By Scott Robertson
By a 15-10 vote Monday night, the Washington County Commission tabled the idea of joining the Washington County School Board’s lawsuit against Johnson City. The majority of commissioners said they felt they were being asked to consider joining the suit without having had time to consider all the facts in the case, which centers around whether Johnson City owes the county 20-plus years of back tax collections from liquor by the drink sales.
Attorney James Logan presented the school board’s request to the county commission. Logan is representing the board in the case. He has represented a number of counties in similar suits against municipalities.
Logan told commissioners before the vote that the school board needed the county funding body to join in because, “a judge in Coffee County has ruled that school systems lack the capacity, the legal authority, to make claim for the funds that are to be received by the county.” By having the county commission step in alongside the schools in Washington County, the possibility of having the suit thrown out on those grounds would be removed, Logan said.
“You will be essentially a nominal party, but you are truly interested in the outcome of this litigation,” Logan told the commission.
Commissioners were unhappy to find that county attorney Tom Seeley would be unavailable to advise them on the issue, as he would be conflicted, his firm already being involved in a similar suit involving the town of Jonesborough.
Some were unhappy that the school board has known about the Coffee County decision since January, but waited until late March to try to enlist the commission’s aid.
“I just felt like we were being pressured to act too fast, and without enough information,” said Commissioner Skip Oldham, who made the motion to table. “I don’t like that.”
The question of whether the county should join the suit was then sent down to the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Committee for consideration on a motion by Commissioner Joe Wise who said the committee was, “where it should have been sent in the first place.”
Commissioner Katie Baker, who chairs the HEW Committee, told Logan, “We would be happy to have you there next meeting.”
The Washington County case is slated to go to trial May 5. The commission has until that time to decide whether to become a party to the suit. The HEW Committee is scheduled to meet April 8. The full commission next meets April 27. Logan said after the Monday meeting that even with the delay the commission would still have time to join the suit after its April meeting if it so chooses.
At issue is whether Johnson City owes the county $3,418,079 in back tax collections on liquor by the drink. Logan told the commission Chattanooga has already agreed to pay Hamilton County $14 million in a similar suit, and that he believes that if the case is tried on its merits, Washington County should win its suit as well.