Knox County Commission: Foxes or weasels?

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk

Our friends on the county commission will meet today (08/21/23) for their monthly workshop. On the agenda is a small item that most will want to put on the consent agenda, meaning automatic passage next week with no debate or roll call vote.

The item is acceptance of a $20 million grant, which will be matched with $10 million from Knox County for a $30 million regional forensic center – to replace the center built in 2014.

The contract is with the state Department of Health. You have to dig with a trackhoe to discover the money is pass-through from the U.S. Treasury through the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) program authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It provided $350 billion to state and local governments across the country to support their response to and recovery from the Covid-19 public health emergency.

You recall the ARPA, Joe Biden’s signature achievement with a price tag of $1.9 trillion.

After much hand-holding and arm-twisting, Biden passed the bill less than two months after his inauguration, March 10, 2021, on a party-line vote in the House, 220 Democrats for; 211 Republicans against. Here’s our Rep. Tim Burchett on the House floor calling the bill “too much pork” – a windfall for politicians in D.C. and nothing for his constituents in East Tennessee.

I expect Burchett to vote against any bill that adds $1.9 trillion to the national debt. I would have voted against it myself.

But when it passes, do you grab as much as you can for local projects? If so, do you thank Joe Biden and acknowledge the money is from the ARPA? Or do you mumble around, put it on the consent agenda and pretend it’s some sort of state grant? If so, are you smart as a fox or sly as a weasel?

We’ll see how it plays out this afternoon. Here’s what we know:

  • There’s a good chance the new center will be built in Karns near the high school
  • Knox County already has budgeted $10 million for its match
  • Caseload at the forensic center has risen from 1,900 cases in 2019 to upwards of 2,800 cases in 2021, center director Chris Thomas told WATE-TV reporter Hope McAlee in a June 8, 2023, interview.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, in a letter dated July 31, 2023, to the state Health Department, asked for the $20 million and promised to use the funds to construct a new building of at least 31,850 square feet, an increase of 13,615 over the current facility. “The new building will double the center’s current number of autopsy stations and significantly increase their current capacity for decedent storage,” he wrote. “Additionally, plans for the new building will provide an increase in office space, visitor parking and storage for the deployable morgue assets maintained at the center.”

Thomas told reporters in June that he was out of space. He did not have storage space for all cadavers and he needed more doctors but had nowhere for them to work.

Knox County Regional Forensic Center is the medical examiner’s office for Knox and Anderson counties, meaning that they investigate all deaths in the two counties that are sudden, unnatural or unexplained. (Note: Covid deaths never went to the center because they are classified as natural deaths.) The center also performs autopsies for 21 other counties including Fentress, Cumberland, McMinn, Rhea, Meigs, Bradley, Polk, Monroe, Loudon, Blount, Sevier, Cocke, Jefferson, Hamblen, Grainger, Union, Campbell, Scott, Roane, Claiborne and Cocke.

Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.


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