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Johnson City Schools to get $533K from Sullivan County, still trying to get 'fair share of' tax dollars from Washington County

Tony Casey • Updated Mar 18, 2017 at 10:44 PM

At month’s end, Johnson City Schools will receive approximately $533,000 from Sullivan County by way of bond issuances.

The sum catches the city Board of Education somewhat off guard, as they weren’t pursuing these dollars going into their yearly budget cycle.

But they’ll find a way to put them to use.

School board chairman Tim Belisle said it was a pleasant surprise, and they’ll collectively decide how to spend this chunk of funds as soon as they meet again. Any spending of this money would have to happen after a school board vote, most likely after a Facilities Committee discussion.

“This is something that came to my attention, and the board's attention over the last couple of days,” he said. “It's a good surprise because we have capital needs.”

There are roofs that need repair in the Johnson City Schools system, as well their much bigger potential projects, which could include new elementary schools or current school expansion.

Dave Chupa, supervisor of instruction and facilities for the system, said at least partial roofs are needed at Towne Acres Elementary School, Indian Trail Intermediate School and Science Hill High School. This is where those funds could end up.

Board member John Hunter took notice that Sullivan County issued this money to Johnson City — and larger chunks for systems in Bristol and Kingsport — but Washington County is still taking advantage of what his fellow board members have called a “legal loophole” in not paying out what the entity sees as a fair share of a 2016 property tax increase. Each school system's share is based on the number of students served. 

The issue at hand is that Johnson City’s tax base pays in both the city and Washington County, but its share of the 40-percent property tax increase isn’t representative of that same equation because of how Washington County chooses to fund its projects — with cash rather than bonds.

So even though the split of taxpayers in Johnson City is much closer to 50-50, Johnson City Schools’ portion works out to about 3 pennies for each of the 40 pennies brought in by the tax increase. That’s 40 cents on every $100 of assessed property value.

“Washington County seems to be struggling with this concept of sharing what is owed to its city county tax base,” Hunter said. “The ‘Sullivan County Way’ seems more equitable to the entire tax base compared to what we seem to see from the ‘Washington County Way’ at this time.”

Johnson City Schools’ portion of that tax increase is approximately $400,000; Director of Finance Pam Cox said it should be north of $4 million, if they were to split the 32 shared pennies equally.

Dan Eldridge, who’d attended a Johnson City Schools board meeting to discuss the tax increase, ended up in disagreement that night with members over the alleged “loophole,” which is in reference to a precedent set by a similar situation in McMinn County.

Eldridge said he’d hope talks would progress, but until this point, they have not. He commented on the Sullivan County bond money and what’s being presented by the Johnson City Schools board.

“The Sullivan County borrowing has generated $533k for Johnson City and the Washington County borrowing is projected to generate about $30 million for Johnson City schools,” he said in a statement to the Press. “The question that needs to be asked is, ‘Why are certain Johnson City School board members failing to acknowledge the projected $30 million sharing from the county and instead representing that Johnson City schools will receive little or nothing as a result of the County tax increase?’ ”

Most recently, the school board had begun consider its options for closing this tax loophole, not ruling out legal action.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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