles to see students’ data.
Part of the grant will be used to attract teachers to subjects that are currently experiencing a shortage of quality teachers.
In addition, the state will create a 15-member Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee to develop new ideas in relation to the way teachers are evaluated, based on a number of measures.
Finally, the application addresses low-performing schools, breaking them into three subgroups: focus schools, renewal schools, and the Achievement School District (ASD).
Those classified as being ‘focus schools’ will use teacher training, consultants, and System Targeted Teams to improve. Renewal schools will require more intervention and are required to partner with a private provider, higher education organization, or a collaboration of non-profits on a strategy to turn the school around.
The ASD will be run by the Tennessee Department of Education and will be “persistently low-achieving schools” which need the most attention. Currently 13 schools are ASD eligible.
The application was submitted last month after the legislature wrapped a special session on education to compete against other states across the nation for the federal government’s ‘Race to the Top’ funding. Grant recipients will be notified by the end of March.
House Bill 2789, introduced last week, would create a violent juvenile sexual offender registry. The bill passed out of the House Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee.
The House Criminal Practice and Procedure Subcommittee is expected to take up DUI ignition interlock legislation.
House Bill 2768 would require a device to be attached to the vehicle of certain DUI offenders and will only operate if the offenders have not consumed alcohol.

What is the county going to do with the ‘white elephant’?

Sale of the Downtown Centre Courthouse in Johnson City is high on the to-do list for Washington County Mayor George Jaynes as he begins his final year in office. The placement of a “For Future Sale” sign on the building is an indication of the challenges facing the county in disposing of the building.
Built as a parking garage with revenue sharing funds from the federal government, Johnson City never found an acceptable use for the facility dubbed by many residents as a “White Elephant.” The title seemed appropriate since the building was large and had a white exterior. The term “White Elephant” is also an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
Washington County is now experiencing the latter as it pays for the upkeep of a building that houses only two offices, the County Trustee and the County Clerk’s Office. While it seems unfair to require Johnson City residents to drive to Jonesborough to obtain licenses or pay taxes, a much smaller facility would adequately meet these needs. In fact, a drive through facility such as those maintained as branch banking facilities would be ideal.
Commissioner Mark Hicks said at the January County Commission meeting that he would inquire whether Johnson City wanted to “buy back” the Downtown Centre. The building was dedicated for county use in 1987 and continued to function as a courthouse until 2009. Washington County did receive value by using the facility for more than 20 years until settlement of ground under the building caused concern about the structure’s safety. Apparently, the foundation of the parking garage (but not the floor on which the county offices and courtrooms were located) after an engineering study is now considered sound. Now that Jonesborough is housing all the courts in the new “George P. Jaynes Justice Center of Washington County” officials feel the Johnson City building may be worth as much as $2 million.
From time-to-time, Hicks has also mentioned that an 1891 Act of the Tennessee General Assembly established separate law and chancery courts in Johnson City. The County Commissioner does not think the law has been repealed and wonders what will happen if a court challenge is made claiming trials for Johnson City residents must be held in their community.
Suggestions for use of the Downtown Centre have included utilization as Johnson City Juvenile Court, a headquarters for the Downtown Development District, and additional office space for the City of Johnson City.
The City of Johnson City announced in late January that it has ambitious plans for downtown. A $3.5 million project will establish “The Warehouse Commons,” the first of nine planned phases for downtown Johnson City flood control and redevelopment. The concept includes a “Warehouse Park” to be constructed in the redevelopment proposal.
As many as $30 million could be expended in this long-term initiative. Inclusion of the Downtown Centre in the city’s planning seems logical. However, Washington County should not be expected to wait for months or years until Johnson City decides whether it will include the Downtown Centre in the redevelopment.
With several candidates running for County Mayor to replace Jaynes, it will be interesting to see if they have proposals concerning what to do with the building.
The candidates, along with interested readers, are invited to write a Letter to the Editor concerning their views. The newspaper can be contacted by mail at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, TN 37659, by e-mail at news@heraldandtribune.com, by fax at 423-753-6528 or during office hours Monday through Friday at 702 West Jackson Boulevard.

County teachers face too much ‘test pressure’

Washington County teachers apparently will have to “take another one for the team” when the new educational mandates go into effect.
In order to qualify for much needed monies from the federal government, teachers will be facing even more demands to show results from standardized tests as a measurement of their students’ academic improvements.
This time, not only will money be on the line, but in some cases, teachers’ employment futures will be on the block, based on how well or how poorly their students do.
The Tennessee legislature recently approved Governor Phil Bredesen’s plan to base 50 percent of public school teachers’ job evaluations on their students’ academic performance.
This is a drastic departure from the way Tennessee has always approached teacher evaluations.
For the first time, decisions about tenure, job retention, termination and compensation will sit squarely on the shoulders of student academic gains.
As usual, it’s all about the money. Tennessee lawmakers apparently felt they had no choice but to make this decision, in order to put the state in a competitive position for their fair share of a $485 million in federal grants.
That’s a big carrot to dangle and it was irresistible. The bill won a 29-3 Senate vote and the House agreed with an 83-9 vote.
With already mounting complaints about “teaching to the test,” this decision only drives the nail a little deeper. Thirty-five percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on student improvements on standardized test scores.
The other 15 percent will be measured by methods yet to be determined, but possibilities include reading assessments, college entrance tests, end-of-year subject tests and advance-placement testing.
Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes made the comment to the Herald & Tribune in a recent interview that “we live and die by testing.” Never before has that been so true. And, despite Dykes’ best efforts to push the testing dates back as far as possible, curves keep getting thrown at the Washington County school system. More and more days missed due to inclement weather means fewer and fewer days to get ready for the all-important tests.
No doubt, our teachers are feeling the pressure.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to the issue at this point. But as teachers work even harder than before to get ready for testing, the families of school-age children need to be mindful that they too are part of this team. Making sure your students are doing their homework, catching up on work missed, and studying materials that teachers send home is more important than ever.
This is no time for parents to sit back and expect the teachers to leap giant buildings in a single bound. They are not superheroes. They are hard-working professionals faced with a daunting task. And, unless they are successful, everyone loses.
With so much at risk, we urge you to become a team player with your children’s teachers. That is the only way we can all reach the goals that have been so politically and financially laid out before us.

