Students, teachers, and local officials were on hand Monday morning, Oct. 22, to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Ben Carson Reading Room in Westside Elementary School's media center.
In addition to several school officials and community leaders, Dr. Ben Carson's wife Candy was in attendance to join the celebration.
The Ben Carson Reading Project is an initiative of the Carson Scholars Fund that provides funding for schools to create a literacy-enriched environment for children to develop their reading skills. The cozy, nurturing setting promotes the importance of everyday leisure reading.
West Side Elementary School music teacher and current Ringgold City Councilman Kelly Bomar says the room is a great addition to the school.
"Being able to benefit from this donation by the Holland Family Foundation and the Carson Scholars Fund is such a huge benefit for the whole West Side community," Bomar said. "By having a space set aside to
promote reading, the Ben Carson Reading Room is the perfect place for kids to develop a love and habit of life long reading."
There are currently over 180 Ben Carson Reading Rooms nationwide in 23 states and Washington, D.C. With the addition of West Side and Tiger Creek, Catoosa County is now home to three reading rooms, the other being at Cloud Springs Elementary.
Tiger Creek Elementary in Ringgold had a similar ceremony Monday morning to recognize its room.
The camp is sponsored through a generous donation from the Holland Family Foundation and facilitated/managed by the Carson Scholars Fund.
With the second week of early voting closed and less than a week left to cast a ballot, election officials say voter turnout has remained steady.
Early voting opened Monday, Oct. 15, and will continue through Friday, Nov. 2.
Tuesday, Nov. 6, is election day. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. that day.
Catoosa County Elections Director Tonya Moore says the voter turnout jumped from 8.6 percent to 18.6 percent from week one to week two of early voting.
"We ended (Thursday, Oct. 25) at 7,294 in-person ballots for both precincts," Moore said.
During early voting residents do not have to vote at their
designated precincts. They instead have the option to vote early at either the Ringgold precinct on Evitt Street next to Catoosa County Fire and Rescue, or at the Westside precinct at West Side Elementary School
In addition to Thursday's (Oct. 25) closing numbers, Moore added that 194 residents had cast ballots at the two precincts as of 11:30 a.m. Friday morning, Oct. 26.
That number brought the overall total to 7,488 of the county's 40,225 active voters (an 18.6 percent turnout so far).
After the big week one numbers, Moore said the turnout numbers were encouraging and reminiscent of the last presidential election.
She said Friday morning (Oct. 26) that the numbers could grow this week (the third week) of early voting.
"The third week is usually always the busiest, so it'll be interesting to see if it goes that way this year considering how busy we were the first week of early voting," Moore said.
The three-week window for early voting closes Friday, Nov. 2.
Polls are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with lunch closures from noon to 1 p.m.
Also, early voting will be available Thursday, Nov. 1, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Again, on Election Day, Nov. 6, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Although residents can vote at Ringgold or Westside during early voting, they'll need to go to their designated precinct on Election Day.
There are no local contested races to be decided on the ballot, but voters still have plenty to consider this election season as they vote for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and other offices.
What to bring to the polls
Voters are required to present an acceptable ID at the poll. This may be a valid state or federal government issued photo ID, including a free ID Card issued by your county registrar's office or the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS); a Georgia driver's license, even if expired; a valid employee photo ID from any branch, department, agency, or entity of the U.S. Government, Georgia, or any county, municipality, board, authority or other entity of this state; a valid U.S. passport ID; a valid U.S. military photo ID; or a valid tribal photo ID.
"A lot of people think they need to bring their precinct card to vote, they don't...they just need their government issued ID," Moore said.
Catoosa County was able to close the financial books on renovation of Fire Station 3 on U.S. Highway 41 in early October when the project was finished a few thousand dollars under budget.
According to Chief Randy Camp, the overall renovation came in almost $4,000 under budget.
The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a change order for the work during its Oct. 2 meeting.
"The change order is to Chazler Inc. for the Station 3 rebuild and for the certificate of substantial completion of the project," Camp said. "The original contract was approved by commissioners for $722,206 and the completion, which I'm
happy to say, came in at 718,025 at a decrease of $3,281."
Camp says some minor adjustments resulted in savings.
"We were real tickled to be under budget," Camp said. "We did do some changes. They gave us a credit for the power that they used, that was $1,600. We swapped some doors and we switched to some things that we thought were just as good and saved some money."
Commission chairman Steven Henry said he's glad the station underwent the necessary changes and that the facility is already back to work.
"It's good to see that station back going and y'all getting a lot of calls," Henry said.
"It's always been a busy station, but it seems like that since we've been back, they've run three or four (calls) a day at least," Camp added. "They're really pleased with it, and I think it's a nice addition to the community."
Ringgold officials say a public forum is being organized with church leaders to help come up with a plan to remedy the issue of homeless people camping under a bridge on U.S. Highway 41.
