After weeks of talks, the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted Monday night to raise the property tax rate by 10 cents in hopes of raising funding for a new senior center.
The vote followed a public hearing in which the board listened to a number of citizens packed into a room at Town Hall in which they voiced their concerns surrounding the tax hike and the necessity of having a new senior center within the city.
Aldermen Mary Gearhart and Terry Countermine voted in the favor of the property tax rate raise, with alderman Chuck Vest voting against the motion.
The tax hike would take Jonesborough’s current tax rate from $1.18 to $1.28, which is one of the lowest in the area compared to Washington County’s $1.91, Johnson City’s $1.54, Elizabethton’s $1.78 and Erwin’s 94 cents.
Town recorder Abbey Miller said a 10 cent increase on the property tax of a home appraised at $100,000, it would equal $25 a year.
While Vest remains a supporter of building a new senior center, he said he believes it can be done without raising taxes.
“I’m convinced we can build a senior center without raising taxes. We have the funds to do it. Will it be tight? Yes, but in my opinion government works best when it is tight,” he said.
The current facility, which was outgrown several years ago, has about 5,000 square feet and a little more than 30 parking spaces. Originally an RV showroom, the building isn’t conducive to many of the activities offered by the senior center and its location doesn’t allow for much expansion.
The proposed two-story building would be constructed on town-owned land on East Main Street and is estimated to carry a $1.7 million to $2 million price tag. The tentative plans for the facility include a lobby, reception area, administration area, a 960-square foot parlor that opens to a 700-square foot covered porch, a dining room that can seat about 130 people, a 1,664-square-foot arts and craft room, a conference room that can seat about 32 people, a classroom/computer lab that can seat about 32 people and a commercial kitchen.
Vest said he supports the senior center project as long as the board can reduce the cost, which he believes can be done if they look at other options, such as building at a different site.
“We have land that we can build on that will save us a couple $100,000. We can build this center without raising taxes. If you can do that, I ask that you reconsider,” he said during the board’s discussion on the motion.
Gearhart disagreed, saying that a new senior center is something that has been in the works for more than a decade. She believes the cost is appropriate for what senior citizens need, and was 100 percent in favor of raising the property tax in order to create the funds for the project.
“It hasn’t just come up within the last year, it has been in discussion for over 10 years, maybe 15,” she said. “After all this time...the cost is absolutely necessary, I believe, for now. I think it’s the right time. I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s the right cost, and I think we should go ahead with it.”
Countermine was adamant that the construction of a new center was an absolute necessity for the senior citizens of the city.
“Senior centers are such a connection to how people feel mentally and physically and when you have a nice place for seniors, they’re going to feel better and live longer. There’s a health care issue there,” he said.
He said he would be willing to compromise on the rates, but that there really was no reason not to go forward with the senior center project.
Town administrator Bob Browning brought up a couple of programs that would aid in tax relief for seniors, including a program that would aid people ages 65 and over.
Before the vote, Mayor Kelly Wolfe asked Browning to draft a proposal on those programs for next month’s meeting.
Earlier discussions surrounding the property tax increase involved the funding of several other city projects — including renovations to the old Booker T. Washington school building, the purchase of what was formerly the Jackson Theatre and a new town garage — however, the board said they can be funded through other means and are much less costly than a senior center. The board is only considering the Jackson Theatre project if they are able to obtain some other outside funding.
Correction: Gearhart later told the Press she used the word "cause" rather than "cost" in the sentence reported as "I think it’s the right cost, and I think we should go ahead with it.”