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Johnson City families should not be Washington County's enemies

Ed McKinney, Community Voices • Sep 8, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The town of Jonesborough has proposed to build and lease a K-8 school building to the county. Jonesborough has no school system, no superintendent and a limited number of school-age children who live within the town limits. Most of the children who attend school at Jonesborough Elementary and Jonesborough Middle schools are not residents of Jonesborough. They are residents of Washington County who are bused to this location.

The total school population for Jonesborough Elementary as of Aug. 19 was 489 students (down from 543 in 2016-17) and for Jonesborough Middle School the population was 409. When looking at the last 10 years for both schools the student population has been flat or declining. Both schools are beginning to experience a downturn in student population. That also holds true with the overall decline in school age children in many places in the United States.

State law requires county government to share proportionally its borrowing for capital school projects with municipal schools that are located in the same county. The sharing is based on average daily attendance in the county and the municipal schools in any given year.

The new Boones Creek K-8 school was funded mostly with cash from reserves in the county. How much of that was money collected from Johnson City property owners? The county did borrow $9 million in capital funding to cover some of the school project and thus was forced by law to share $7 million with Johnson City Schools. So the total borrowing was $16+ million. The citizens of Johnson City pay county property taxes so the funds that came to the school system in Johnson City are being repaid by Johnson City property owners. How does that make Johnson City citizens the enemy?

This was not the first time the county tried to circumvent the state law by not sharing capital project funds appropriately with Johnson City Schools. Under County Mayor Eldridge the county purchased school buses without using capital funding borrowing so they would not have to share funds with Johnson City Schools. Johnson City Schools also have buses that need to be replaced as required by state law.

What adult or adults decided that money should not be shared with Johnson City Schools? That was a terrible disservice to the citizens in Johnson City, considering that Johnson City citizens are also required by property tax collections to repay the money borrowed, regardless of the method used to borrow those funds. Any debt by the county also becomes a debt for the citizens in Johnson City. Any debt incurred by the city of Johnson City does not become the debt for those who live outside of the city limits.

The total assessed property value for the entire county for the 2019-20 tax year is more than $3.3 billion. Johnson City’s assessed property value is more than $2 billion for property located within the city limits. Jonesborough’s assessed property value is almost $153 million. When you look at the numbers, Johnson City citizens and businesses are subsidizing the operations of county government. Johnson City’s share of real property taxes collected for the operation of county government is 61.57%. The town of Jonesborough is less than 1%. Johnson City’s percentage goes even higher when you add the collection of tangible personal property tax collected in Johnson City and paid to the Washington County government.

The problem is quite simple. Those in charge of running the county government are doing great harm to the citizens of Johnson City who contribute the most to the operations of county government. The question is why? Are some current and former members of county government attempting to have personal monetary gains at the expense of the citizens of Johnson City? Take a closer look at the proposal given by those in charge of the town of Jonesborough. For what purpose would Washington County government and school board members even listen to such a proposal of letting the town of Jonesborough build and lease school property? Is it to avoid sharing capital projects money with Johnson City?

At what time did the citizens of Johnson City become the enemy of those in county government? Any deliberate attempt to maneuver around state law that requires sharing of funds for educational purposes is to say that the children in Johnson City Schools are of less importance than the children in Washington County Schools. Those in charge of county government and county schools are adults. They should know better.

The adults have haggled over the replacement of Jonesborough elementary and middle schools far too long. They are supposed to be our leaders. Instead, we have seen divisions take place. Why does the town of Jonesborough have much say in where the next school is placed? There are fewer school-aged children that live in Jonesborough. Since when does the town of Jonesborough become experts in building schools? Move the school out of Jonesborough and onto a piece of property that will enhance the learning of children in the county. Sell the current property to commercial interests and help the town to grow jobs for the adults the children will become so they won’t have to leave the community to find employment.

For those who do not like sharing educational funds with municipal schools, take up the cause and get the elected members of the state legislature to change how we look at cities, towns and county government’s ability to collect property taxes. Certainly, those who live in Johnson City do not need to pay property taxes to a county government and receive nothing in return for those tax dollars.

Most states do not have citizens in a city or town pay both city and county taxes. They pay property taxes to the city OR county government, not both. The way it currently works in Washington County may have worked 100 years ago in Tennessee, but it is now outdated and needs to be changed. If those elected to serve in the state legislature are not willing to make the change; then vote them out!

We need for government to work for ALL its citizens and that includes Washington County government leaders. Any debt incurred by Washington County becomes a debt for the citizens in Johnson City. County government leaders should follow state law as it was intended. Stop trying to maneuver around state law. Use capital funding for the school project and share with the citizens of Johnson City who pay taxes so Washington County can have new schools. Take responsibility for what you were elected to do regarding state laws and put a stop to this nonsense. The other alternative may be lawsuits and that would definitely postpone this school project and others for years.

Ed McKinney of Johnson City is a retired business educator.

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