Commissioners take first glance at 5-year capital improvement plan

Gary B. Gray • Dec 21, 2012 at 10:20 PM

Some Johnson City Commissioners on Thursday likened the first glance at the fiscal years 2014-18 capital improvement plan to starting out at a buffet line with a cold plate in their hands.

Obviously the city must spend money to maintain services. But like the buffet — what do you need and what do you want? How much of one thing is really needed, or can you ever have enough? Can you pass on the fire engine? Do you really need to replace that roof?

The biggest difference in this comparison is the price. Walk into Shoney’s and you know what you’re going to spend. Crack open an extremely hefty proposed five-year spending plan and it can make a person’s head spin.

The five-year plan includes six areas: equipment ($27,932,000), general facilities ($11,263,000), parks and recreation ($2,969,000), schools ($6,017,000), transportation ($50,335,000) and utilities ($75,160,000) for a total estimated amount of $173,676,000.

“Are we looking at a tax increase to fund all of this?” Mayor Jeff Banyas asked Assistant City Manager Bob Wilson after commissioners had barely made it through the first few pages during a workshop Thursday afternoon.

“Well, if we are to do all these projects it would take a tax increase, yes,” Wilson said.

No, that does not mean a tax increase is on the way. Neither does it eliminate that future possibility. But it does likely mean all the projects, equipment, vehicles and other needs now on the “table” will require some crafty funding mechanisms, some creative thinking and a load of compromise to lay into place the city’s spending.

Projects funded by general obligation bonds are proposed at about $14.8 million. Federal and state dollars total $32 million. Water and sewer projects total $78.8 million, or 45 percent of total expenditures. This amount includes $61.8 million in new debt and $17 million in operating revenue.

Washington County funding is estimated at $1.5 million for the county’s share of the Knob Creek Road/Bridge Improvements project. Meanwhile, projects funded through the city general fund total about $29.6 million.

So which of the five years will be the most costly? Next fiscal year, which begins July 1. This rough draft shows expenditures of nearly $48 million next year with the biggest expense coming in the utilities category.

Some of the more expensive items include vehicle replacements, including police, fire, solid waste and school bus purchases which, unfortunately, function efficiently for only a certain span of time. There also is equipment to replace at Pine Oaks and Buffalo Valley golf courses, IT equipment, new technical security items at the Johnson City Public Library and a long list of everything from salt spreaders to lawn mowers.

City Manager Pete Peterson said the city will need five or six new employees in the Public Works Department and a couple of additional employees in the Codes Department.

“I think if we’re going to get to the level of service that the community expects from us we’re going to have to also add a street sweeper,” he said.

Commissioner Clayton Stout said the city needs to step up its litter enforcement.

“There is a couple of places where we’re going to have to have people,” Peterson said. “When it comes to junk cars and rundown buildings, we need some help. We basically have three people that deal with all nuisance calls and code enforcement.”

At this point, the CIP is not set in stone. Instead, the projected needs and costs are in rough draft form and the numbers are plenty. However, commissioners will continue to rake through the thick notebook for some time to come all the while spotting abnormalities and initiating discussion about expenditures far ahead of the point when checks are ready to be cut or debt is issued.

A few points worth pondering did arise during discussions Thursday.

First, the possibility of converting fuel used by city vehicles from gasoline to natural gas was proposed. The idea got a chilly reception from Peterson who said converting the fueling station at the city garage would be very costly. He also said retrofitting trucks to hold the tanks could be costly and that new trucks may have to be purchased.

He also said the city is considering moving Johnson City Transit to an alternative location. One alternative is to move the Solid Waste Division’s operations to another spot and relocate the transit system to the current solid waste site.

There also was some talk about how much money the city should put into the old Penney’s building downtown. The city has tentatively planned to spend about $180,000 on a new roof. But Peterson said he had local architect Tony Street do a walk-through of the building. This is currently the location of Hands-On! Regional Museum.

“There may be as much as $500,000 worth of fixes,” he said. “After you consider replacing the HVAC, plumbing and other things. It may just be better to tear it down. ETSU has expressed an interest in using the building. For what purpose, I don’t know.”

The city’s total budget this fiscal year is just over $210 million.

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