Tensions linger between city and county, but resolution getting lost in translation

Gary B. Gray • Feb 14, 2013 at 9:40 PM

Wednesday’s meeting of the Washington County Commission’s Budget Committee produced some interesting comments about Johnson City’s potential future annexation in the Suncrest corridor, as well as a continued call for better communication between city and county officials.

With the county’s school system facing a potential $460,000 shortfall at the end of this fiscal year, due mainly to sagging tax revenue, Director of Schools Ron Dykes gave a brief update this week on the school system’s attendance, saying it had not yet been affected by Johnson City’s annexations.

But that set the tone for a “what if” discussion, including the fate of Boones Creek Middle and Elementary schools.

“I submit that we’re really serving the same constituents, so there’s really an incentive for both sides to get together,” said Budget Committee member Mitch Meredith. “The middle school is partly in the city limits, and the elementary school is surrounded by the city limits. Based on conversations I’ve had with our Board of Education, there is a sense of urgency.”

Both City Manager Pete Peterson and Johnson City Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall said Thursday that the county of late has expressed no interest in holding an emergency powwow.

“I’ve heard no talk of annexations of any county schools,” Hall said. “The annexation part is really a City Commission issue. We are not predicting to meet our expectations on sales tax either.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Micah Van Huss R-Jonesborough, has introduced a bill supported by the County Commission’s representatives from the 3rd District, which includes Gray. The bill also is widely supported by County Commission members.

If passed, the bill (HB0590) would require approval of a majority vote of qualified voters in the territory proposed for annexation prior to a municipality annexing within its urban growth boundary.

“Both Mr. Van Huss and (state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jones-borough) represent constituents in Johnson City, and both have introduced bills that will be negative to the city,” Peterson said. “At this point, we have not had an opportunity to discuss these bills with them personally, but an invitation has been extended.”

County Mayor Dan Eldridge said at Wednesday’s meeting that although county school population is relatively flat at this time, there still is a need to communicate with the city.

“Their schools are full,” he said. “The county taxpayer funds the city school system by and large, and that’s why we’ve got to get on the same page. If the city did a $50 million bond to build more schools, where do they build? On the Suncrest corridor, and that definitely will affect us. Are we facing the possibility of duplicating facilities? The city is choosing to annex only where there are roads and utilities. If they choose to annex large chunks of land in north Johnson City, that could have very serious effects.”

Dykes said he did not want the county to prepare to renovate or construct new schools without “true exposure” — a look at where each entity intends to build or expand.

“We truly thought years ago that Boones Creek Elementary would be taken,” he said.

The subject of school consolidation also came up — an issue that hasn’t been publicly discussed since May, when county representatives on the City/County Liaison Committee threw the matter on the table. That conversation, and any further serious consideration of school consolidation has been dropped for now, though smatterings can be heard in short bursts at various meetings from time to time.

Peterson said no one from the county has inquired with him about school consolidation since that time. He also said the county keeps 54 percent of the portion of total sales tax revenue generated in the city which, by law, goes toward education.

“The city schools have adopted a resolution against school consolidation,” he said. “I think that’s being lost in the conversation here. And as far as annexation — yes, the city’s recent growth pattern is toward Gray. Future annexations may or may not impact attendance at county schools. But these schools will remain county schools, even if they were completely encircled by Johnson City’s jurisdiction.”

As far as capacity, he said Johnson City schools are not full.

“Capacity will not be an issue for probably the next 5 to 10 years,” he said.

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