Legislation to end ‘savage arts’ of shark finning

On October 3, 1793 in a small town in Pennsylvania, the Northumberland Gazette published a letter from a reader called ‘M.S.’ about the “ungenerous, mean sport” of angling.
This practice, it stated, “beguiles to death” a harmless trout, drives it from one end of its habitation to the other, “in the most agonizing distress, till spent and breathless, he yields to his destiny and the savage arts of man.”
M.S. would undoubtedly feel even more outraged at the practice of civilized man today, in regard to sharks.
Dominant inhabitants of the world’s oceans, these graceful and intelligent creatures have been around since the dinosaurs roamed the land, pre-dating humans by millions of years.
Against the human predator, however, they are defenseless. Millions being killed every year, population stocks in many species have shrunk by more than 90 percent since the 1970s, threatening their extinction.
A practice that chopped off people’s arms and legs, merely to get the 3-millimeter living (and keratin producing) portion of the matrix of their nails would be considered wasteful in the extreme, and condemned even more if the victims, minus limbs, were left to bleed to death.
It’s quite like “harvesting” sharks for their rudder organ, the fins. These being hacked off, usually off live animals, these are thrown back into the ocean, drowning and bleeding to death since now unable to swim.
Flavorless but reportedly giving a chewy “feel,” shark-fin soup is marketed as a delicacy.
Its consumption, restricted to the imperial family and persons of wealth in earlier times in China, has ballooned in that country. It can cost upwards of $100 per bowl, so a CNN report in 2008, or as little as $10 a bowl in buffet-style eateries where it is now widely offered.
Sharks of any age, size, or species are fair game in the lucrative enterprise that supplies the fin commodity. The global “free-market” at its worst, one would think, or yet its best, depending on one’s view as to its purpose in “serving” human amenities and whims.
A bill in the U.S. Congress, following passage in the House of Representatives last year is headed for the Senate. The bill (S. 850), Shark Conservation Act of 2009, would end finning in U.S. waters and by U.S .registered ships through requiring that any “landed” fins, or sharks, must be “naturally attached.” It encourages other nations, through sanctions if needed, to implement shark fishing regulations consistent with those placed on U.S. fishermen.
The citizen plea of two centuries ago is apt and urgent today, in support of this bill.
“Fish are a species of animals which ought to be exempt from our tyranny,” M.S. demanded. “They inhabit an element of their own: they encroach not on our rights, nor do they destroy our property.”
Torturing and dragging them “from the bosom of their home, to feed the luxurious appetite of man ought to be discountenanced with all force.”
One hopes for sentiments along these lines from Tennessee’s senators, in regard to the Shark Conservation bill.

Legislators receive 612-page budget, begin deliberations

COMMENTARY FROM STATE REP. MATTHEW HILL
The 106th General Assembly was presented with the proposed 2010-2011 state budget, as the Governor addressed a joint convention last Monday. Overall, the proposal includes a 5 to 6 percent decrease in the budget total, with roughly $200 million being used from both the Rainy Day Fund and the TennCare reserve fund.
Budget hearings are beginning in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee. Representatives from the various departments will be available during the hearings to answer questions.
In his speech, the Governor presented a quick overview of the 612-page budget that was delivered to legislators’ offices the same day. Though some specifics regarding revenue and proposed expenditures were outlined, I remain committed to fully discussing the budget over the coming weeks as I learn more details.
The Department of Safety had originally prepared to cut state troopers in 13 rural counties, but the proposed budget includes a driver’s license renewal fee increase intended to avoid layoffs and pay for new radio equipment for state troopers. Currently, it costs $19.50 every five years to renew a Tennessee driver’s license. The proposal increases that fee to $46 every eight years, which state officials say will make the process more efficient. Please let me know how you feel about this proposed fee increase.
The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System was not on the chopping block, as the system will receive an infusion of $82 million to shore up the fund. K-12 also escaped major cuts, with the proposal protecting BEP funding and even includes $47 million in growth. K-12 capital projects were cut, as were many capital projects across the state. However, money will not leave the classrooms in the budget as proposed.
In addition, the state will mostly avoid mass layoffs and the budget includes a one-time bonus of 3 percent for state employees. The Governor did outline a plan to eliminate 456 unfilled positions. The Governor addressed, that we “must adjust our expenses to match our income.” With the state in its 20th straight month of revenue decline—a record—some reductions are inevitable. They include $200 million in recurring reductions in TennCare; $64 million reduction in higher education; $20 million recurring reductions in K-12 capital projects; and $16 million in recurring Child Services.
The technical corrections bill originates in the Department of Revenue and proposes revenue increases through specific changes to the Tennessee Code.
This year, the legislation includes a tax on real estate investment trusts, and an increase in the cable tax, totaling $49.8 million among a few other smaller proposals.
The first $15 of cable TV service is currently taxed at 8.25 percent, with the rest being exempt. On the other hand, satellite TV is taxed at 8.25 percent, but without the $15 exemption. The technical corrections bill proposes to tax an entire cable TV bill at 8.25, bringing it in line with satellite service. Again, I would like your input on this proposed increase.
The “Secret Ballot Protection Act” appeared in the Employee Affairs Subcommittee last week, and was killed by Democrats on a straight party line vote. The proposal defines the denial of secret-ballot elections as an unfair labor practice. It also establishes penalties (class C misdemeanor) and civil remedies for violation.
The bill is a remedy for “card check,” which has been proposed in Congress. Card check would require unionization ballots to be public, so that unions could see if a worker voted for or against unionization. Currently, the vote on whether to unionize is a secret ballot, which protects workers from undue harassment by union leaders. The Secret Ballot Protection Act would declare that those votes remain private in order to protect workers.
The Republican sponsor argued that voting is sacred whether it is in the voting booth or the workplace, and that the bill is consistent with the state’s Constitution in guaranteeing ballot secrecy. Ultimately, however, the bill failed along party lines.
A bill that would have barred some local entities from requiring nutritional labeling on menus passed both the House and Senate last year, but was then vetoed by the Governor. Last year, lawmakers arguing in favor of the bill said mandating chain restaurants to put certain nutritional information on menus places an unnecessary burden on restaurant owners in an already struggling economy and creates an atmosphere that is unfriendly to business owners.
The legislation was amended to prohibit non-elected bodies from making the decision to require nutritional information on menus. It also specifies that if the federal government passes legislation requiring menu labeling and the federal action specifically authorizes state departments to enforce such action, then the Tennessee Department of Health will be the department that is primarily responsible for the implementation and supervision of the new requirements.
The Senate has already voted on the veto override, with a vote of 24- to 7. The House is expected to take up the veto override this week.
I am looking forward to seeing you and your family at one of my town hall meetings this week. I will be hosting meetings Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Cranberry Thistle, on Main Street in Jonesborough. We will meet from 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m. I will also be at the Telford Diner Friday, Feb. 12, from 5:30 p.m.- 7 p.m. Thank you for allowing me to serve you in Nashville.

