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In attempt to save money, department of economic development cut

The Department of Economic Development was recently terminated after Monroe County Mayor Mitch Ingram obtained approval from the county commission.

According to Ingram, the decision to close the department was strictly budgetary.

“In the past couple of years we have been in a budget crunch in the county and we have been looking for avenues and ways that our tax dollars are spent in a way that touches the most lives,” said Ingram. “We felt that this was a department that can be handled through my office, solely through my staff and myself personally.”

He believed closing the department was the best decision after looking through 10 years of the department’s budget history.

“It was a very tough decision to make and we felt that this was one of the things that we could do to help our part of the budget,” Ingram noted.

He said he has also looked into other departments, some of which have already made cuts, to see if there are areas they could continue to cut from without having to completely close other departments down.

“We feel that we can save roughly $180,000 to $200,000 from the economic development department, but that department will have some things in it that we will have to fund and handle out of our office,” Ingram stated. “Another thing is that I can have a more hands-on approach with business and industry recruiting, expansion of the industrial park and things like that.”

He mentioned that he hates to see anybody lose their jobs due to the closure of the department.

He did note that the county is still eligible for all funds and grants despite no longer having the economic department.

“We feel that this is low hanging fruit and that we will be able to adjust and still maintain our service,” Ingram said.

On Memorial Day, Dr. Hugh McCampbell, of Sweetwater, a retired large animal veterinarian and U.S. Army Veterinary Corps veteran, participated in Taps Across America at his home on Mayes Avenue. Earlier this year, retired Chief United States Air Force Bugler Jari Villaneuva launched the idea to invite and encourage all trumpeters and buglers across the country to play taps at 3 p.m. (in each time zone) on Memorial Day. He also asked that anyone hearing taps played, to stop what they were doing, face the music, and be silent in a gesture of gratitude and respect to honor fallen war heroes. Having seen an announcement on the Sweetwater City website, about 20 people gathered in front of the McCampbell’s home for the playing of taps and spontaneously sang “God Bless America” afterwards.

Woman says she was held, raped and beaten for four days

A Tellico Plains area man was arrested May 24 after a woman claimed he kidnapped and raped her after they had cleaned a house together.

Monroe County Sheriff’s Detective Jason Fillyaw said deputies and EMS were sent to a house on Smithfield Road after a woman called 911 saying she’d been held captive and raped.

When officers arrived at the house, they met with the woman who told them approximately four days earlier she was contacted through Facebook by Trace Lee Mason about doing some work for him.

She said she agreed to do the work and Mason picked her up at her home and they cleaned a home in the Coker Creek area. She said they then went to Mason’s home on Smithfield Road and while there Mason allegedly assaulted her with a crossbow, his fists and what appeared to be an ax handle.

She also claimed Mason raped her on the living room floor and again in his bed. She said he removed his bed sheets and poured bleach on them after the alleged rape. She said he also made her throw her underwear in the trash.

She said Mason, after four days, brought another woman to the house, then left with her. She used that time to run to the neighbor’s house and call 911.

Fillyaw said deputies went to Mason’s house and found him and the other woman. Mason was taken to the Monroe County Justice Center while Fillyaw said he took the woman to her house, interviewing her along the way.

Mason, 34, a registered sex offender, was charged with aggravated rape, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and violation of the sex offender registry.

Coronavirus shutdowns lead to big increase in unemployment rate

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have appeared in the April unemployment rates as the local area saw a major spike.

Monroe County saw an 18.3% increase in unemployment, giving the county a rate of 21.9% for April.

According to State of Tennessee Statistical Analyst Patrick Todd, the increase in the amount of unemployment was unpredictable.

“This is such a wild card that I don’t know if I had any expectations other than there being some pretty big increases,” said Todd. “Whether those would be 5 to 10% increases or 15 to 20% was really anybody’s guess. In fact I think McMinn and Monroe are the highest ever on rates.”

He stated that his records go back as far as 1990 meaning this is the highest rate the county has seen in 30 years.

“The hope is that this spike is temporary and that these job losses are just temporary furloughs and that people will be able to start working again pretty soon,” Todd stated. “It is anybody’s guess at this point and it could take a while.”

He believes the employment affects of the virus may not go away for a while.

“I don’t think next month we will be down to 3% or 4% ... that was sort of historic low territory in itself, but I wouldn’t expect to see anything real sharp in the next month,” said Todd. “You may see a modest decline and it kind of depends on how many of these job losses are permanent job losses and we may not know that for a while.”

