It’s not the root of all evil, but it’s the root of our discussions

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

Jeff Keeling, Associate Editor

By Jeff Keeling

I don’t remember the exact details, but the “song” that resulted is etched in my mind. The creative multi-instrumentalist Zach was 17 or 18. He was noodling around on an acoustic guitar. I was taken with the urge, right then and there, to express some nuggets of important wisdom regarding his finances.

My nuggets of wisdom were apparently received as merciless haranguing. Imagine. Zach looked around the room at the small, familial audience, beat out a few chords and sang the four-word song that has become part of the family lore: “Monnneeyyyy! Money money monnneeyyyy!”

In recent days, as I have attended local government meetings, listened to those meetings’ main topics of conversation, and talked to people of every stripe about our community, Zach’s song has frequently popped into my head. The conversations touch on a wide range of topics – schools, the arts, recreation, infrastructure and cultural attractions to name a few – but they all seem to hinge on a common denominator whose supply in the public sector seems all too uncommon these days: money.

This week’s paper alone touches on the beginnings of a $100-million plus capital plan for Washington County. It covers the deliberations of Johnson City commissioners on whether or not to contribute $8 million to East Tennessee State University to make the center’s main theater larger.

Sitting in the corner listening along with city commissioners at Monday night’s agenda review meeting, I heard about two opportunities likely to require significant public revenue should they be pursued – and that was before discussion about the arts center (see page 5).

Prior to the arts center topic, commissioners discussed with Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau staff a planned study of the community’s sports and recreation inventory. Once that inventory is assessed and a report is completed on just how many tournaments, meets and like events could be recruited to come here, talk will very likely turn to upgrading of that inventory and the addition of new amenities. Costs are likely to run into the millions. A return on the investment will be projected as well, certainly.

“Monnneeyyyy! Money money monnneeyyyy!” You’ve got to spend it to make it.

Sandwiched between the sports talk and the arts talk was museum talk. Hands On! Regional Museum is ready to take it to the next level, with a 30,000-square-foot, $15 million science museum. The due diligence has been done. The museum’s leadership believes the best spot for the new museum, which will be designed to be an attractive destination for older kids and adults, not just the under-10 set, is downtown Johnson City, on city-owned property right below the library around King Street.

Director Andy Marquart, already armed with sufficient data on what the upgraded museum will be and do for the region, also wants a study funded – simply to provide more quantitative information for potential donors about the return on investment that a destination showpiece will create for those investing in downtown’s further redevelopment.It’s also highly likely the public will be asked to do its share through some amount of city funding.

Two weeks earlier, commissioners heard Parks and Recreation Director Roger Blakely review a long-term plan for the city’s parks and rec facilities. We certainly need a new swimming pool, but that $3 million or so expense is just a drop in the kiddy pool compared to the total we could plunk down to get a top-notch array of recreation amenities in this city.

Last week, members of Washington County’s Health, Education and Welfare committee discussed possible next steps in forming a task force to objectively study the pros and cons of consolidating the city and county public schools. “The children” eat up roughly half the total spending in both city and county budgets.

Chairwoman Katie Baker was certainly justified in saying those discussions should focus first and foremost on providing the community’s 17,000-odd schoolchildren the best possible education. But fellow committee member Todd Hensley was also right, even if it’s a shame he was, when he said:

“We’ve probably reached a point where the populace is not going to be willing to pay in many respects what they should pay to fund this. This is being driven somewhat by dollars, by the long-term inability to sustain business as we are doing business.”

“Monnneeyyyy! Money money monnneeyyyy!” (I think it was in “E,” by the way – they were definitely power chords.) You’ve got to spend it so our children have the tools to make it when they leave the nest.

Whether, and to what degree, taxpayers will be willing to fund these and other needs/wants being brought before our elected officials, remains to be seen.

And as for Zach, well, as a married father of two with everything from diapers and school fees to car insurance and grocery bills to consider, I like to think he realizes I had a point now and then.


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