Courthouse development, tourist zone could help Jonesborough

A ‘Courthouse Revitalization and Tourist Development Zone’ for the downtown historic district in Jonesborough is a great idea.
Residents of Tennessee’s oldest town have tried to think of ways to get increased funding for a heritage district centered around the Washington County Courthouse.
The Jonesborough idea has received the backing of the Washington County Commission. “What we have here is a great opportunity,” said Town Mayor Kelly Wolfe appearing before the commissioners on Monday, Jan. 25.
“Jonesborough has struggled to interest the state (in providing tourism dollars),” he said. If approved by the Tennessee Legislature, the Act would allow the state portion of sales tax generated in the district to be returned for projects in Jonesborough.
State Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) is the sponsor of the legislation that includes properties located within about 700 feet of Washington County’s Downtown Courthouse plus a public arts facility – identified at the meeting as the Booker T. Washington School facility.
The act also states: “The governing body of a municipality may designate the boundaries of a courthouse square revitalization and tourism development zone by adoption of an ordinance or resolution.”
Wolfe told the County Commission that various proposals have been made to get the state to provide more developmental dollars to Washington County, including a suggestion that a state park be established, an idea that has since been abandoned. Major improvements within the zone for which the revenue could be used include: improvements to and expansion of the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center; development of a new Visitor Center annex and history museum interpretive facility adjacent to the 1779 Chester Inn; moving the Christopher Taylor Log House to a more suitable location in Heritage Park near the one room Oak Hill School House; acquisition and restoration of the Jackson Theater; development of a Preservation Field School and a World of Stories Plaza at the International Storytelling Center.
Other possible uses of funding would include the restoration and development of interpretive areas in the McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School, placement of interpretation panels in the downtown historic district, important landscaping improvements, and development of a Railroad Museum in partnership with the Watauga Valley Railroad Association.
“Jonesborough has a tourism base that is unique,” Mayor Wolfe continued in saying that the development zone would be a further example of County and Town cooperative projects. He cited the construction of rest room facilities and improvement of the parking lot behind the Downtown Courthouse as projects underway that will benefit both governmental entities.
The act as now proposed will not involve any money from the county budget and educational funds in the tax collections will go to Washington County Schools. When asked if the State of Tennessee had agreed to the diversion of the sales tax money, Wolfe answered that “No, convincing the state is about to begin.” He told commissioners that Tennessee has funded six Courthouse Square Revitalization Zones, none of which are located in Northeast Tennessee. Their vote he said endorses the idea of allowing Jonesborough to receive sales tax revenue.
“What we can do is create a district around [Main Street] courthouse and get taxes back that can be used for improvements,” Jonesborough Town Administrator Bob Browning explains.
Browning believes Jonesborough can convince state representatives and senators to require the State of Tennessee to invest sales tax revenue that it would normally keep back into Main Street heritage and history projects as an economic development tool.
Under the proposed legislation, the amount of money generated over and beyond what has been collected in past years, based upon a certain time period comparison, is given back to the locality.
Jonesborough officials hope to combine the notion of a ‘tourist development zone’ with “courthouse square revitalization” to capture almost all of the sales tax revenue generated by local merchants.
“That’s what we’re really interested in,” Browning explained to Herald & Tribune Assistant Editor Kate Prahlad. “We’re creating sort of a combination thing.”
“The justification to the state is that we’re the oldest town and a serious tourist destination,” Browning said. He continued: “The state funds state parks that have tourist components to them, but it doesn’t happen in Jonesborough and Washington County. We don’t get any ongoing state allocation like other counties.”
What do readers think?
E-mail your ideas to news@heraldandtribune.com, fax the newspaper at 423-753-6528 or write a “Letter to the Editor” addressed to the paper at P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659.

