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County agrees to pay city $12.5 million for schools

Commissioner Kent Harris expresses his concern about funding the payments to the Johnson City School System. (Photo by Marina Waters)

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

After months of planning and consideration, the Washington County Commission approved an interlocal agreement on Monday night between Johnson city the county regarding funds for school construction projects.

The agreement includes that the county would pay the city $12.5 million over a 25-year period, $500,000 a year. The commission approved the agreement in a 10-4-1 vote. Commissioners Danny Edens, Mike Ford, Kent Harris and Steve Light were opposed. Commissioner Robbie Tester recused himself from the vote.

The agreement says the county and city came up with the funding plan following the county’s interlocal agreement with the Town of Jonesborough to build a Jonesborough K-8 school with athletic and recreational facilities on a 48-acre tract on North Cherokee Street. Because the county — that by state law is required to share school construction project funds with city school systems  — is not borrowing funds for the project, the plan to build a Jonesborough School with the Town of Jonesborough did not include sharing funds with the Johnson City School System.

The agreement also says that funds paid to the city cannot be used for “costs of maintenance or operation expenses of the city school system.”

For Commissioner Kent Harris, the main question focused on the payment funds and taxes.

“I’d like to know where this money (for payments to Johnson City) is coming from,” Harris asked, “and if that’s still the reality that we’re going to (build the Jonesborough School) without raising taxes.”

Washington County Director of Accounts and Budgets Mitch Meredith said payments to the city would not begin until the school is in use, which is set for 2023. He also said the dual lease agreement with the town for the school project and the payments to the project are accounted for.

“In the capital investment plan, we’re drawing $2.6 million beginning in 2023 and that will cover all the costs related to both leases and the $500,000 payments to Johnson City,” Meredith said. “We’re not painting ourselves into a corner or creating a hole somewhere.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Mike Ford said he felt that the Jonesborough School project plan was “sold” on the idea that Johnson City would not receive the funds that would typically be required of the county and that the plan “wasn’t fair to Johnson City.”

“I didn’t think that was right to start with and I still don’t think it’s right tonight,” Ford said. “The way I figure it, that’s not even half of what they’d get on a $32 million project (through education project sharing). I just think fair is fair and right is right and I don’t think this is right the way we’re going about it.”

Previously, other commissioners voiced their support of the school plan and the interlocal agreement plan with Johnson City. Both the county’s Health Education and Welfare Committee and the budget committee passed the interlocal agreement earlier this month.

“I feel really gratified that we did something really different here,” Commissioner Jodi Jones said at the HEW Committee meeting. “We came together and found a way to consider some capital needs for the city schools which are in the county.”