By Scott Robertson
Change is hard. In county government, trust is hard. For the Washington County School Board’s desires for new construction and renovation to be funded, a lot of change and a lot of trust have been required.
That having been said, the Washington Way plan for school construction and renovation in Washington County is a reality. The county commission Monday voted on both the overall funding mechanism for the ambitious building plan and on the first direct allocations of funds for building in Jonesborough.
The timeline of the Washington Way’s creation made the process a little more complicated than it might have been, but as one of the head coaches in this year’s Super Bowl is fond of saying, “it is what it is.”
In June 2016, the county commission approved a property tax increase to fund construction of a new Boones Creek K-8 school and renovations to Jonesborough’s elementary and middle schools. In July, Halliburton became director. Her plans for the schools went far beyond what the commission had just approved the funding stream for in Jonesborough. Halliburton’s “Washington Way” vision included a K-8 for Jonesborough, as well as an academic magnet school in Tennessee’s oldest town. The problem was that the money for the additional Jonesborough projects had to come from somewhere, and there was no possibility the commission would approve a second tax hike in two years.
Neither would the county commission agree to do the entire project through new bond debt. Doing the project “the old way,” would have resulted in $135 million in new debt for the county, taking Washington County to the third-highest debt per capita in the state.
So what to do?
Monday night, the commission approved a plan crafted by Budget and Finance Director Mitch Meredith. He called it, “The Conservative Washington Way.”
Meredith’s plan was to separate the funding for the Boones Creek K-8’s associated athletic field complex from the rest of the Washington Way package. That would drive the cost of the Boones Creek project down from $30.575 million to $26.815 million. The savings achieved by the reduction opened up funding for the additional Jonesborough work.
The athletic fields will still be built, said Mayor Dan Eldridge, but not on the schools’ dime. How those fields will be funded is a matter currently under discussion, Eldridge said, with possibilities including the county creating a Parks & Recreation Department to oversee construction and maintenance, or the county coming to an agreement with Johnson City and/or Jonesborough on a collaborative effort to encourage athletic tourism to benefit the city, town and county.
The funding plan approved by the commission Monday funds the Boones Creek K-8 at the $26.815 million level, while also creating a funding stream of $20.750 for Jonesborough projects and $15.628 million for other school capital projects, such as roof and HVAC repairs at other county schools. Once Johnson City’s mandated match for the Boones Creek and Jonesborough schools is factored in, the total debt to be amassed is $67.78 million.
Commissioners debated the issue for more than an hour Monday night, but when the final vote for Resolution 17-01-13 was held, only Commissioner Robbie McGuire voted no.
The commission also approved a new debt management policy to guard against future overspending on the debt markets. With the new school construction debt in place, the per capita debt load for the county will be in the $1,721 range. That will be the 12th highest in the state. The new policy approved Monday caps the net debt per capita for the county at $1,790. It also caps net debt as a percentage of appraised value of taxable property at 2.2 percent and the annual debt service as a percentage of operating expenditures at 14 percent. The only no vote on that policy vote was cast by Robbie Tester.
The commission wasted no time in getting the newly approved Jonesborough work underway. Resolution 17-1-08 appropriated $777,900 for the purchase of 15+ acres of land behind the Pal’s Sudden Service restaurant adjacent to the current elementary school property. Resolution 17-1-10 appropriated $500,000 for the architects to begin work on the magnet school. Both of those resolutions passed with no votes from Commissioners McGuire, Danny Edens and Steve Light. Commissioners Lee Chase and Mitch Meredith were absent.
Most commissioners needed reassurance the vote they cast last year for a tax increase would not be subverted to some other purpose. Every penny of that tax increase had been designated for specific purposes, and the process of putting more money to Jonesborough and less to Boones Creek through this particular school outlay rankled many.
But in the end, the question of whether a county schools employee or a Johnson City employee or a Jonesborough employee might ride the lawnmower on the athletic fields at Boones Creek didn’t stand in the way of the vision for better education for the county overall.
So long as those fields are built, and so long as the other projects that were funded through the tax increase happen on time and on budget, this will have been a success for the county. Should those things not happen, it will be up to the voters to see that accountability comes at the ballot box.