By Collin Brooks
A conglomerate of Johnson City officials, including all school board members, all city commissioners and Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson were on hand during the Washington County Commission meeting on Monday night in Jonesborough.
They were there to listen to Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge’s mayoral monthly mayor report, which included a 12-page document entitled “A Report on the Washington County Commission’s Funding Strategy for Capital Projects, Including a Response to Claims by the Johnson City Board of Education, and a Review of the Education Funding Disparity in Washington County.”
While Eldridge didn’t review the document during the meeting, he emailed it to county commissioners on Friday, the mayor took questions from county commissioners. Inside the document Eldridge outlines some of the allegations that the Johnson City Board of Education has made toward the county, as it relates to their Capital Projects Fund — which was established during a 40-cent property tax increase last summer.
Eldridge said that he would deliver the report to city officials in the coming days and they could have input during a May 10 county budget meeting.
“As I said in the report, we are working from two different perspectives,” Eldridge said. “The Johnson City School Board’s perspective is very different from the Washington County Commission’s perspective. I think that there are a lot of misperceptions that are dispelled in the report, which will be helpful.”
Washington County Commissioner Paul Stanton said that he hopes the forum on May 10 will be more of a workshop, where the city representatives can bring up questions and the two bodies can work together for a common cause.
Washington County Commissioner Phil Carriager said he read the report and said he recognized a lot of problems that the two bodies have with the new arrangement of the Capital Projects Fund. But he said, that it isn’t going to matter to any new businesses that try to move into the area.
“I guarantee you, when we are out recruiting businesses, they don’t care about Johnson City and Washington County and what little problem we have. They want to know that our product, our children, have gotten a good education,” Carriger said. “We can go out here and recruit all the businesses that we can, but if we don’t present them with a great product, they’re going to go somewhere else.
“So it is something we need to solve.”
Eldridge said that summed up the issue and that the two bodies need to learn to work together.
In the report, Eldridge laid out eight claims that he has heard from members of the municipality and he attempts to dispel them all.
One of those claims is that the city isn’t getting their fair share.
“An acute awareness by the County Commission of its responsibility to all county tax payers, carefully balanced with its mandate to fund the needs of the county school system,” Eldridge wrote, “has resulted in a responsible plan that provides funding for the school facilities, limits the cost, requires substantially less from the taxpayers, responsibly manages the debt level of the county, and sends $30 million to Johnson City schools, providing for all their current capital project needs, with funding left over for, as of today, unplanned future projects. How is this unfair to the taxpayers?”
Besides that $30 million, the city will also receive $400,000 annually as their allotted share of a $.03 property tax raise that went toward county school operations funding.
He said that the county has no responsibility to fund any city service, including schools.
“City schools are not available to County students unless tuition is paid,” Eldridge wrote. “All tax payers need to understand that paying more in County property taxes for the sole purpose of sharing more with Johnson City Schools, is in essence, the funding of a City service by the County property taxpayers.”
Some city officials have shared their opinion on the new county school funding strategy and their concerns aren’t in the current year. Their concerns come after a period of years, when the county will be able to stack cash and will no longer need to borrow for their school capital needs.
That means the shared bond money that the city depends on, won’t be available, because the county won’t need to borrow for their schools’ need. They will simply pay cash.
Johnson City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin was on hand for the presentation and had already read the report. He said he is concerned about what this will do for the future between the two bodies.
“The question becomes, ‘What does this mean in real terms for the municipal taxpayer?’” Van Brocklin said. “The answer is a future levy by the City Commission of approximately 12 cents / $100.00 assessed valuation to build a school that monies would have been available to build had the county tax increase been shared equally.”
Eldridge also mentioned that the county would to bond money out soon to start to pay for the Boones Creek project. The first bond issuance will come at about $45 million, which, he said, will allow the city to get more than the $8 million they have been waiting on to fund capital projects they have identified, including a new cafeteria and gymnasium for Liberty Bell Intermediate School, which would get the school’s daily activities out of Freedom Hall.
Washington County Industrial Park update
Mitch Miller, CEO of the Washington County Economic Development Council, gave an update to county commissioners about the status of the Washington County Industrial Park that broke ground in November.
He said that in the first months of the park in 2016, the site saw three prospects in 10 months. However, in the past six months since the county broke ground on the project in November 2016, the site has had eight prospects visit, including one prospect coming back five times to see the site and another coming back twice.
Alicia Summers, Business Development Director at the WCEDC said that once the weather cooperates, they are anticipating 90 days until completion.
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