Remembering Nobel prize winner Albert Camus

Another literature Nobel prize recipient — Albert Camus — was remembered in January who died, tragically, in an automobile accident that month, in 1960. Forty-seven at the time of his death, he had been one of the century’s most prolific and celebrated writers, devoting his literary career and social-political activism to the causes of peace, liberty, human dignity, freedom from oppression.
In the long struggle for these ideals, he would draw inspiration and spiritual uplifting from nature’s beauty in the landscape and seasons. “If I want to write about men,” he said, “how can I separate myself from the landscape?” His ten most favorite words, he noted, included “earth, desert, summer, sea, [and] world.”
Raised by a grandmother, in very poor circumstances in the then French colony of Algiers, as journalist for an Algerian newspaper he later documented the hardships of the indigenous Muslim population whose lands had been appropriated by French settlers, colonial administrators, and wealthy people.
One evening, watching night fall, he would write: “At that hour when the shadow which descends from the mountains to this splendid earth brings rest to the heart of the most hardened man, I knew nevertheless that there was no peace for those who, on the other side of the valley, were gathered around a biscuit of inferior barley. I also know how sweet it would have been to abandon oneself to an evening so magnificent, but that the misery represented by the fires on the opposite hill placed a kind of ban on the beauty of the world.”
A resistance worker during the German occupation of Paris, Camus maintained a lifelong, committed opposition to war and the horrors it inflicted on people. The carnage in Europe, over 25 years, had left 70 million men, women and children uprooted, deported, or killed. The resumption of colonial war, by France, in Indochina equally roused his opposition as did the war in Korea, or Stalin’s war against the Hungarian people. As the only national newspaper, Le Combat on whose staff Camus worked had editorialized against “the last degree of savagery” faced by humanity after development and use of the atom bomb. Untiringly he would continue to warn against the dangers of war, especially in the nuclear age, support alternative social-service options for conscientious objectors, and defend man’s ultimate right-to-life, against the death penalty. Though admitting hard battles ahead in the struggle for a world without violence, he retained the conviction that “peace will return to this disemboweled earth” and a new generation “remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant.”
Throughout life, he would find comfort, strength, hope in the beauty and resilience of nature.
“I would wait patiently all winter,” he wrote, “because I knew that in the course of one night, one cold, pure February night, the almond trees would be covered with white flowers. I would marvel then at the sight of this fragile snow resisting the rains and the wind from the sea. Every year it lasted just long enough to prepare fruit.”

Save the stream, skip the station

The two dozen people who attended a public hearing earlier this month concerning an application to relocate a portion of a stream on property located on Highway 11-E across from Persimmon Ridge set an example more residents should follow.
The hearing conducted by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation took place on a January evening when a bout of winter weather created dangerous driving conditions. Despite these challenges, citizens stayed and spoke out.
A proposed development by applicants John Molder and Sonja Bailey would permit the relocation of a stream in order to construct a gas station on the northeast corner of New Hope Road and Highway 11-E. The proposed development would require the relocation of 245 feet of a stream and would impact .094 acres of wetland.
Not only did the people who attended the meeting speak out, they also are now entitled to appeal the TDEC decision should the State issue a permit for the project.
Officials are now in the process of reviewing the application and comments to decide whether to deny a permit, issue one or provide for a conditional permit. The public comment period on the project ended on Jan. 22.
Residents who attended the meeting appeared knowledgeable, an essential requirement for those individuals who desired to publicly present their opinions.
Jeff Dupre, of Jonesborough, called the project “the establishment of a polluting business” and said “we’re going to wind up with a lot of stuff going into the creek that we don’t want.”
Charles Gutierrez, of Jonesborough, said he was “opposed to any construction near a water source” and voiced concern over “piecemealing” the 4.4 acres of wetlands in the area.
Local environmentalist Frances Lamberts commented on the possible adverse affects of the proposal, calling for more data before a decision is made.
Engineer Todd Wood spoke on behalf of the owners, explaining the entire property is approximately 5 acres in size, with .2 acres of wetlands within its boundaries. That .2 acres is part of a 4.4 acres of total wetlands in the surrounding area. In order to build the gas station, 245 feet of the 285-feet-long westerly stream needs to be relocated, he said.
Wood indicated that the stream becomes more of a “ditch” at some point and his proposals would “provide a better habitat” for aquatic life and “take a stream that is not of high quality itself” and make it better.
The stream relocation proposed to site another gas station should not have priority over preserving the environment.
The Herald & Tribune continuously promotes and reports on the activities of the business and commercial districts of Jonesborough.
However, the newspaper also wants TDEC to listen to citizen concerns on this issue and arrive at a solution that preserves the stream and adjacent wetlands.
What to readers think? Address “Letters to the Editor” to P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659. Fax letters to 423-753-6528 or e-mail them to news@heraldandtribune.com.
Please keep letters to the editor to 250 words or less and be sure to include your name, address and phone number for verification purposes.

Help Haiti any way you can

On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, the Caribbean nation of Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake, causing a catastrophe of such proportions that it is beyond the imagination of most of those reading these words.
Beyond the disaster of so many lives lost, is the staggering amount of work and money needed to help the survivors simply survive.
Facing months and years of rebuilding, aid is desperately needed to facilitate their recovery. Their living conditions are horrendous with thousands sleeping in the streets. Emergency relief workers from Samaritan’s Purse have described Haiti as “chaotic and disorienting.”
Unfortunately there are always irreputable “charities” and individuals who would accept donations and then take advantage of generous people. And, understandably, you may be reluctant to donate for fear of having your contribution misdirected.
After researching several agencies, both international and local, we would offer you the following websites of organizations which have proven trustworthy in the past: Samaritanspurse.org; compassion.org; worldvision.org; redcross.org; and safewaternexus.org.
A local ministry, Agape Christian Mission out of Avoca Christian Church is also collecting supplies for Haiti survivors. The mission has been building churches and school houses in Haiti for over 20 years.
The most urgently needed supplies include water purification tablets; food such as rice, dried beans, barley, powdered milk, and canned meat; personal items such as soap, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, toothpaste and brushes; health items such as fever reducers, decongestants, cough suppressants, antidiarrheal, antacids, topical antibiotic cream, bandages. If you can help with shipping funds, they are also needed desperately.
Two local churches are acting as drop-off points for Agape: Highlands Church of Christ in Gray, and Embreeville Church of Christ in Jonesborough.
We are certain that there are many more churches and charities which are active in the relief efforts. We urge you to take some time to think about ways you can help. Whether our means are great or small, there is something all of us can do.
The Herald & Tribune also invites other organizations to submit their contact information to let readers know other ways to help with the devastation in Haiti.