He believes the majority of the permanent closures will be from small businesses.

“Unemployment may be with us for a while, but hopefully maybe it won’t be long,” he stated.

In surrounding counties, there were similar increases. The rates went up 11.3% in Blount County giving that county a rate of 14.4%, Loudon County went up 11.8% for a rate of 15.2%, McMinn rose 13.7% for a rate of 17.3% and Polk County increased by 9.8% for a rate of 13.4%.

All 95 counties across the state saw huge increases. The rate is now between 5% and 10% in only three counties, between 10% and 20% in 79 counties and above 20% in 13 counties.

The counties where the rate remains in single digits are Fayette County (9.4%), Hardeman County (9.7%) and Weakley County (9.6%).

Hardeman County saw the smallest rise in Tennessee, with a 5.2% increase.

Monroe Schools considering four scenarios to hold classes in fall

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the spring semester, the Monroe County School System is currently developing several plans to start the next school year.

The school board is drafting multiple plans for different scenarios in order to make sure they can continue to develop students’ education regardless of any COVID-19 situation.

According to Director of Schools DeAnna McClendon, four scenarios have already been drafted as well as variations of each scenario to allow flexibility as well as the ability to switch between plans should the need arise.

The first scenario is to reopen the schools with 100% in-person learning without physical distancing or other public health strategies.

The second scenario is similar, with 100% in-person learning however it will focus on social distancing and other health recommendations.

The third scenario will focus on reopening the schools with a combination of in-person and distance learning, which will occur with the in-person learning taking place at the school while practicing social distancing and online extended distance learning.

The last scenario they have currently drafted will be to extend the online education with a revised approach that will build upon the strengths of the current distance learning approach and attempt to make good use of opportunities for improvement.

They hope to organize the scenarios to be flexible enough that the plans could be interchangeable to reflect any necessity of conditions that may arise after the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

A list of items are guiding the development of the strategies.

The list includes: student and teacher schedules (including the amount of time in live, interactive, face-to-face “synchronous” distance learning); serving the needs of students with disabilities and those learning english; the social-emotional needs of students and adults; assessment and grading; cleaning protocols; and enhanced 100% distance learning options for parents who choose not to send students back to school, even if Monroe County Schools is offering in-person learning.

Their plans will be based on feedback from five stakeholder groups along with “evolving” information in order to work towards a detailed plan for the start of the new school year.

“We recognize that the way in which we start the new school year will have major implications for students, parents, staff members, employers and the broader community,” McClendon said in an email to The Advocate & Democrat. “For example, imagine the scenario in which we might reopen schools with a combination of in-person and distance learning. The need for physical distancing and other public health strategies in this scenario would affect many aspects of school operations, including: the number of students that can be present in a classroom or a school at any one time; bus transportation; procedures for entering school, moving within schools and departing schools; and meal service within schools.”

Another example she gave was if they reopened school with the combination of in-person and distance learning, that would allow a limited to number of students to physically attend the school (per school day) while others continue their studies online.

She noted that she would also be looking out for the current CDC recommendations during the time the schools are scheduled to reopen.

“We all know the CDC produced guidelines but I don’t think they have any teachers on their task force,” McClendon stated. “I don’t know if there is a plan that anyone can develop to address concerns, but I will be looking at those recommendations along with what and how I can follow.”

The school board also plans to receive information from a group of citizens (staff and parents) as the new school session approaches.

“Moving ahead, in early June, we will solicit feedback from a variety of internal and external stakeholders to inform the ongoing revisions and enhancements to our scenario plans. We will conduct focus groups with multiple parents, employees and community groups,” said McClendon. “Planning groups will develop new plans to address requirements not previously considered. In every case, we will evaluate scenarios and plans for viability and safety. Throughout the process, the school board will review our work, while also revising policies and allocating resources, as needed, to support success.”

The school board currently has plans to update the community by the beginning of July regarding their future plans for the new school year, which is scheduled to start on Aug. 7.

“It is an understatement to say that this is a difficult situation for every member of our community. With that in mind, our commitment to community care includes continuing to work to meet the academic, physical health and mental wellness needs of our students,” McClendon said. “Community care also involves striving to help parents, employees and the broader community thrive, not just endure, as we meet our challenges. We will be Monroe Strong for the new school year. Right now we have more questions than answers and we just have to build our plan to be as flexible as possible, but we will have to ask for a lot of grace and mercy from employees and parents as we figure this out.”