The public forum will be held at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15, at First Baptist Church of Ringgold on Nashville Street.
During the Oct. 8 Ringgold City Council meeting, Councilman Larry Black put the issue of "urban camping" on the agenda after residents complained about a number of people residing under the bridge next to the Ingle's grocery store.
That discussion included possibly instituting an ordinance prohibiting such activity, but in the two weeks that have followed, local pastors and others have begun brainstorming ways to help those in question.
During the most recent meeting, Monday night, Oct. 22, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Public Defender David Dunn spoke to the council about a number of issues the men living under the bridge face.
"I understand the concern," Dunn said. "I would assume that probably a lot of people were not aware of these folks living out there because they've been there for a long time."
Some of the men living under the bridge have criminal convictions in their past.
"In my opinion, all or most of them are there because they have literally no place else to go," Dunn said. "I don't think anyone in their right mind desires to live underneath a bridge. The simple fact of the matter is there are no places for them to go to. ... That's why they're there."
Dunn says his office handles a lot of cases where someone is released from jail or another type of facility with no financial resources and simply no place to live.
He added that there are facilities in Chattanooga and Dalton for people facing said circumstances, but none in Catoosa County. Furthermore, Dunn says, some of the neighboring shelters won't accept people if they know they're from Catoosa.
"We don't have a facility or a place for them to go stay," Dunn said. "I would love to see us develop that. I think it's a burning need in our community. I am very interested in assisting that kind of endeavor, but there is no place like that now."
The handful men living under the bridge right now are either there because they lack the finances to live anywhere else, and in some cases are registered sex offenders with limitations on where they can take up residence.
"They lose the things they have. They lose their jobs. They lose their homes. They lose their families sometimes. And they get out of their incarceration and there's no place to go," Dunn said. "Sex offenders cannot live within so many feet of a school, church, community center, a public library ... places where children congregate. There are counties in the state of Georgia where there is literally no place in the county where they can legally reside because of these distance restrictions."
Dunn even pointed out the Drug Court system that was put into place in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit (serves Catoosa, Walker, Dade and Chattooga counties) last year, which works to rehabilitate non-violent offenders instead of sending them to prison.
He explained that some folks can't take part if they're considered homeless.
"There have been a number of people who in all other respects qualified for the program, but we had to turn them away because one of the requirements is you have to have a stable place to live," Dunn explained. "We've had folks we've turned down for Drug Court simply because they could not produce a place that met the criteria of the court program, so they couldn't get the habilitation and treatment that the Drug Court provides."
After Dunn voiced his opinion as both a Ringgold resident and one whose profession is based on defending those in need, Councilman Black reaffirmed why the issue was brought up to begin with – because residents are concerned.
Black also spoke about a new issue that was realized over the past couple of weeks, the fact that the campers are utilizing equipment that could be dangerous given that there's a major gas line running underneath the bridge.
"I put this issue on the agenda after city residents contacted me as one of their elected council members expressing concern about the individuals living under the bridge," Black said. "We now have a safety issue that has come up where there is a Georgia Natural Gas line under that bridge. With their grills and their cooking appliances and things like that, it's something else that we as a body have to take into consideration about that safety aspect of it."
Mayor Nick Millwood said he and Councilman Kelly Bomar looked at those concerns firsthand.
"When Kelly and I went out there, there was a kerosene heater and a propane tank, and it's like 'oh my goodness, they have it going on down here right now,'" Millwood said.
"Maybe part of the solution is to ban those things and not necessarily the people being there," Dunn replied. "If you ban them, they're either going to be in violation of the ban, or they're going to be just somebody else's problem. I don't think we want to be pushing them off on somebody else without trying to solve the problem."
Black said the purpose of bringing up a potential ordinance was to look at prohibiting the camping, erecting of tents/temporary structures, and to keep people from sleeping in a certain place for a substantial, prolonged period of time.
Black explained that an ordinance would include exceptions for instances such as Boy Scouts camping in the city with adult supervision. He called those situations "common sense type exceptions".
As far as the history of the men currently residing under the bridge goes, Black said he got confirmation from the sheriff that some are indeed registered sex offenders.
"I was contacted by the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office and told that their state-mandated sex offender registry required to be maintained by the sheriff, indicates that at least five convicted sex offenders are listing the Ingle's bridge as where they sleep at night," Black said. "We've been discussing this issue to help the homeless. It's a valid concern that must be addressed at some point by this mayor and council."
The council wound up not taking any action on a potential ordinance.
Councilwoman Sara Clark insisted that people attend the public forum slated to take place Nov. 15 at First Baptist Church of Ringgold on Nashville Street.
"I hope those citizens who did have this concern come to that forum," Clark said. "They need to be there and they need to express their concerns."