ELIZABETHTON — A possible creation of a utilities board for Elizabethton and funding for some classroom expansions and an athletic complex for Elizabethton High School were key items for discussion during a workshop session of the Elizabethton City Council on Wednesday.
The Elizabethton City School Board and key administrators of the school system met with the council in the workshop session. They discussed funding alternatives that could allow the city to borrow as much as $7.1 million, using the annual collections from a half percent of the local option sales tax that had been made possible by a 2008 referendum.
Because interest rates are lower now than they were in 2008, a new bond issue could be used to hold funds in place to refund the 2008 bond issue and still provide as much as $7.1 million for new capital projects. The payoff would require the city to commit the half percent sales tax revenue to the school system through the year 2033. The original agreement had been for the school system to receive the sales tax proceeds for 10 years and then the money could be used for other city capital projects.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Richard VanHuss said the school system would like to build the new athletic complex on the west side of the high school as a “campus completion project.”
The complex would include a new football stadium with an artificial turf playing surface, new baseball and softball fields and a regulation-size track.
VanHuss said the athletic facilities were the first stage of the capital improvement projects. He said the athletic facilities had to be first because the second stage called for the demolition of the home stands of Brown-Childress stadium, the school’s current football stadium, which is located at T.A. Dugger Jr. High School.
That demolition would make way for an eight-classroom addition to T.A. Dugger, as well as making the school accessible for students with disabilities.
City Manager Jerome Kitchens asked questions about the plan that he said had come from citizens who questioned the priorities. He asked if the T.A. Dugger addition could be built without demolishing the home stands of the old football field.
VanHuss said the footprint for the addition does fit behind the stadium, but it would be such a tight fit that buses could no longer have access to the rear of the school.
Administrators said the home stands were in a serious state of deterioration and would be costly to correct.
The final stage of the capital projects would be to build a new band room at the high school and convert the current band room into more classrooms.
Mayor Curt Alexander advised the board that it should not commit the city and the schools to the whole $7.1 million. He said that would mean the school system would have to commit about $30,000 of its Basic Education Program funds to help pay back the loans. He said there would be no flexibility over the next 20 years in case of other urgent needs, such as replacing a boiler or heating and air conditioning system.
Superintendent Ed Alexander said a catastrophic need would be covered by the system’s risk management.
Mayor Alexander asked “can we afford to go as grandiose as we are?” He asked Architect Thomas Weems “to sharpen his pencil,” and look for ways to economize.
The Council also heard from Utilities Director Johann Coetzee about forming a utilities board to cover the city’s electric, water and sewer services.
He said a board could operate the utilities from a business standpoint and would be able to hold to a long-term vision.
Coetzee said such a business approach would have the objective of building the city’s utilities infrastructure so that it has the lowest possible cost to the rate payers. He said that did not include avoiding investments. He said that was like buying a new car and deciding not to spend the money to regularly change the oil. He said that would be a false savings because the car owner would be buying a new engine in five years. He said the city’s utilities “are in the forever business. The utilities keep moving into the future.”
Coucilwoman Nancy Alsup said “the worst thing the council has ever done was to taken over the electric system,”
Coetzee said the new utilities board would be “the city’s property. The City Council has oversight. The council can remove a board member.”
Coetzee asked for a first reading of an ordinance creating a new board be held at the next session of the City Council in June.