Many of the year’s best reporting in Elizabethton and Carter County had something in common with the many reporting from the rest of the world: the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the community.
Carter and Elizabethton County had many offices that were restricted to public access or closed for part of the year. Many businesses and restaurants have been closed or the number of customers allowed inside the business has been restricted. Many companies have expanded public access through other measures, such as more door-to-door deliveries or drive-through services.
Governments also found new ways to provide access to citizens even when public meetings were restricted. Instead of meeting at the courthouse or city hall, government officials virtually gathered on Zoom and other internet meeting platforms, allowing the public not only to attend meetings, but also to contribute to the debates.
Schools also transformed how they functioned during this period, with expanded internet-based classrooms. Schools in Carter County faced a particular challenge as there were several areas in the more mountainous sections of the county without internet access. The school district has been working to have schools in these sections serve as Internet hubs and provide Wi-Fi signals in school parking lots and distribute personal hotspots to families in these regions. Schools also made efforts to distribute free school meals during this period when school cafeterias were not open.
With the pandemic forcing more people to stay at home and others to avoid crowded places, some businesses have been forced to close and more buyers have resorted to internet shopping.
Since local governments in Tennessee depend on sales tax for a large portion of their revenue, there were concerns that the impact of this change in the economy would impact local government budgets.
Elizabethton was a local government that was particularly concerned. The town had a brand new CFO, Preston Cobb. He said the city’s solution was to play it safe by adopting a particularly meager budget for the year.
âWe wanted to avoid any self-inflicted issues by going for a real meager budget,â Cobb said. He and members of city council expected a small source of sales tax revenue. Expenses for the year were reduced to meet expectations of rationalization.
Cobb said it turned out people continued to go to the grocery store and buy from Lowe’s as they shop more online. With the sales tax not coming down as much as feared, Cobb said the city’s finances came out of the fiscal year in a much stronger shape after the lean year.
Workforce Development Complex
Carter County Mayor Patty Woodby, Carter County Director of Schools Tracy McAbee, and other county government leaders worked to transform the workforce development complex into a plaque turn for the centralization of the county’s continuing technical education and the expansion of educational opportunities at Northeast Community College and Tennessee College. of Elizabethton Applied Technology.
Local leaders kept state officials informed of their plans and highlighted how those plans dovetailed with Gov. Bill Lee’s stated plans for education. Their efforts culminated with a trip to Nashville on August 12, where local leaders presented blueprints and diagrams of their plans to the governor and state education officials.
The governor then included a stop at the Workforce Development Complex during a trip to northeast Tennessee on November 30. Woodby escorted Lee through the 50-year-old building and discussed the transformation she and local officials hope to accomplish if a $ 20 million state grant investment can be secured.
This would include centralized career technical education for the county’s four secondary schools; a dual enrollment partnership between the four high schools and Northeast State and TCAT-Elizabethton.
After the tour, Lee held a short press conference in which he said, âWhat I’ve seen here is a collaboration and partnership with TCAT, Northeast State, Carter County School System and community leaders all coming together to provide opportunities for people in that community. . This is what happens when people work together and this community works together to provide opportunities for young people and adults.
Lee said he has seen an increase in vocational technical education across the state since he introduced his governor’s investment program in vocational education. He said he wanted to make it possible for more people who have the talents to use their hands to obtain the necessary skills. Lee said that beyond helping individuals, the increased opportunities for skills development make Tennessee a more attractive state for business and industry to expand or relocate.
Elizabethton Police Department
Several years of planning and acquiring adjoining parcels of property came to fruition this year with the opening of the new Elizabethton Police Department Headquarters.
The complex includes the original renovated Police Department building at 525 E. F Street. This once served as the public entrance to the police department, but the entrance has now been sealed. An adjacent section, which once housed Dr. George Zorawski’s dental practice, has been incorporated into the facility.
The biggest change took place just west, at 511 E. F St., which was once the warehouse for Ritchie’s Furniture. This two-story brick structure has been transformed from a warehouse to an office building, with public access on the first floor.
The renovations will mean that the various departments that were scattered across other city-owned buildings, such as the Criminal Investigation Division, which was located in the basement of the Elizabethton / Carter County Public Library, will now be gathered at the headquarters of the police service. .
The next construction effort for the Police Department will be to rebuild the Sugar Hollow Range. This will be accomplished through an agreement with the engineers of the 357th Engineer Support Company of the 844th Engineer. United States Army Reserves Battalion.
Benfield guilty of lesser charge
Among its other impacts on the community, the Covid-19 pandemic has also ended most jury trials over the past year and a half. The need for social distancing made it difficult to contain a jury in the tight space of the jurors’ lodge and deliberation room. There were many other challenges, including the movement of witnesses, which made it difficult to hold trials during the year.
One trial that did take place was the first degree murder trial of Chad Anthony Benfield in the death of 89-year-old Mary Nolen. The trial took place the first week of December and the jury found Benfield not guilty of first degree murder, but found him guilty on two counts of criminally negligent homicide, a lesser offense included.
Benfield had been accused of entering Nolen’s home on July 13, 2017 and raping and beating her. Nolen was found in bed by her family the next morning and rushed to Johnson City Medical Center, where she died two weeks later. Benfield’s DNA was found on Nolen’s body, but Benfield’s lawyer Chris Byrd said his client and Nolen were neighbors and the DNA could have been transferred between them by a companion dog.
“This was obviously a compromise verdict,” said defense lawyer Chris Byrd, when asked by Johnson City Press about the verdict. He said it was obviously much better for his client than a life sentence that a first degree murder charge could have resulted in. “It is a Class E crime, which means it carries a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of six years.” The jury also imposed a fine of $ 3,000 for each of the two convictions.
Judge Lisa Rice has scheduled a sentencing hearing for Benfield for the afternoon of February 14. Rice will also consider two other charges against Benfield that are still pending, namely the sexual exploitation of a minor and the attempted sexual exploitation of a minor.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Horne said the state of South Carolina wanted Benfield as well. He said Benfield had already served a 17-year sentence in South Carolina on several counts of burglary. Horne said he is now wanted in South Carolina for parole violation. Benfield is said to have violated his parole by leaving South Carolina and moving to Tennessee.