New committee aims to bring city, county together on annexation

Gary B. Gray • Dec 28, 2013 at 9:08 AM

When the City-County Liaison Committee formally was revived in August, its members elected officers, set meeting dates and prioritized these issues as matters to be discussed: education, infrastructure, legislation, animal shelter, annexation, economic development, public safety and EMS-911.

After just two meetings, it became obvious that future annexation by the city is the hot topic. The bottom line is, the county doesn’t want to go into debt and then see a duplication of services and other confusion and frustration brought on should the city and county not be on the same page when growth in Boones Creek and other areas takes off.

The fact is each of the prioritized topics will be affected by growth, but none have a more obvious and immediate need for attention than the county’s commitment to funding capital school projects, including the cost of student transportation.

“I plan to put this on our Jan. 9 agenda,” said Jenny Brock, City Commissioner and City-County Liaison Committee chairwoman. “When we last met in October, we talked about it in general terms. It’s a good time for us to reconnect and determine the intent and what the purpose of this new committee would be.”

County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes, and counterparts City Manager Pete Peterson and Johnson City Schools Superintendent Richard Bales, are the main players here. No one disputes the need for new schools in the Boones Creek area. But it’s no secret that area has been targeted by the city for future growth. And there’s the rub.

The new committee would create a forum specifically for these leaders to openly deal with these issues. It would mean open, real-time, face-to-face dialogue. Metro government? Not quite, though most officials from both the city and county have said they need to drop the pretenses and talk turkey.

Eldridge has said it would take an additional $214 million in new debt on top of the $156 million in current debt to invest enough money to meet its long-range facilities plan, but he does not want to put county taxpayers on the line for $370 million.

“Annexation is a big part of this, and the TACIR report will determine a lot of what happens with future growth,” Brock said. “The new committee will have to be a recommendation from us to both the City Commission and the County Commission. We have no power to put it in play, but hopefully we can get this organized sometime during the first of the year.”

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations has recommended an extension of a moratorium on municipal annexations of residential and agricultural property for another year to allow more time for an in-depth study of current laws.

TACIR began the study in May, nearly a year after a pending lawsuit halted the city’s so-called “forced” annexations in Gray. The commission’s recommendation, which is rumored to include language favoring more participation in the process from rural land owners, will affect all entities and individuals involved.

The moratorium was set to expire in May. However, should the legislature approve an extension, the moratorium on annexation without referendums would be extended to May 15, 2015.

Apparently, the sticking point with TACIR members is a split over a proposal to require public referendums on municipal annexations. There also is a call for more time to study who should get to vote in a referendum and how revenue generated from taxes on newly annexed property is shared with counties.

At the liaison committee’s well-attended August meeting, members broached two subjects: the county school’s building plan and how future annexation might affect the prior, and efforts to collaborate to better induce economic development.

Dykes kept his remarks brief, saying only that it would cost $14 million to $15 million just to refurbish Boones Creek Elementary and Boones Creek Middle schools.

“You have to consider, is it worth it? You also have to consider Johnson City’s growth,” he said.

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 said. “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.”

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