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Johnson City awards $30M bid, expects West Walnut rehab to begin Aug. 1

Johnson City is getting ready to embark on what might be the most complex construction project it’s ever performed.

City commissioners on Thursday approved a $30.5 million bid for Summers-Taylor Inc. to rehabilitate West Walnut Street, an approximately $33 million construction project that Public Works Director Phil Pindzola anticipates will begin on Aug. 1. Summers-Taylor Inc. was the sole bidder.

The two-year overhaul of the corridor will involve replacing water and sewer lines and tearing up the existing streetscape, substituting it with a more pedestrian-friendly roadway. A bike lane and on-street parking will run up the corridor, and elevated intersections will slow traffic.

The bid that appeared on the commission’s agenda was $29.7 million, but the city opted to re-add contingencies for all funding sources except for the general fund, which brought the allotment to just over $30 million. That money had originally been removed after negotiations with the Summers-Taylor, whose bid initially came in at $34 million.

Buying Harman Ice

Commissioners also purchased the Harman Ice & Cold Storage property at 724 W. Walnut St. for $2.5 million. That parcel will be used for stormwater storage and will also serve as a park-like space in the vein of Founders and King Commons parks.

Buying the property will also allow the city to build an extension to Cherokee Street between West Walnut and State of Franklin Road. The existing Harman Ice building will be demolished.

City Manager Pete Peterson added that using the land as a stormwater detention site will enable the city to significantly reduce the stormwater costs of the project, saving roughly $600,000 worth of work.

“There’s very significant cost savings to the project as a whole by acquiring the Harman property,” he said.

The $2.5 million cost of acquiring the land comes from a condemnation settlement agreement totaling $1.05 million and a real estate contract of sale totaling $1.45 million.

Why just one bidder?

Pointing out that Summers-Taylor Inc. was the only company to bid on the project, Commissioner Aaron Murphy asked whether the city should reach out to other firms to ask why they didn’t bid.

“Working in construction for probably eight years of my life and this large pool of money we’re going to commit, it’s just somewhat odd that we weren’t able to get someone else to bid,” Murphy said.

Peterson noted that there are very few businesses that have the resources and skillset to conduct a project of this magnitude.

“I wasn’t surprised that we didn’t have a lot of bidders,” Peterson said. “We were very hopeful that there would be more bidders than one.”

He added that staff tried to entice another firm, which he said completed a similar project in Knoxville, to submit a bid. But, Peterson said the duration of the project and the cost of paying for housing while the company’s crews worked on the roadway made it difficult for the firm to be competitive.

Peterson added that the city has locked in pricing for much of the construction materials that will be used in the project. He said there’s no guarantee that prices will stay the same if the city seeks out another firm.

City budget

Buoyed by millions in federal stimulus dollars, Johnson City commissioners also passed on final reading what may be the largest budget in the city’s history on Thursday.

The $302 million fiscal year 2022 budget does not contain a property tax increase.

Commissioners approved the budget with two additions: $100,000 for a young professionals program organized by the Johnson City area Chamber of Commerce and $58,000 for a new multimedia specialist position in the communications and marketing department. The city would pay for those additions by cutting a proposed deputy city manager position. That may be funded at a later date.

The general fund budget accounts for about $100 million of the $302 million budget. It includes a 4% pay plan adjustment for city employees totaling roughly $1.35 million, which would make it the fourth consecutive pay increase for employees in four years. The raises are intended to help the city remain competitive at recruiting and retaining staff.

The city is also taking on an extra $18 million in debt. Of that allotment, an additional $5 million is being borrowed for the West Walnut Street rehabilitation project, and $13 million is set aside to build new athletic fields at Winged Deer Park.

ETSU unveils eight new electric vehicle charging stations

East Tennessee State University unveiled eight new electric vehicle charging stations on campus on Thursday.

The Level 2 Clipper Creek EV charging stations will be in parking lot 15 and in the parking garage.

“These charging stations create opportunities for our students, faculty and staff with electric vehicles to be part of a better future here at our institution,” said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland.

The charging stations were funded by the campus sustainability fee, which has been part of ETSU’s tuition since 2008, and installed as part of a partnership with Seven States Power Corporation, which is serving as the project manager, and BrightRidge, which is powering the chargers.

