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Johnson City commissioners power through range of topics in Saturday workshop

Jennifer Sprouse • Jan 4, 2014 at 5:58 PM

Johnson City commissioners, under the direction of City Manager Pete Peterson, powered through topics ranging from equipment replacements, renovations and the overall funding of immediate and long-term projects for more than four hours Saturday morning as they prioritized items on their five-year capital improvement plan.

A big talking point during the meeting was Freedom Hall Civic Center renovations and the commission’s plans to reinvest in the venue that has recently housed a few East Tennessee State University basketball games.

“It’s a 40-year-old building. There are a lot of needs there,” Peterson said. “In the 40 years since it’s been open, we haven’t spent a whole lot of money up there. It’s now time to replace heating (and) cooling, upgrade electrical systems, put a sprinkler in.

“We’ve identified about $6 million worth of work that needs to be done up there and it’s really becoming pressing because if the heating and cooling were to cease operating, schools use that for the cafeteria and kitchen, so we’d have a problem there. You couldn’t host events in the building if there wasn’t adequate heating and cooling. It’s just time to reinvest in the maintenance of the building.”

Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin echoed Peterson, saying there wasn’t necessarily a question of the facility’s needs, but rather the amount of money needed and where it would be coming from.

“We’ve known what the needs are there for quite some time,” Van Brocklin said. “You have more interest on the part of the university being involved in the facility at this point, so then you start to talk a little bit more.”

A lengthy list of departmental equipment needs brought a lot of chatter from commissioners, as they discussed the uses and purposes of the equipment as well as the benefit and priorities of buying those requested items.

“Equipment replacement is always a big item in our capital plan,” Peterson said. “On an annual basis, currently we need to replace about a half a million dollars worth of school buses (and) about $350,000 worth of police cars. Regularly, we’ve got about $300,000-400,000 worth of fire equipment that needs to be replaced. There’s about $600,000 worth of Public Works dump trucks and backhoes, snowplows and those types of things that need to be replaced.”

He said the city needs about $2 million a year just to keep equipment replaced, which includes the equipment in all city-owned buildings and facilities.

“When you look at schools and city-owned buildings ... there’s usually always several hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars worth of roofs or HVAC work that needs to be done,” Peterson said. “We just have to prioritize those things and try to do the most we can with the resources available and make it work.”

He said commissioners annually meet to discuss the projects the city needs to act on in the coming months, as well as those that should be placed on the five-year plan.

“The next step will be when we start building next year’s operating budget,” he said. “We will then know how much money we’re going to have to apply toward this equipment and projects and this list gets whittled down even further. We’re just trying to prioritize everything we’ve identified at this point and then we’ll whittle down a little bit further in the operating budget.”

Some of the heavily talked-about projects, such as Cardinal Park and the new county-city animal shelter, were also brought up during the meeting as projects that will be funded by the commission.

“One of the last remaining pieces of improving Cardinal Park, especially in the plaza area, is the construction of a ticket booth,” Peterson said. “We have some money in the current budget to do the ticket booth, but it looks like the price is going to exceed what we’ve got budgeted. We’ve got about $25,000 left (and) the project could run $60,000 or $70,000 and the commission wants to go ahead and move that project forward so we can have that constructed before baseball season starts.”

As for the new animal shelter, he said while the architect is moving forward with construction drawings, “the Animal Control Board will need to issue the debt in order to construct the building. We need to build into our budget an increase in their annual appropriation to cover the annual debt-service payments.”

A field house at Science Hill High School’s Kermit Tipton Stadium was also discussed.

“There has been a fairly significant amount of private fundraising, and when we built the stadium, we put in the video board envisioning the opportunity to sell advertising and generate revenue and that has come to fruition,” Peterson said.

“What we’re looking at now is taking the private donations, in combination with the revenues generated from advertising and stadium activity, and issuing enough debt to build an adequately sized field house up at the football stadium. We’ll probably get that project moving forward sometime here in the next few months.”

He said the architect working on the site plan for the city’s Farmers Market is also working to finish construction documents for that project.

Van Brocklin said he felt Saturday’s meeting was informative and constructive.

“The city has a lot of issues facing it for this year and the upcoming years and we have limited resources,” he said. “We need to have these sort of meetings to identify what our priorities are and what the possibilities are of funding them. It was a good discussion. Where we go from here will be the proof in the pudding, but the discussion was a good, useful and important initial discussion.”

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