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Commissioners confer with attorney on Jonesborough K-8 plan

Robert Houk • Oct 2, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Washington County commissioners met with their attorneys and auditors in a workshop on Tuesday to talk about a 20-year lease-to-own deal with Jonesborough to build a new K-8 school and sports complex.

At least one commissioner, however, said he was uncomfortable asking questions with the threat of a lawsuit from Johnson City schools looming over the project.

“I’m not sure I want to ask questions that might be used against us later on,” Commissioner Kent Harris said, noting it might be prudent for the commission to go into an executive session to discuss the matter with its attorneys.

County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson said such closed sessions are only allowed under the state’s Sunshine Law in cases where litigation has been filed or are pending. She said the interests of “transparency” would be better served if Harris and his colleagues kept their questions “broad” and on the topic of the proposed lease agreement between the county and the town of Jonesborough.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Larry England encouraged county officials to look for ways to help meet the school needs of both the students of Jonesborough and Johnson City.

“We should come up with a creative way to assist the city’s taxpayers,”  England said.

Commissioner Mike Ford said that while he was “for helping all school kids” in Washington County, he took exception to some of the comments he said were made by a member of Johnson City’s Board of Education earlier in the week.

“I don’t like it when someone says we’ve been sitting on our hands for three years,” Ford told commissioners. 

Culver Schmid, an attorney with Baker Donelson, said a number of details needed to be “fleshed out” on the lease contract. Even so, he said attorneys should have the agreement ready for a vote by Oct. 17.

Schmid said at the end of the lease agreement the county would have the option to purchase the school building and athletic facilities at a “nominal price.”

Commissioners decided to hold a special meeting last week to discuss the lease arrangement after voting 13-0 (with one member absent and another recusing himself) to approve the concept of a first-of-its-kind deal with Jonesborough for the town to spend as much as $32 million to build a new K-8 school and sports complex.

Schmid said the “the two leases are critical to the process,” and attorneys believe they have “come up with a legal structure that complies with the law” that applies to the apportionment of county taxes and shared school funds. He said the rents the county would be paying for the Jonesborough project would go to capital improvements, not to maintenance or operation.

He said a state Court of Appeals ruled in a case five years that apportionment such funds only apply to maintenance issues.

Melissa Steagall Jones, the county’s auditor, told commissioners that if the town extended its financing to 25 years it would lower the annual lease payments of the county to $1.8 million. County officials have calculated it has the funds now to pay an annual lease of $2.3 million for 20 years without the need to increase county property taxes.

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson has suggested that extending the length of the lease would allow the county to share a portion of the dollars that would have otherwise gone to Jonesborough under the 20-year plan with city schools to help it build a new Towne Acres Elementary School.

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