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An olive branch project… Hampton watershed bike trail seeks cooperation between county, city

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR STAFF
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
After a lot of negativity of late surrounding the Carter County Commission and the City of Elizabethton Council, County Mayor Patty Woodby invited the City Council and the directors of the Carter County and Elizabethton Parks and Rec to discuss the possibility of a project which could be an olive branch between the two governments to work together on a project.

Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mains was asked to kick off the meeting and he explained that his department had put a request in to the 2021-2022 budget to request $75,000 for the first phase of building a new bike trail at the Hampton Watershed bike trails that would also help to increase the parking at the area.

Mains shared that as the City Council progressed through the budget that there were other projects that the city was focusing on including a hefty remodeling project at Covered Bridge Park and the decision was made to set the bike trail approval aside temporarily.

City Mayor Curt Alexander shared with those present what led to that decision.

“From the city side, we have what we call a strategic planning retreat that we have every year where the council gets together and develops a five-year plan along with the help of Mike and the Park and Rec, the police, and fire with all the projects we need to do,” Mayor Alexander said. “This $75,000 was in there but the problem with this year was last year we didn’t do anything because we didn’t know what COVID was going to do with our budget so we just pushed pause on every project we had.

“So this year, it wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be so we started allocating money to Surf Betsy that we have pushed hard for and the Covered Bridge Park. It wasn’t that this project wasn’t important, it is important it just didn’t hit our screen this year because there were already so many things you wanted us to do that we were vested deeply in.

“And I don’t mean this badly, but we got kicked in the teeth at our last meeting because we did what you wanted us to do and now you are coming at us for what we didn’t do. So we were caught off guard until that Thursday night that we were voting on that budget.”

Alexander went on to say that the City wanted to develop a partnership with the County and that the project that everyone in this room wants.

He also said any money that the City put in was the City of Elizabethton resident’s money because everyone is Carter County residents. Also, information on the trail wasn’t readily available to discuss when the Council met.

Wes Bradley of SORBA shared that this project was a low-hanging fruit project when it came to growing recreation further in Carter County suggesting that everyone can see how popular biking has become with all the cars with bike rakes full of bikes passing through the county.

“I think this is a good project for all of Carter County – not the Elizabethton City government or Carter County Commission, but all residents of Carter County,” said Mayor Woodby. “This project does not have value to it and doesn’t have much tension or issues like some of our others so I think if the partnership on this happens it opens the bridge to other partnerships on other projects.”

Woodby said she was willing to go out on the limb and say that the county would help fund the project based on what the city felt like they could help fund the project with.

“I will go on record and say that I know that a mower in Parks and Rec’s budget that was under budget $12,500 that could be put toward it and if the county would participate I would take to City Council to fund $25,000 out of fund balances as a one-time expenditure to see how it goes,” said Mayor Alexander.

“If the county would do the same thing at 50-50.”

Alexander asked City Manager Daniel Estes what his opinion was and Estes said he thought it was a bad deal.

“The lion share of Park and Rec facilitates and amenities and programs are paid for and have been paid for by the City of Elizabethton and when it’s a 50-50 share, it’s not 50-50,” said Estes in regard to his response. “I appreciate the interest in trying to facilitate the conversation but I don’t think it’s fair for the taxpayers of Elizabethton to pay half of everything we do together, the math just doesn’t work.”

Mayor Woodby responded to Estes by saying that it would be a good thing for a ribbon cutting on a project such as this to show residents that county and city governments can work together on projects and that this one project wasn’t a means of setting a precedent on projects going forward as far as funding.

Estes added that the context mattered beyond what was going on in the meeting to what was going on to be fair to the City and that the City has offered to play ball on other issues and some commissioners have offered to go another direction.

The decision was made for Mayor Woodby to take the charge along with Carter County Park and Rec Director Ken Gouge along with Bradley to go to the Budget Committee and request a total of $37,500 to meet a commitment that Mayor Alexander made to meet the County halfway with a contribution of $37,500 to fund the first phase of the project.

Carter County’s Budget Committee meets again on July 12th.