EPA should regulate coal combustion waste

The Environmental Protection Agency knew for a long time the public health threats from current coal-ash disposal methods.
In 2002, it finalized a risk report on the ash impoundments used by coal power plants. Nearby residents, it deduced from the screening, have a 1 in 50 chance of developing cancer through arsenic, a common pollutant in fly-ash sludge, if wells were their source of household water.
They are at increased risk as well for non-cancer diseases affecting the liver, kidney, lungs and other organs through unsafe levels of toxic metals in their water.
Many substances in the ash, seeping into groundwater and thence into streams, also endanger aquatic creatures since being found at tens, or even hundreds or thousands of times the threshold safe for them.
The agency acknowledged these risks but did not publish the report. Following Freedom of Information Act requests for it, EPA released censured documents, the key sections on cancer and ecological risks blacked out, in March 2007. Making public the 2002 assessment later that year, it omitted discussion of the high cancer and other health risks to people living near coal-ash impoundments.
Three months after TVA’s containment pond disaster at the Kingston power plant, in which a “sludge tsunami” of ash slurry covered a 300-plus acre area, EPA finally published the full text of the 2002 screening report and announced its intent to issue national regulatory standards for safe coal-waste disposal, by the end of 2009.
This deadline has come and gone. But now, a group of scientists, in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget which oversees regulatory policies from the White House has urged issuance of federal standards for coal-ash disposal, too long delayed.
Citing a “combined 100-plus years of research experience on the environmental fate and toxic impacts of coal combustion wastes,” they state that this waste is “a deadly poison to fish and wildlife and a threat to human health when improperly managed.”
The majority of ash-slurry lagoons, many hundreds of them across the country, lack liners, leachate collection systems and even systematic monitoring.
For only 89 ash disposal sites, the EPA in 2007 found sufficient technical information available to judge containment effectiveness.
Eighty percent of these had either proven damage, meaning off-site ground- and surface water contamination or potential damage, with groundwater polluted on-site but off-site movement unexamined.
Coal industry officials are lobbying against regulation of coal ash as the hazardous waste it is, arguing this to be “too expensive.”
Surely the billions in clean-up cost which TVA ratepayers will be burdened with, for damages from one disposal pond, the treatment costs for cancer and other diseases which thousands of citizens have to bear, and the damage to waters and wildlife are much greater expenses, offloaded as of now on the public.
The White House, remembering the President’s promise to let science inform policy should issue — and let the public know and have input to — protective federal standards for coal-waste disposal, forthwith.

U.S. Senate should scuttle Murkowski amendment

When the U.S. Forest Service, under its then Chief Dombeck, initiated a study on areas in the national forests that were still un-logged, and keep them so for posterity, the action aroused an outpouring of public support of unprecedented extent. When the Environmental Protection Agency, under order from the Supreme Court a decade later, announced a plan for regulation of the greenhouse gases that are harming the planet and human health, citizens again voiced their support in extraordinary numbers. The Agency, as readers of this column may recall, would require the largest industries to reduce these pollutant emissions to specified lower levels, from old facilities, within five years. For new facilities they might be planning they would need to use the best modern technology available, to keep these emissions low from the start.
As noted, the citizenry overwhelmingly said “Yes” to the plan. One knows, after all, that the Clean Air Act requires the Agency to protect the public from exposure to substances that place its health and the environment at risk. A massive body of scientific research has shown a range of harm from the heat-trapping gases and their clear threat to people and the biological world all around us. But special-interest lobbyists, one learns, are signaling an industry “No” to the plan and, with help from some in the Congress, are moving to derail it.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. Senator, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) “has proposed an amendment to an unrelated, fast-moving bill” that would prevent the EPA from acting on global warming pollution under the clean-air law. For a member of Congress, one might object, to seek to have the law disobeyed (along with the High Court ruling ordering it to be upheld) is an egregious interference with the constitutional principle of separation of powers — the Congress being the body make the laws, the Executive branch to carry them out, “faithfully” and the Court to enforce their execution, if needed. The amendment strikes at the very heart of the Clean Air Act — its ability, through science and regulation, to protect the public from harmful pollution. This protection, among the blessings of democratic laws, can only be guaranteed if these are carried out “in resolute and fearless fashion,” as President Theodore Roosevelt used to say.
Addressing global warming pollution is the most critical need of our time. The President’s efforts to implement existing law in this regard, in the practical way proposed by the Agency and supported by the public, should not be waylaid in the Congress. As well, to do so would undermine our international credibility, as the President has helped secure, in Copenhagen, important emissions-reduction commitments from all the countries that are the major polluters now, including China and India. Here, too, how true the earlier president’s, Teddy Roosevelt’s words: How can we “ask equity when we do not do equity”?
Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker should be encouraged to vote against the Murkowski amendment, not suggest Tennessee citizens’ support for it.