“I think we know that this is a part of our energy future, and being ready for it is important and is going to call upon each of us to collaborate across lines that we’ve historically not collaborated across to find ways to implement this technology in a way that’s accessible to not just students at ETSU, but the community as a whole,” said Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise.

The charging stations can provide roughly 25 miles per hour of range for any electric vehicle produced in North America, and have the potential to eventually provide enough electricity to reduce carbon levels enough to equal the planting of 200 trees.

“When the commitment by the car industry is that within the next three or four years, probably less, we will have 135 electric vehicle models available for people to purchase, battery power is getting to where it will be 400 miles or more on a charge, which will go farther than any gas-powered car will get you,” said Jeff Dykes, CEO of BrightRidge. “So as the state of Tennessee, TVA and Seven States move toward getting those fast charging stations every 50 miles on the interstate, the anxiety of taking a trip in an electric vehicle goes away.”

The unveiling marks the 100th installation of EV charging stations by Seven States Power Corporation. The first was in partnership with BrightRidge in 2019 at the Hands On! Discovery Center

“It takes strong partnerships like these to integrate innovative technologies into our communities, and I see nothing but bright futures ahead for the Tennessee Valley,” said Betsey McCall, CEO of Seven States Power Corporation.

Comptroller urges governments to strategize spending of rescue funds

State Comptroller Jason Mumpower told local government and school leaders on Thursday they should prepare a careful strategy for spending their portion of the combined $4.4 billion coming to Tennessee from the $11.9 trillion American Recovery Plan Act.

Mumpower said the federal act provides local governments with “an opportunity to do the greatest amount of good, for the greatest amount of people” in their communities.

Even so, Mumpower cautioned local leaders the federal money comes with a number of strings attached.

“No expenditures should be made before you are certain the use of the funds comply with provisions of the American Rescue Plan,” Mumpower told local officials meeting at East Tennessee State University’s Martin Center for the Arts.

Mumpower said his office stands ready to help local governments and school systems wade through the bureaucratic rules and strict regulations for spending money from the rescue act. Washington County is slated to receive $25.5 million from the plan, and Johnson City will get $13.4 million.

The comptroller of the treasury said his advice to local governments for spending the funds is to:

• Use the money to stabilize your communities;

• Think strategically before you spend; and

• Consider creating a group of government officials, business leaders, nonprofits and other stakeholders to strategize spending plans and track results.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has already created an advisory board of business, community and courthouse officials to help local government leaders identify projects to be funded by the rescue plan.

Mumpower said local leaders can spend rescue funds to:

• Support public health expenditures;

• Address the negative economic impact caused by a health emergency;

• Replace lost public sector revenue;

• Provide premium pay to essential workers; and

• Invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Mumpower said the comptroller’s office is enthusiastic about what it sees as “a great opportunity” to use Rescue Act funds to expand and rehabilitate water and sewer systems in Tennessee. He said many public utilities in the state “have pipes in the ground” that are between 40 and 70 years old.

The comptroller said the state is “willing to partner with local governments” to find additional funds to go with federal dollars for infrastructure improvements.

He noted that while the American Rescue Plan Act requires cities and counties to have water/sewer and other infrastructure projects under contract by Dec. 31, 2024, they have until Dec. 31, 2026, to complete the work.

Roundtable discussion on downtown safety focused on homelessness

While the subject of a community roundtable meeting Thursday was tagged as “downtown safety,” it was clear from the first comments what the true issue was going to be: Homeless people who frequent that area and hopes for solutions to help them.

The meetings are usually held at the Langston Center, but this one was in a sanctuary at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church because of the expected turnout.

In the 90-minute time frame, 28 of the 100 or so attendees were able to speak about the issues they see with homelessness in downtown and urge city leaders to work toward a solution that doesn’t involve running the down-and-out away from downtown.

City staff who attended the meeting included Police Chief Karl Turner, Maj. Brian Rice, Maj. Matt Howell, Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl, Public Works Director Phil Pindzola and marketing director and moderator Keisha Shoun, as well as four uniformed police officers who spend much of their time downtown.

City Commissioner Aaron Murphy was also there to answer questions from the crowd.

Downtown Johnson City has long been a haven for the homeless, partly due to the numerous charities and other organizations that offer free services. Munsey operates a daily feeding program, The Melting Pot; next door is Good Samaritan Ministries and its thrift store, and a few blocks away in different directions are the Salvation Army and Haven of Mercy shelters.

