“I think it’s premature to make a decision on this tonight until we decide what to do with Scheme 6,” said Commissioner Kent Harris, who joined Commissioners Danny Edens and Mike Ford in voting against the expenditure.
Commissioners decided last week they wanted to talk about how to pay for Scheme 6 before committing to replace the elementary school’s roof. The Washington County Board of Education approved the Scheme 6 plan in October, which calls for renovating Jonesborough Middle School and adding about 64,000 square feet to the building.
Several commissioners said they were afraid replacing the roof would be a waste of tax dollars if school officials later decide to demolish the elementary school building.
Phillip Patrick, maintenance supervisor for county schools, told commissioners the roof has outlived its 25-year warranty.
“We’ve put patches on top of patches,” Patrick said.
County BOE Chairman Keith Ervin said he would never vote to “tear down the elementary school if you vote to put a roof on it.” He said the school board could come up with a number of options for the elementary school if Scheme 6 is approved
Earlier, commissioners heard a workshop presentation from Mitch Meredith, the county’s finance and administration director, who said Washington County would need to borrow at least $56.2 million to fund Scheme 6 — which was one of seven presented to the BOE — for the Jonesborough K-8 and key school capital projects.
Half that borrowed amount would go to Johnson City schools, as required by state law.
Meredith said borrowing that amount would require the county to move 13 pennies of the county’s $2.38 property tax rate from capital projects to debt service.
He said those funds would join 5 cents allocated by the County Commission in 2016 for improvements to Jonesborough elementary and middle schools. That would still leave county officials with the job of finding “additional pennies” to complete funding for Scheme 6.
Such borrowing would move Washington County, which is now ranked 21st among Tennessee’s 95 counties with a current debt load of $1,342 per capita, to among the top 10 of counties with the most debt on the books.
Commission Chairman Greg Matherly told his colleagues that they could look at diverting pennies on the property tax rate from other school capital projects to free up funds for the Jonesborough K-8.
“We can shift those pennies,”Matherly said. “That is an option.”
Meredith said the county could also shift priorities and wait until 2028 to build and occupy a new Jonesborough school without borrowing any new dollars. Commissioner Suzy Williams said she was hesitant to commit to a plan that future commissioners and BOE members may later decide not to pursue.
County Mayor Joe Grandy said the Budget Committee would meet next week to consider Scheme 6. Grandy noted “the price of construction is higher today” than it was when a plan for a Jonesborough K-8 was first debated.
Meredith — who is also a county BOE member — said it would cost $30.1 million today to build Scheme 6.
“Whatever we do today, we’ve got to borrow the money,” he said.
Grandy noted commissioners were limited in what they could consider regarding the new school.
“Realistically the question before us is whether to fund Scheme 6,” the mayor said. “That is what the school board has presented.”
Commissioner Jim Wheeler told his colleagues it might “be prudent to sit down and talk to school board members” about other options, including modifying the Scheme 6 plan.
Ervin told commissioners: “I don’t want my taxes raised,” and asked budget officials if any pennies on the tax rate could be freed up after “paying cash” on the Boones Creek K-8 project.