TDOT’s road solutions should have more balance

Replacement of the 1907 Clinchfield Railroad single-lane tunnel on Knob Creek Road in Washington County is critical to the needs of emergency vehicles attempting to serve residents of the area.
As reported by Herald & Tribune Staff Writer Saundra Kelley, the tunnel is “causing tempers to rise and traffic to bottleneck as increasing numbers of drivers find themselves waiting to pass through” from one side of the crossing to the other. Johnson City Interim Fire Chief Mark Finucane says that not all fire trucks can pass through the tunnel because of their size. He explains: “Most of them either come in through Market Street/ 11E to Claude Simmons, or through Knob Creek, but that makes the response time unacceptable.”
Finucane continues: “Our commitment is to get equipment to a burning building within 4 minutes. The tunnel has a negative impact on our ability to do that.”
The State of Tennessee has a proposed solution to the tunnel: Realign Knob Creek from west of Claude Simmons Road to east of Mountainview Road, and replace the underpass with an overpass to be built 575 feet northwest of the existing tunnel.
The project will straighten and connect the east and west portions of Knob Creek Road without the need of a tunnel. However, several parcels of land on a portion of Knob Creek Road being used as a connection to Claude Simmons Road and Mountain View are historic properties.
While the need for realignment is apparent, care should be taken to preserve what remains of cultural and historic significance along Knob Creek. Sadly, properties worthy of historic designation in the area have already been encroached to the point they no longer fit the description required to stay on the historic register, according to a 2005 Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) study preparatory to beginning construction on the overpass.
This situation has caused resident James Sell, owner of several parcels of the historic property, to suggest an alternative: “All they have to do is go under the existing tunnel and tracks like they did in Kingsport at Eastman. It would be the cheapest thing to do. If you go higher, it will be tremendously expensive no matter how they do it.” As a major employer and large corporation, Eastman has the ability to influence the thinking of those in authority at the Transportation Department. This may not be the case with residents in the Knob Creek community.
Kelley’s investigation revealed that many people are unaware of the State’s construction plans. Recently, Jonesborough residents have experienced TDOT proposals that have adversely affected Five Points Grocery. Such action gives little reassurance that the State will respect the scenic views and open spaces that are important to people living in rural areas. Why the State of Tennessee wants to build a viaduct over an already elevated railroad bed challenges our view of a common sense solution to this road construction project. The elevated structure will likely require a lot more land and cause another highway eyesore in an area that deserves to be preserved.
Further explanation of the project and consideration of tunneling appears warranted. The project is necessary and should be constructed. However, a balancing of the need for modern transportation roadways while preserving the past is called for in the reconstruction of the 1907 Clinchfield tunnel.
What do readers think? “Letters to the Editor” can be addressed to P. O. Box 277, Jonesborough, Tennessee 37659; fax us at 423-753-6528, come by the office at 702 W. Jackson Blvd., or e-mail the newspaper at news@heraldandtribune.com

Answer the 2010 Census

Once upon a midnight dreary,
while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’
The lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven would indicate that the subject of his poem feared and dreaded hearing someone knocking at his door.
No worries…when someone taps at your door in April, it will probably just be a Census taker.
This year every household in the country will receive a census questionnaire, which will be mailed out in March. You will be asked to fill it out and return it as soon as possible.
But you know how it goes; not everyone will be on the same page. That’s when the Census takers or field workers, as they are called, will step in. They will visit every house that didn’t reply.
Why is getting this information so important?
The Census data directly affects how more than $400 billion per year in federal and state funding is allocated. Those statistics can directly affect you and your family. Depending on the collected information, you may or may not get a new school, neighborhood improvements, new roads and improvements for police and fire departments.
Those numbers also are used to decide the number of seats each state has in the U. S. House of Representatives and how to redistrict state legislatures.
In other words, the term, “knowledge is power” is an excellent way to describe the collected and compiled Census data.
Completing the form will be easier this time, with the Census form even more streamlined than in years before. This year’s slogan is “10 Questions, 10 minutes.”
There won’t be any personal questions about income or religion and they won’t ask you for your Social Security number. The questionnaire doesn’t even get into whether or not you are a legal citizen.
With over 300 million of us living in the United States, the 2010 Census has a lot of ground to cover.
So let’s make it easy on everyone. Save the field workers some steps by filling out the form and sending it back. That way, the Census Bureau will have the information it needs and then you won’t have someone “rapping, rapping” at your door.

The race is on for better educational opportunities

Gov. Phil Bredesen is exercising his constitutional authority to call for a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly focusing on education, including both K-12 and higher education.
That session, set to begin today, is sure to benefit education.
The special session coincides with the start of the regular legislative session, placing education first on lawmakers’ agendas as they return to the Capitol.
In making his decision, Bredesen acknowledged this year’s tight budget but noted, “Sometimes the stars line up to create an opportunity that no one expected. And when you’re in public office, you’re obligated to seize the moment when that happens.”
Bredesen went on to say there has been “a couple of unique, unexpected opportunities drop in our lap” this year that he believes will “allow us to focus on the entire education pipeline in one fell swoop and hopefully make some changes that will be felt for years to come.”
The federal government’s “Race to the Top” competition is one of those opportunities, as states will compete for a share for more than $4 billion in Recovery Act funds. “Race to the Top” applications are due Jan. 19. The U.S. Department of Education has said states that will be the most competitive will be those that already have policy changes in place at the time of application.
The second part of the Governor’s call for a special session will involve higher education.
“In 2010, it’s only natural that we focus on the entire education pipeline as we look to create a more skilled workforce,” Bredesen said. “As we all know, it’s not just about getting kids through high school anymore. It’s also about students completing their degrees or certificates so they can get high-quality jobs and have a decent quality of life.”
Among changes Bredesen will call on lawmakers to consider is modernizing the state’s funding formula for higher education to make it substantially based on performance, such as higher degree completion rates.
Bredesen is urging lawmakers to join with him to take advantage of these unique opportunities to accomplish good things for Tennessee schools and students.
“I’ve said often that in public life, it’s easy to say ‘I’m for education,’ but it’s much harder to step up and demonstrate that in a meaningful way,”
Bredesen has made education a top priority as the Legislature goes back into session.
Hopefully, Northeast Tennessee and Washington County representatives and senators will find much to their liking in Bredesen’s efforts to “get some things done.”
With federal dollars at stake, quick action is needed to meet the “Race to the Top” deadline.
It’s time for state legislators to lace up those sneakers, because this is one race Tennessee cannot afford to lose.
 

