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Can Johnson City and Washington County officials work together?

September 26th, 2013 3:57 pm by Gary B. Gray

Can Johnson City and Washington County officials work together?

Washington County Commissioner Alpha Bridger (left) and Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin at Wednesday's session. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)

Its members have no authority to vote on spending plans, policies or new laws, but City-County Liaison Committee members are beginning to break the ice on sensitive issues that inevitably intertwine and interlock local governments, educational leaders, as well as public and private interests.

The participants need no charter. Nor do they need by-laws. They need to talk. Just ask them. 

“It’s a new tone in governance,” said Jenny Brock, committee chairwoman and Johnson City commissioner at Wednesday’s meeting. “Obviously, we’re not going to solve everything. But hopefully this can be a starting place where we come together and exchange information and ideas. I would not be surprised at all that decisions on our future will be formulated here. We’ve got some big issues coming, and the more we stay connected, the better.”

What for the past few years has been a hit-and-miss endeavour has become a polite-by-proxy gathering of mayors, commissioners, aldermen, school board members and others. Of course there’s no guarantee the atmosphere won’t fluctuate from time to time, but it’s obvious mutual respect is going to be a key in making this forum work.  

At Wednesday’s meeting, 14 members, three ex-officio members and three people who will handle correspondence, notices and other communication functions, were firmly in place. Brock began by setting a one-hour time limit on the meeting, and that’s how long it lasted, give or take a few minutes.

The committee followed up on two subjects that bubbled up at the end of last month’s meeting: the county school’s building plan and how future annexation might affect it, and efforts to collaborate to better induce economic development.

Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes kept his remarks brief, citing tonight’s special called joint meeting of the county’s Board of Education and county commissioners at which the system’s long-range strategic plan will be thoroughly debated.

“This plan gives us an overview on how things will look 10 to 12 years out, specifically for Boones Creek Elementary and Boones Creek Middle,” he said. “It’s $14 million to $15 million just to refurbish them. You have to consider, is it worth it? You also have to consider Johnson City’s growth.”

Mark it well. Dykes is referring to the city’s annexation plans, and how they have been and likely will concern the areas in the northern part of the county.

“Replacing the schools is a better value,” he added. “Also, it would call for school replacement in Jonesborough, a transportation center and athletic facilities. The big unknown is whether building a new school on the north end is practical, but we do realize this information is valuable to both entities.”

Brock replied, saying that city leaders also realized that money spent in that area would be coming in part from the city.

“This is crucial,” said Clarence Mabe, Washington County Board of Education member and its former chairman. “Johnson City annexation is a moving target. It’s a chess game. But we need to know. We have to know.”

Again, an inevitable issue that will play a key role in both Johnson City’s and Washington County’s future. Nonetheless, it is an issue that will be thought out in an even-handed forum. No ultimatums. No gavel. That’s the intent.

“It’s important that we educate our kids,” Mabe continued. “I’m just glad we’re talking about it.”

Meanwhile, Brock introduced Lottie Ryans, Washington County Economic Development Council chairwoman and Johnson City Board of Education member, who briefed committee members on economic development in the area.

Ryans ran through the WCEDC’s history, goals, staffing, funding and plans for the future, including an emphasis on recruiting private sources of funding and for development. She also talked about the organization’s evolution.

“What we have now is one front door for economic development for the city and the county,” she said. 

Ryans talked specifically about a stepped-up marketing push and the drive to obtain land in and around Boones Creek and Gray.

“What I think you will see is us getting options on land rather than buying the land to put ourselves in a position to have that land for development,” she said.

The remainder of the meeting was filled with chat, from Jonesborough Alderman Homer G’Fellers’ news that a contractor is on site to begin construction of the town’s senior center, to County Commissioner Pete Speropulos’ inquiry as to why rates for radio service for volunteer fire departments and the county’s Sheriff’s Office had risen.

The committee also decided to meet at least five times a year, that nearly doubles meetings scheduled in the past. Brock also suggested the committee meet again on Oct. 24, citing the information on school facilities and other issues that could be discussed sooner rather than later.

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