Washington Co. Commission squabbles over courthouse renovations

Gary B. Gray • Nov 26, 2013 at 11:17 AM

It’s very likely Washington County’s 25-member decision-making body has spent more time grappling over the courthouse’s second-floor renovations than has been dedicated to design, shipping orders and actual labor.

At about 6:45 p.m. Monday, the County Commission rolled out resolution No. 13-11-07, which asked for $6,000 to pay Hiram Rash of Kingsport’s GRC Construction to oversee the second-floor renovations, including a complete refurbishing of commission chambers.

Or did it?

Turns out the resolution, which was generated by the County Owned Property Committee, had been changed by the county’s Budget Committee. Phyllis Corso, property committee chairwoman, explained to the Johnson City Press last week that their intention was to use Rash. Period.

Instead, the revised resolution stated that Willie Shrewsbury, the county’s purchasing agent, was authorized to identify and contract with a qualified construction supervisor to perform those duties.

Corso was not amused.

“For reasons unknown to me, the Budget Committee decided to disregard our request,” she said.

Commissioner Mike Ford asked County Mayor Dan Eldridge why the resolution was changed.

“The only reason the Budget Committee changed the wording was to bring it into compliance with the (state) 1957 Purchasing Act, which states that the purchasing agent is responsible,” Eldridge said.

He was right.

Interim County Attorney Keith Bowers got the call from across the room and stood at his post. He explained that the law does give the purchasing agent that authority “whether it’s $10 or $10 million.”

Remember, the county originally received three bids.

What now?

“Do we want to go out and get other bids?” Commissioner Mark Ferguson asked with a not-so-subtle hint of frustration. “This thing’s been drawn out for over a year.”

The clock kept doing its job, while Eldridge explained to commissioners that only about $40,000 remained of the estimated $220,000 cost for the renovations.

“The contract has been let, the materials have been bought and the state has OK’d the permit,” he said.

Finally, Commissioner Ethan Flynn offered an amendment. He suggested a line in the resolution state that the County Owned Property Committee has recommended Rash to supervise the work. Not that he is to be the supervisor — that the committee wants him to be.

The vote was unanimous — basically because everyone in the room wants the job to move forward, and it’s understood Rash is an acceptable choice.

Now, the vote on the resolution plus inserted amendment: unanimous again.

Interior renovations stopped in late June.

Eldridge halted the project about a week before the State Fire Marshal’s Office ordered the county to do so after not receiving construction plans from local architect Fred Ward, a matter Eldridge said was a miscommunication between the state and Shrewsbury — an answer some commissioners still refuse to accept.

The plan is to resume renovations with no changes. Fred Ward remains the architect, and the subcontractors originally signed on to complete the work will remain in place.

Commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution to set aside the Greenfield “County” Farm property for agricultural use as well as future expansion of Washington County’s Agriculture Extension Office.

The 40-year-old, 50-acre county farm a few miles southeast of Jonesborough is not being used, save a caretaker who stays there.

Last year, there was talk of using it as a passage point for homeless veterans, but that has been off the table for some time.

Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said he had heard from several people concerned about the farm and asked if there was anyone in the audience that wanted to speak. There were no takers, but a few people did leave after the vote. They asked not to be identified and said their concerns were addressed in the resolution.

Last year, Eldridge met with Richard McClain, Johnson City Housing Authority chief operating officer, and learned of the organization’s interest in signing a lease with the county to follow through with that plan. McClain said at the time the county farm could be used for homeless veterans through Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, a HUD program in which veterans apply for housing through the VA. Once vouchers are received, veterans can use them to find more affordable quarters, such as Section 8 housing.

But the JCHA’s role was never clearly defined and the matter has not been brought to the full commission for serious public discussion.

In other business, commissioners:

n Approved a resolution to appropriate $17,000 to help pay Frontier Health to provide an additional professional therapist to be present in Washington County Schools. Frontier Health currently provides two on-site professionals. The funds will allow for an additional therapist to be available.

n Approved a resolution establishing a general fund reserve for the county’s Environmental Court. Commissioners agreed to use $20,000 to set up the reserve fund for what will be the county’s third Sessions Court.

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