WCBA Provides Pro Bono Services

The Washington County Bar Association is to be complemented for its charitable work in 2009 benefiting area institutions and residents.
According to the WCBA, the association, composed of members of the legal community, performed the following pro bono activities (free services provided during the year “for the public good or welfare”):
• Participated in the state wide pro bono public service day known as “Justice 4-All” by volunteering legal services to low income individuals on April 4, 2009 at the offices of Legal Aid of East Tennessee. 
As a result, 43 people were assisted in more than 20 areas of law.  In addition to the lawyers who volunteered, the staff of LAET and several interpreters donated their time to this project.
• Held a Pro Bono Public Service day for a second time on Aug. 15, 2009, at the offices of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, during which 33 people were assisted in more than 10 areas of law and from which several attorneys agreed to accept pro bono matters for further assistance.
• Implemented a monthly legal clinic on the first Saturday of each month at The Good Samaritan Ministries to continue providing volunteer legal services to low income members of our community.
•  Formed the Committee to Develop Legal Assistance and through that committee created The Circuit and Chancery Court Pro-Se Clinic which is now functioning each month. 
Attorneys volunteer to appear in court on the scheduled dates of the program to meet with unrepresented individuals on the docket for assistance within certain parameters.   
In support of this program, the WCBA purchased a laptop with wireless capability, and a printer for use in drafting simple documents. 
• Participated in the Legal Aid of East Tennessee Phone-A-Thon in December 2009
• Created the C.A.R.E Campaign (Caring Attorneys Reaching Everyone). 
This charitable drive took place over a three month period. Each month was designated for gifts to be given to a recipient organization.  Over the course of the drive, the WCBA through donations from the members of the bar and their assistants:
* Donated the equivalent of more than 22,000 pounds of food to Second Harvest Food Bank;
*Donated more than 1,500 pieces of clothing for children to the Salvation Army; and
*Donated more than 350 wish-list items for use at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.
Lawyers and the legal system are often criticized. Because of the sometimes controversial nature of legal work, the public does not always understand that these professional also seek to improve the welfare of the communities in which they live and work.
The WCBA’s efforts in 2009 remind us of the positive contribution to society this segment of the community can have. Kudos to those individuals who took part in these activities. We hope to see similar reports for 2010.

Mountaintop mining: “The science is irrefutable”

In such bitter cold as has held sway in our region these weeks, two cyclists (with a support vehicle) rolled into Jonesborough a year ago, our Town their first stop on the pedaling trip to Washington, DC.
University of Tennessee law student Sam Evans and Conservation Fisheries biologist Missy Petty would brave the season’s cold, and slick and icy roads to bring their concerns about mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, and a petition to end its stream-burial practice, to the new administration. The mountain-blasting method of coal extraction, having denuded thousands of ridgetop acres in neighboring states and covered hundreds of streams under valley fills, was headed for the Cumberland Plateau’s green mountains, their streams rich in fish and mussel species and exceptionally diverse of aquatic life.
That mountaintop mining harms streams and wildlife, economic vitality in mountain communities and their residents’ health had long been known. Assessments of many facets of it, by scientists from earth-study as well as social- and economic-study domains, had been made public in Environmental Impact Statement findings, in 2004. They had revealed hydrology scientists’ concern that the headwater streams, “collection points for all surface and groundwater within a watershed” were lost in this mining and, in the rubble and “spoil disposal” from blown-up mountains, “all water bearing strata [were] lost.” They had shown as much as one-third of the stream-generating acreage being lost in watersheds in affected mountain ranges, both fish species and benthic-creature aquatic species reduced, sometimes by two-thirds.
They had made plain the near irreversibility of forest and wildlife loss, though mined sites be “reclaimed”: such degree of compaction was necessary to stabilize slopes and prevent rockslides from mined sites that “the rooting medium,” lacking adequate aeration, nutrients and water “severely reduces tree growth.” They had noted lack of standardized methods to evaluate, and address in permits for this mining, heightened flooding potential that down-slope communities would face after removal of the mountains’ forests and their rain-absorbing soils.
But the administration, then, had loosened and “streamlined” the permitting rules, making MTR mining more widespread. The regulations of pivotal national environmental laws had been changed through executive directive or rulemaking. Federal wildlife scientists would not need to be consulted in permit review, the Clean Water Act’s “fill” rule changed to legalize stream burial, and its buffer-zone rule made discretionary in MTR mining.
Present on the National Mall on inauguration day, Mr. Evans no doubt was hearted by President Obama’s pledge to “restore science to its rightful place.” In a Science article this January 8, a group of internationally respected, U.S. experts on hydrology, engineering and ecology confirm the “severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining.”
They attest these to be pervasive and long lasting, mitigation ineffectual to reverse the damage from them, and the scientific evidence of its harm “strong and irrefutable.” The scientists’ urgent call for a moratorium on further MTR permits will be heard by the administration, one hopes, given its promise that science will inform policy, not policy bend the science.

