Washington County commissioners defer vote on school funding agreement

Robert Houk • Apr 28, 2020 at 7:00 AM

Washington County commissioners have deferred a second vote on a $12.5 million inter-local agreement to allocate $500,000 annually over a 25-year period to help Johnson City fund its school capital needs.

County officials originally endorsed the deal by a 10-4-1 vote on Feb. 24. Commissioners voted unanimously at their electronic meeting Monday night (with Commissioner Robbie Tester abstaining) to postpone another vote on the resolution.

In a meeting that saw its public livestream on YouTube disconnected, the County Commission decided it needed more time to review the agreement. Board Chairman Greg Matherly said several commissioners told him they wanted to review the deal in their standing committees.

A new county vote on the inter-local agreement became necessary after Johnson City commissioners postponed a decision on the arrangement at its meeting on March 12. City officials said important attachments were missing from their version of the inter-local agreement.

The deal is tied to a lease-purchase agreement county commissioners have signed with the town of Jonesborough to build a new $32.75 million K-8 county school and sports complex. Commissioner Jim Wheeler said the delay in voting on the Johnson City deal “would not slow” work on the Jonesborough school project.

There had been concern that Johnson City might sue the county for the education funds that it would normally receive through the traditional school construction process. Such litigation, however, is expressly prohibited under the terms of the inter-local agreement. 

The deal specifies that the funds go specifically to four city elementary school construction projects, including the design and construction of a new 125,000-square-foot building to replace the existing Towne Acres Elementary School.

In other business Monday, commissioners voted to:

• Fund a feasibility study for the redevelopment of the Ashe Street Courthouse in Johnson City. The county will contribute $2,500 (that will be matched by the Johnson City Development Authority) to the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia to conduct the feasibility study.

Gov. Bill Lee has placed $5 million grant in the new $40.8 billion state budget for renovations to the 109-year-old former county courthouse at 401 Ashe St. 

Commissioners Steve Light, Kent Harris, Danny Edens and Mike Ford voted “no” on the resolution. Harris called the expenditure a “slippery slope,” and said the $5 million from the governor could be better spent on extending public water and other essential projects. 

• Postpone a decision on covering a $80,529 shortfall in the county’s commitment to the downtown Johnson City tax increment financing district. Commissioner Freddie Malone asked that his colleagues hold off on voting on that matter until commissioners reconsider adopting a revision of the state’s TIF law that they had previously rejected.

Malone told the Budget Committee earlier this month that the restructuring could result in the Johnson City Development Authority forgiving the outstanding balance.

• Appoint Niles Geary II, John Frizzell , Brian Decker and John Rotty as members to the Washington County Industrial Development Board.

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