Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin at Thursday night's City Commission meeting.
That’s Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin.
On a night when new city commissioners Jenny Brock and David Tomita familiarized themselves with their surroundings, Van Brocklin, who has now served a two-year apprenticeship, was unanimously elected to what some would say is mostly a symbolic position.
But he made very clear in a terse and determined manner that he had formulated specific priorities during that time. After acknowledging new Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and thanking commissioners, family members and Johnson City residents, he laid out what he strongly suggested commissioners focus on over the next two years.
“My priorities include an accelerated approach to downtown renovation, continued beautification efforts, a strengthened relationship with Johnson City Schools and a much more robust pool of money for economic development,” he said.
“Kingsport and Bristol are making inroads into our tax base, and there is a huge gap there,” he continued. “I also want to have consistent departmental reports. It may mean longer meetings. The big change I’d like to see — we have not had formal public input sessions. I want to see us set aside 30-40 minutes each meeting for that purpose.”
The mayor’s first act was to recommend Jenny Brock as the City Commission’s representative on the Johnson City Power Board. Brock will retain her spot as board chairwoman. She had been serving as an at-large member after stepping down from the Board of Education,
Police Chief Mark Sirois followed with a school safety report. This came after commissioners approved the police department’s submittal of an application for a COPS Hiring Program grant. If awarded, the grant would fund four additional school resource officers who would join the two that now rotate between the school system’s elementary schools.
The proposal is for four entry-level officers’ salary and benefits. The grant term is three years. The program is 75 percent funded at the federal level with a 25 percent local match, making the three-year total budget for the additional officers about $586,000. A $46,000 contribution will come from Johnson City Schools. The grant requires the city to retain these officers for at least an additional 12 months after the three-year period.
The school system faces a nearly $950,000 shortfall next fiscal year, not including the loss of its federal HEROES Grant — an $800,000 expenditure for which funding dries up this year. And, unless commissioners agree to pick up the tab for next year, the school system will lose a school messenger, mental health services and several additional positions.
“Our request for this amount is very important,” said Richard Bales, superintendent of schools.
Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall told commissioners that administrators had “cobbled together” a budget using about $1.8 million in one-time money. Hall also requested that all school employees next school year receive a raise at least equal to that of all other city employees.
The school system’s estimated $68 million budget for the 2013-14 school year originally was about $2.2 million out of balance, but cuts, including funding for the Topper Tots program which will be paid for through self-sustaining methods next year, Southern Association of Colleges dues and mentor compensation lowered that amount. Still, the total financial needs for next year is more than $3.9 million.
The board also chose to use $240,000 in state funds for salary improvement to pay for part of the estimated $400,000 step increase for employees next year.
In other business, commissioners:
n Approved an ordinance to rezone property located at 71 Cherry St. from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business). Petitioners, Marvin and Todd Carter want to construct a 15-unit multi-family development on the site. The property currently is vacant. City staff has calculated that the development would generate about 90 vehicle trips per day.
n Approved on second reading an ordinance to rezone about 2.5 acres at 2412 Knob Creek Road from MS-1 (medical services) to R-4 (medium density residential). The petitioner is Mitch Cox and Dominion Development Group. Cox wants to build a 40,000-square foot, 60-unit assisted living facility on the site, which adjoins the Towne Acres neighborhood. A required concept plan also was approved.