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Johnson City’s legislative priorities for next session: Education funding, local revenue, public safety

Zach Vance • Updated Dec 9, 2017 at 11:29 PM

While children across the nation are busy writing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, Johnson City officials have been busy building their legislative agendas for the upcoming 110th Tennessee General Assembly.

On Thursday, Johnson City Board of Education members met personally with Reps. Matthew Hill and Micah Van Huss and Sen. Rusty Crowe to discuss their priorities, while later that night, Johnson City Commissioners adopted their annual Tri-Cities Joint Legislative Policy, encompassing urban planning, education, local revenue, public safety and transportation.

Mayor David Tomita actually voted against the measure, voicing concern over the agenda being too broad and not prioritized by issue.

“This is my fourth one and it looks remarkably similar to the one we send every year, and then nothing ever gets done about it,” Tomita said. “We’ve got a handful of really significant issues, (such as) opioids, suboxone (and) school funding. I’d like to pare it down and prioritize it because, as they’re presented, everything was of the same priority.”

At the core of both governing bodies’ list is school funding, particularly Public Chapter 305 and the City of Athens Board of Education v. McMinn County case.

Amplified this year by the method Washington County commissioners chose to fund the Jonesborough and Boones Creek schools by using a property tax increase, city officials are once again asking state legislators to close a “loophole” that grants counties the ability to avoid sharing certain capital expenditures proportionately with city school systems located within the same county.

“Counties can appropriate one-time expenditures to county schools without sharing those funds with the city schools within the county,” the legislative agenda states. “City property owners pay both city and county property taxes, and this effectively deprives city property tax payers of the benefit of an expenditure that is funded in part by their property taxes.”

During their sitdown, city school board members actually provided legislators a copy of the Tennessee Education Finance Act and how the loophole could be closed by adding the word “capital projects” to the first section, §49-3-315.

Hill said he thought it would have been “more than reasonable” for Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge to sit down with Johnson City officials and negotiate a one-time payment in lieu of the property taxes not appropriated to the city school system. 

“We’ve expressed to Mayor Eldridge and several county commissioners that if the mayor keeps in this direction, they’re only going to leave the city with one option, and that’s going to be a lawsuit,” Hill said. 

“And the lawsuit, I would assume, would not be on the basis of the McMinn (County) decision. The lawsuit would be based on diminishing the ability of the city residents to get any benefit from their taxes being raised.” 

With last year’s passage of the IMPROVE Act, the Hall Income Tax imposed on interest revenue and dividends is set to be fully repealed by 2021.

To compensate for the loss of revenue stemming from its repeal, Johnson City officials voted to support three measures: Eliminating the single-article sales tax cap, imposing a local option restaurant privilege tax or reducing or eliminating trustee fees. 

Currently, cities and counties an only collect local option sales tax on the first $1,600 spent on a single article of personal property, and officials want to either expand the amount it can collect tax on or eliminate the cap altogether. 

The other options are allowing local governments the ability to impose a 2 percent tax on restaurants, cafes and other such establishments, and reducing or eliminating the 1 percent fee collected by county trustees before taxes are transferred back to cities. 

Johnson City is also lobbying for legislation that would require all buprenorphine providers in Washington County and Sullivan County to obtain a Certificate of Need from the state, similar to regulation a methadone clinic undergoes. 

“Legislation is necessary to ensure that buprenorphine is being dispensed for legitimate medical purposes as opposed to a profit-driven enterprise operating under the guise of a medical practice devoted to opiate treatment,” the Joint Tri-Cities Legislative Agenda stated. 

Johnson City also opposes any legislation restricting a local government’s ability to seize assets related to drug trafficking and DUI arrests without a conviction. 

“In the event seizures are not allowed to occur until after the conviction, it will limit the intended impact of such seizures, especially since convictions in criminal cases can take months and sometimes years,” the agenda read. “Currently, seizures are subject to judicial review before a forfeiture warrant is issued.” 

The Johnson City Commission is also once again supporting the creation of a direct intermodal rail service from Bristol to Memphis, with stops in Knoxville and Chattanooga.

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