Workshop held to address capital project priorities in Elizabethton

John Thompson • Feb 24, 2014 at 10:53 AM

ELIZABETHTON — The Elizabethton City Council and the Elizabethton City School Board met in a two-hour workshop session Friday night in an effort to address concerns over the school system’s capital project priorities of building a new athletic complex and music room at Elizabethton High School and to get the council to release the proceeds of a $5 million bond issue to begin work on two of the three top projects. The third project, to build classrooms and make other improvements at T.A. Dugger Jr. High School, were not included in the School Board’s funding proposal, and that lack of funding has drawn concern from council members.

Because it was a workshop session, no actions were taken Friday, but Mayor Curt Alexander summed up the results of the meeting as he was preparing to adjourn it. “A lot of misconceptions were cleared up tonight.” He said of the City Council’s position: “We were not against the athletic complex, we just wanted to see a plan for T.A. Dugger.

Alexander said the action taken in December’s council meeting to defer a vote on transferring the $5 million was better than a defeat for the transfer.

Several misunderstandings were addressed that went back to last spring’s Council budget meetings, and to earlier times during the past four years as the School Board developed its capital projects plan.

School Board Chairwoman Rita Booher said the three projects all had top priority and it had been hoped that all three could be built with the funding available from the half-cent of the city’s sales tax that has been dedicated to school capital projects.

Alexander said no one could argue that all three projects were worthy, but he said from the earliest days of the discussions between the council and the board there had been a lot of talk about the need for improvements at T.A. Dugger. “When we started talking in 2011, the main driver was T.A. Dugger. That was when we (City Council) got to work for T.A. Dugger.

Board member Grover May said “there was never any intent to deceive,” by putting up T.A. Dugger and then removing it from the list of funded projects. He said the School Board thought all three projects could be funded with the bond issue.

May discussed his feelings as he saw the funding available for the three projects decline. At first, it was thought $9 million would be available to construct all three projects. When the financial people started examining the amount of sales tax revenue that would be available to pay the premiums, the numbers began to decline, reaching $6.6 million during the budget discussions. When it was finally revealed only $5 million would be available, May was very unhappy. At that time, the stadium alone was projected to cost $5 million.

By redrawing the plans and taking out the track, the school staff decided the stadium could be built for a bit more than $4 million. It was decided to dedicate $3.5 million to the stadium and $1.5 million to the music room.

Booher said T.A. Dugger would not have been a good alternative to the music room because it had the most variables.

Board member Phil Isaacs asked if more money might be available to refinance an earlier bond issue for capital projects, so that money would be available for T.A. Dugger. Mayor Alexander said the finance market is getting more difficult, with interest rates expected to rise in a year or so, making it impossible for the city to get more than $1 million more from a refinance.

City Councilman Jeff Treadway asked board members about the process used to obtain the three top priority capital projects. Booher said there was no formal procedure, but there were only a few school buildings in the system and the administration was very familiar with them and their needs.

May said one attraction to making a football stadium a top priority is that it is a very visible investment and helps make both the school system and the city more attractive for investment by outsiders.

Treadway said he would feel more comfortable if the board could be more substantive in their commitment to future improvements to T.A. Dugger.

Councilman Richard Tester said it should be remembered that the music room project will include four additional classrooms for the high school. He said that was important as more county students are attracted to the school.

In drawing the discussion to a close, Alexander once again said he and other council members saw the need for a new stadium. He said his job was to bring the decision makers together and to be the best steward he could be of the city’s resources.

Treadway followed him by saying “donors, get your checkbooks out.”

May said “we should be proud we are making an investment in our youth.”

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