“This is an opportunity to have dialogue with the community to discuss ways we can deliver better services as a police department and to collaborate on solutions to concerns or problems people have,” Turner said to start the meeting.

Many downtown business owners spoke and expressed frustration with the city’s approach toward homeless people. The city recently implemented an ordinance that allows anyone setting up beds or shelters to camp on public property to be ticketed.

For the full 90 minutes, citizens expressed their concerns about how the homelessness issue is, or is not, being addressed.

Victoria Warren said she has worked downtown for more than a decade and has seen the homeless population grow. She asked if there was any of the $30 million West Walnut improvement project set aside to provide any housing solutions. Pindzola addressed that question by saying it’s up to the City Commission on how to spend that money, and he had no knowledge about any housing options included in the plan.

“There is no money in the $30 million that’s for that, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention to where the community is,” with concerns on the issue, Pindzola said.

Business owner Kimball Sterling said he doesn’t have a problem with homeless people.

“My problem is vagrants,” he said. “It’s the vagrants coming in during the day.”

He relayed an experience his daughter and two grandsons had last week on Commerce Street.

“There were two people having sex in the bushes,” he said. “The bushes need to be trimmed back.” Sterling also said he often has to clean up human excrement from the sidewalk in front of his businesses.

“The police do a wonderful job when you call them, everything’s done perfectly,” he said.

He talked about a designated area for a homeless camp in Savannah, Georgia, which keeps them from roaming the streets because they have a place to go.

Other comments from citizens and business owners:

Dennis Prater criticized the city for “criminalizing” camping in downtown, and he claimed former Mayor Jenny Brock said, ‘we can’t be too nice to these folks because more will come here.’ We have to reject that idea,” he said.

Julia Sochaliski said she’s researched the homeless issue in other cities across America and there are solutions. “We do need to work together. The city can’t do this by themselves, the community can’t do this by themselves.This problem isn’t going away without a lot of work. These are people. They have stories. I want to know if anyone is willing to work with me.”

Nik Bang, who owns PROJEXx_Art & Goods said: “The city has to step up. There are more homeless people in this town than before COVID. My heart breaks almost every day from the stories I hear.”

Brian Doiran suggested using an old school building, specifically mentioning Boones Creek Middle School which recently closed, as a homeless shelter.

Business owner Dick Nelson expressed his disappointment that Murphy was the only city commissioner who attended the meeting. Murphy said there were overlapping events on Thursday, so commissioners split up to have a presence at more than one location.

Dr. Patti Amadio, who works at the ETSU medical school, said there should be a multi-disciplinary approach to “a very complex problem. There are addiction issues. The source of addiction is trauma,” she said.

After the meeting, Amadio said “there’s a downstream effect of the policy of trying to move the people away from downtown isn’t going to solve your problem. Trying to make the homeless less visible can make it worse.”

Amadio also talked about trauma-informed care, a result of adverse childhood experiences, which often lead people to becoming addicts and homeless.

“If you have more than six ACES, you’re 25% more likely to become homeless.”

She suggested an inter-professional team similar to one at ETSU that has gathered together to do health outreach to people on the streets

“Why don’t we get a team together to solve this problem ... include ETSU, include ARCH or other organizations,” to implement evidence-based solutions?”

Jean Stead, a Melting Pot volunteer, told officials “we need, as a community, to see a plan for sustained assistance.”

Murphy answered Stead’s question with, “I don’t know ... I’m hopeful something will happen,” which did not please Stead or the crowd.

“We need to be more than hopeful. We need a plan,” she said, which drew a loud round of applause.

Some who spoke talked about a need for mental health services, others said the help needed begins in the heart.

After the meeting, Stahl said he believes the city will continue to gather information on the homeless issue to form a path forward.

“I believe the city will be involved and will continue to receive input from various individuals throughout the community. There are many folks here today who are obviously familiar with many issues first hand,” he said.

Stahl said he was unsure what role the city should play, especially concerning another oft-mentioned issue — mental health.

“Traditionally mental health was never a local government function. It was basically what level the state paid in funding and then the charitable institutions funding over the years.

“Clearly, that’s a new field for the city to consider. What role does the city play and what partnerships either asking the state for more funding for more mental health services … or what should be the formula? It’s a very real issue and a very real discussion.”