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City manager says Johnson City schools also have needs

Robert Houk • Sep 28, 2019 at 12:00 AM

City Manager Pete Peterson said while Johnson City is “100% in support” of Jonesborough students getting a new school, Washington County commissioners should remember that 48 percent of the schoolchildren in the county go to city schools.

 And they have needs, too.

Peterson told the Press on Friday the city has no intentions of “harming or delaying” Jonesborough’s K-8 school project. City leaders simply want to work with county officials to see that all schools in Washington County are adequately funded.

He said it is a fair request since Johnson City generates 86% of the sales taxes collected in Washington County, and city residents and businesses account for 65% of the county’s total property tax dollars.

The city manager said he has been talking with Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy to find funding options for the county to help meet some of the capital needs of Johnson City’s schools. City School Superintendent Steve Barnett told county commissioners Monday that classrooms will be added to Lake Ridge, South Side and Woodland elementary schools to meet the growing number of students attending city schools.

Peterson said those projects — totaling $10 million — would be covered by city tax dollars, but noted Johnson City could use some help in building a larger and more secure Towne Acres Elementary School at an estimated cost of $23 million.

“We are looking for a little help, not a freebie,” Peterson said.

He said a city representative will be on hand at the County Commission’s workshop on Tuesday when it reviews a proposed 20-year contract for the town of Jonesborough to spend up to $32 million to build a new Jonesborough school and sports complex to be leased by Washington County.

Under the current proposal, Washington County would not share a portion of the construction funds with city schools as it would be required under state law to do if it was doing the financing itself.

Instead, the plan calls for the county to make annual lease payments of $2.5 million to the town of Jonesborough. Peterson said the city realizes there is currently a limited amount of money to do the proposed project without asking for a tax increase.

However, he believes the county can meet its funding obligations to city schools without a tax hike by looking at other lease and financing concepts, such as lowering the borrowing costs for the construction project.

“We need to look at all the options,” he said. “That includes extending the length of the lease agreement to 25 or 28 years. It would lower the annual lease payments for the Jonesborough school, and would allow the county to have the cash flow to address Johnson City’s school needs without raising taxes.”

Peterson said the city is looking to “continue a dialogue with the county that we can live with.” He said city officials have not yet decided whether to pursue a legal challenge of the current financing plan for the Jonesborough school, but said the lease proposal does appear to be “long-term debt” that would require the county to share a portion of the funds with city schools.

“We need to strive for a win-win situation, not a lose-lose,” Peterson said. “We don’t want to pit neighbor against neighbor arguing over what is a limited amount of tax dollars.” 

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