The City Commission on Thursday approved a first reading of Johnson City’s more than $208 million proposed 2014 fiscal budget, which is about $2 million less than the current fiscal year in which a good chunk of change has been used to complete projects including school construction and renovations and the new Memorial Park Community Center.
Three readings of the budget ordinance are needed, and it would not be a surprise to see a slight shift before that task is complete.
The budget ordinance sets the property tax rates for the Washington, Carter and Sullivan County portions of the city. The rates are unchanged from the current year at $1.57, $1.62 and $1.72 per $100 of assessed value, respectively. The city portion of the budget totals $134 million, a $3.9 million decrease, or 2.9 percent. The school system portion of the budget totals about $74.1 million, an increase of $2.1 million, or 2.9 percent.
Commissioners also held a workshop prior to Thursday’s meeting with Frontier Health officials, and that’s where the possibility of that slight shift in the budget comes in to play. Johnson City Schools has enjoyed the benefits of the HEROES grant program for the past four years, which has helped fund Frontier Health workers who have been positioned at schools to intervene and deal with various problems before they turn either destructive or violent.
But the school system is losing federal funding from this grant next year and is asking the city to pick up the roughly $800,000 tab. Both the city and the school system have been looking at alternatives, and on Thursday commissioners had a chance to put some questions to Charles Good, the organization’s president and CEO, and Teresa Kidd, senior vice president of operations.
“We thought we would see if there are any other approaches that can be taken,” Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin said.
Good passed out a fact sheet and told commissioners and City Manager Pete Peterson that he had never before seen the HEROES grant administered in such a efficient and productive way. He also said the grant had paid for 17 staff members who had either bachelor’s or master’s degrees that averaged $28,000 per year under the grant.
He also said he was not aware of a federal funding stream that may help with the immediate situation, but he assured commissioners he would maintain a dialogue with officials in Nashville about potential funding and reminded commissioners that Frontier Health’s mission was to focus on intervention rather than specific treatment.
“That’s what allows the teachers to teach,” Commissioner Clayton Stout said. “To me, that’s the focal point of this whole program.”
Commissioner Jenny Brock asked if the program could be “reshaped” in a way that benefits would remain close to what they are now.
“One way to reduce expenditures is to reduce staff,” Good replied. “Much of our goal has been to find external funding. And, if you reduce staff and become more selective, long, ongoing problems may be missed.”
In the end, an informal agreement was made to bring school officials back into the discussion after having learned more from Good and Kidd.
“I think we’ve come away even more convinced this is a worthwhile program,” Van Brocklin said.
Commissioners also approved a $40,000 proposal by Tysinger, Hampton & Partners to provide construction drawings and safety design recommendations for seven bridges along the now-abandoned East Tennessee Railroad line between Alabama Street in Johnson City to State Line Road in Elizabethton.
Johnson City acquired the 10-mile stretch of land and wants to develop a public use recreational trail that has been referred to as “The Tweetsie Trail.” The consulting and design firm has outlined in the proposal costs for evaluation, design of walkways and paths and reconstruction and stabilization of the structures.
The proposal came out of the first ever Rails-to-Trails Task Force meeting last week.
In other business, commissioners:
- Approved a revised cost-sharing agreement between the city and the Boone Watershed Partnership for development of the Sinking Creek Wetlands Center. The agreement reflects a smaller in-kind obligation on the part of the city from $41,500 to $35,000. This contribution, in the form of personnel and vehicle usage expenses, is for the construction only of the wetlands enhancement.
The boardwalk and construction of a parking lot, which is included in the overall project, has been taken out of funding for this phase. These amenities will be constructed if approved by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and City Commission and when additional funds are secured. The first-phase grant is for $103,805, which requires a 40 percent match from a variety of governmental and private entity sources. Those funds will be used to develop the construction of the wetlands enhancement component and development of plans for the eventual environmental learning center, which potentially includes a walking trail, parking lot, kiosks and gazebo.
- Approved a $68,400 consultant contract with Johnson City’s Matter & Craig regarding the access road from James H. Quillen VA Medical Center to West Market Street. The company will produce construction plans, complete the signal design at the intersection with West Market, complete all permitting necessary and complete work for bidding and negotiating with a contractor to construct the project. Federal funds will pay for 80 percent of this amount. There is a 20 percent required match.
- Approved an agreement to purchase property at 1301 and 1308 E. Main St. for about $23,000 as part of the East Main Street/Broadway Street Intersection Improvement Plan. The owner has agreed to the price provided the city upgrades chain link fence to a vinyl-coated style and adds nine additional parking spaces to the nine spaces being replaced due to construction. The city also will close an existing driveway on Broadway, construct a curb on East Main and improve drainage on the north side of the property.
- Approved a $65,850 contract with E. Luke Greene Co. to demolish the former furniture building on West Main Street.