McMinn County Mayor John Gentry expects 2021 to be a year of obstacles and opportunities.
In an interview with The Daily Post-Athenian on Sunday, Gentry said COVID-19 continues to be at the forefront of issues facing McMinn County in the new year. However, he believes many positives are on the horizon despite the ongoing fight with the pandemic.
“If we’re free of negative outside influences, I think 2021 has a lot to look forward to locally,” he said.
Gentry noted the opening of the McMinn Higher Education Center in the spring.
“It has the potential to change the course of families for generations as people find new trades and higher standards of living; higher paying jobs and finding that purpose and talent that they have. That’s exciting,” he said.
Gentry added that construction of the multi-purpose industrial training center located in the Athens-McMinn Interstate Industrial Park should be complete in April. At that point, it will be turned over to the Tennessee Board of Regents and the entities that will occupy the facility can begin moving in, which will include Cleveland State Community College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology and University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension.
In addition to the start of the project to consolidate Athens City Schools’ four elementary schools, the McMinn County School System also has a comprehensive consolidation plan in place.
“COVID made us have to put that on the back burner, which is totally understandable,” he said. “The Board of Education had to figure out how to educate students in the midst of a pandemic.”
With the COVID vaccines currently being administered and new vaccines preparing for authorization, Gentry hopes conversations about the scope and funding of the county school consolidation can resume by this summer. He noted the possibility of substantial federal stimulus money that could benefit local school systems. The approved uses of that potential funding are unclear at this point.
Gentry pointed out that nearly 10% of McMinn Countians have already contracted COVID-19 and more than 1,000 people in the highest priority categories have received the first round of vaccination.
“I think the confusing nature of the virus has been the number one hinderance of a nationwide cohesive attack on it,” he said in regards to sometimes conflicting information regarding the virus.
The pandemic has not been as detrimental to county finances and employment as initially expected. Sales tax revenues have exceed earlier projections and there are jobs available locally.
Gentry said COVID-19 probably had a positive effect in this regard because many people did more of their shopping locally. Actions by the state legislature just prior to the pandemic also released more sales tax revenue from online shopping than was previously available.
“The things that we can control locally seem positive,” said Gentry.
One possible area of financial concern is in property tax collections, according to Gentry. Historically, when businesses and industries experience a downturn, particularly ones such as COVID that was unavoidable, there are ensuing requests for appeals on commercial property tax bills.
“We’re heavily dependent on commercial and industrial property tax, so we do have a real worry there,” said Gentry.
The county’s Hotel/Motel Tax collection has also been slowed with far less traveling taking place as a result of the pandemic. One of the major uses of this money is to provide funding for local events and festivals, many of which were not able to be held in 2020.
Gentry explained that, despite the uncertainty regarding COVID, his office recently reached out to local event organizers and asked that they still submit their funding requests for this year.
“We do know we have enough to fund some of the spring and summer events if they so choose to have them,” he said.
The application for Hotel/Motel funding has been amended to ask applicants what safety measures they plan to take during these events.
The results of the 2020 Census will be released in a few months, which will reveal the population growth that Gentry says is already occurring in McMinn County. This could potentially have an affect on the size and boundaries of state and local governing districts, as well as the amount and availability of possible state and federal grant funding.
“The key to 2021 is getting enough people vaccinated where people feel comfortable to get back to normal, and that’s nationwide,” said Gentry. “We’re poised to move forward. Financially, we’re solid.”
Gentry did acknowledge the substantial debt that has been accrued at the federal level in order to allocate emergency funding for COVID needs.
“At some point, what the feds have done is going to have to be paid for; we know that,” he said. “We know there is going to be a day of reckoning and we’re going to be part of the reckoning. We’re going to do our best locally not to add to that burden at all. We’re going to live within our means and do things frugally. McMinn County is not going to put an extra load of straw on that camel’s back.”