Development plans for the wetlands meadow

A guest column in the Johnson City Press in November bore this headline: “Finding clean water could be a struggle in the future.”
Charles Moore, its author, pointed out the high rate of water violations across all states, through inadequate water-laws enforcement and “punishment” for dumping contaminants.
He pointed to the “uphill battle to reverse the damage to our water supply,” since ever more storm water runoff goes into the rivers through land development. This problem he characterized as one of “too much concrete and not enough grass.”
The Town of Jonesborough faces a stark example of this problem. A proposal before it would place a convenience mart and auto service establishment within a wetland meadow whose rainwater storage, and the streams emanating from it, are the lifeblood of the Persimmon Ridge Wetland.
They feed clean headwaters supply to Little Limestone creek, barely more than a mile downstream from the meadow. This inflow is badly needed in Little Limestone, which has suffered an overburden of pollution, unresolved by the Town, for many years.
We cannot create more water. We must preserve it and to maintain its life-giving purity. We must maintain the farmland, green landscape, forests and wetland meadows we still have, on which its origination and steady supply depend.
Yet every minute, per the Tennesseean in October, two acres of farmland are paved over in urban-sprawl development, Tennessee being in the top 10 states for such loss. The land-conversion trend in one county near Nashville, erasing fully one-fifth of its prime farmland within just five years this decade, could well mirror the losses in our own region if development-as-usual dominates over land-and-water conservation need.
Growing disruption of rainfall patterns through changing climate will also continue to put more stress on creeks, lakes, and water bearing strata, even as population growth heightens demands for water.
The loss of wells and springs in the Watauga Flats community, historically low water levels in the reservoirs, Gap Creek going dry for the first time in Elizabethton, Mountain City having to ration some water uses, all in this decade, should be heard as alarum bells. The last years’ severe drought was followed this year by excessive rains, often in downpours causing flooding disruption and damage in and around our town.
Even the small part of the meadow’s wetlands that would be destroyed through the development might be that tenth-acre flood barrier loss the Town could come to regret in the future.
Not least, as well, is the matter of esthetics and preservation of the view shed to Persimmon Ridge.
Said Robert Johnson, among the conservation movement leaders around President Roosevelt, in 1910: “The first thing a man does [when able to] is to invest his money in some form of beauty. He settles in a town mainly because it is beautiful, and he is all the happier if his home can command an attractive natural view.”
The Town should consider the nearby homeowners’ investment in this, and all Jonesborough citizens in regards this development proposal.

Two New Year’s resolutions for the Town of Jonesborough

Last week it was suggested that Washington County’s New Year’s Resolution should be the installation of clean utility water to all residents.
This week two New Year’s Resolutions for the Town of Jonesborough are suggested: (1) proceed with increasing the town’s sewage treatment capacity and (2) deal fairly and openly with town residents in solving the community’s traffic problems.
Good news concerning the sewer system was reported to readers of the Herald & Tribune in a front-page article on December 1, 2009. The news story written by Assistant Editor Kate Prahlad was titled: “WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES: Town sewer plant in compliance with state.”
To review, the Town faced fines up to $400,000 after Little Limestone Creek ran black with untreated sewage plant discharges. A Commissioner’s Order from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) reviewed the nearly 40 violations a month that were taking place.
The TDEC capped discharges into the creek at 500,000 gallons a day, a figure still in force. As of the date of this editorial, the number of violations has been cut to only a couple of month and State Agency spokesman Tisha Calabrese-Benton says Jonesborough is in complete compliance with the department’s enforcement order.
Town Administrator Bob Browning credits the following steps leading to compliance by Tennessee’s Oldest Town – facing problems with sewage settlement in the second stage of treatment, a new interceptor line was installed.
This dramatically cut the amount of water flowing into the treatment plant during storms by 100,000 to 200,000 gallons a day.
Steps permitting Jonesborough to maintain the proper amount of oxygen within its sewage system were also helped by retrofitting blowers that put air into settlement basins and plans were completed for a supplemental air system.
The Town has also invested in telemetry to allow it to know the operations of each of the 34 pump stations along the sewer line without having to physically inspect each station.
The steps mentioned in the preceding paragraph merely maintain a system that needs a major improvement.
The plant’s discharge needs to be moved from Little Limestone Creek to the Nolichucky River.
Prahlad reported: “As the town grows, it will have to deal with more sewage, but it can’t expand its connections until it has capacity to deal with more sewage, but it can’t expand its connections until it has the capacity to deal with more gallons per day. Unlike Little Limestone, the Nolichucky River can handle more than 500,000 gallons per day.” The story further stated “…last month the plant was averaging 710,000 gallons a day.”
In our opinion and in view of what is at least a positive Water/Sewer Reserve Fund balance, aggressive action should be taken now to move the discharge line to the Nolichucky River.
The BMA should also consider what additional steps need to be taken in improvements to the existing sewage treatment plant.
This newspaper has received more “Letters to the Editor” concerning treatment of the owner of Five Points Grocery than on any recent topic of interest to Jonesborough residents.
Without again reviewing the options available to the BMA, it is our opinion that the topic should again be addressed.
No construction is currently underway at the site, and an alternative in the form of the installation of traffic lights at this congested and dangerous intersection is available to planners and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Likewise, improvements to Jackson Boulevard in connection with access to the Mayor George P. Jaynes Justice Center of Washington County need to be explained to residents.
While meetings with property owners, public hearings, and change orders to accommodate the wishes of residents take time, in the long run these efforts usually result in positive changes and favorable community opinions.
A more sensitive approach to traffic concerns is suggested to Town officials in today’s comments without placing blame on any individual for oversights in the past.
These are two suggestions on Resolutions for the Town of Jonesborough during 2010. Hopefully, officials will take appropriate action on both of them.