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Board moves ahead with land buy for animal shelter

An April 15 deadline led members of the Johnson City-Washington County Animal Control Board to make a decision on the purchase of 6.6 acres on North Roan Street for a new animal shelter, but the county still has reservations about the fundraising plan to build the facility.
“We have a time limit, and I’m not willing to forego the opportunity to purchase this property by piddling around,” Johnson City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said.
Van Brocklin, who also serves on the Animal Control Board, insisted a decision had to be made during a March 21 meeting.
The project is moving forward in other areas, as well, with a request for proposals issued to local architects a couple of weeks ago.
“Tommy Burleson has agreed to be the coordinator of builders and contractors at no cost,” Chairman Rick Gordon told board members. “He is president of Burleson Construction and said, ‘I think if I can work on this thing, I can save you some serious money.’”
Gordon said he, Shelter Director Debbie Dobbs and Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola looked at 19 pieces of property during the fall.
According to Gordon, “When the board members saw the site on North Roan Street, we all said, ‘This is it.’”
Gordon said he has received comments from the public regarding the North Roan Street site being a prime piece of land.
“Maybe so, but it’s been for sale for five to 10 years,” he said.
However, possibly a result of the Animal Control Board’s interest, Gordon said the owners may have since received a better offer than the $500,000 they agreed to.
“The owners gave Phil 90 days,” Gordon said, which means an April 15 deadline.
Funding currently available for the purchase of the land is made up of a $350,000 from the City of Johnson City, $187,000 in reserve funds from the Animal Control Board, and a $25,000 pledge from Van Brocklin.
Gordon asked Commissioner David Tomita for an update from Washington County.
Tomita said the county is considering a $250,000 cash contribution and up to $100,000 in in-kind paving services.
“I don’t think anyone disagrees, but we haven’t heard a comfortable time frame on when the building would be built,” he said. “The fear that I hear (comes from) pulling the land off the tax roll and three years later, we’re in a similar situation as with the General Mills plant. There was a plan there, too.”
Dobbs said Pindzola has a breakdown of the specific costs.
“Phil isn’t raising the money,” Tomita said. “And unless he’s going to write the check, are we going to pay for a design we can’t afford?
“If we could answer the time frame,” Tomita continued. “We have three (city) commissioners here, will you bond it?” Tomita said the county has no bonding capacity left and is unable to borrow money.
“Do you want two years, four years, is that what you want us to say?” City Commissioner Clayton Stout asked. “How does that change the direction on your end?”
Commissioner Pat Wolfe said 18 of the county commissioners serve districts that represent portions or all of Johnson City. “We’re getting questions about why we’re taking this property off the tax roll,” he said, adding Property Assessor Scott Buckingham estimates the county could lose $8,500 per year.
“That argument, with all due respect, is not going anywhere with me about economic development,” Stout said. “The land has been for sale for 10 years. If it was going to be developed, it would have been. The House of Ribs is out of business, and nothing is growing there.”
Gordon said the latest figures are for a 12,000-square-foot building. “Phil and Tommy said we’re not going to get it for $100 a square foot, and four months of construction are estimated,” he said. Total cost is expected to be $1.2 million.
“It will cost more because it will be a phased project,” Van Brocklin said. “We won’t get everything we want at first.”
Gordon suggested taking the $350,000 from the city and $150,000 from the Animal Control Board reserves and buying the property. “Then we can borrow. That’s the idea going around in my mind,” he said.
Dobbs said the Animal Control Board has the capacity to borrow.
“If we vote today to buy the property, will it influence the county’s decision to fund?” Van Brocklin asked.
Wolfe said the proposed resolution indicates the county will want to share joint ownership in the land and the building.
“I think that’s an unfair request on the city or county if the majority of funds is raised through donations,” Van Brocklin said. “We will need to have an agreement that the Animal Control Board could buy it if (the city or county) pulls out.”
Gordon through it would be a better idea for the land to be owned by the Animal Control Board. “We would not have the ability to borrow if the land is being leased,” he said.
Dobbs said people won’t donate if they think the property is owned by the city or county.
People are already calling in about making gifts toward the project, according to Gordon.
Commissioner Jane Myron said a new shelter has been in the works for the last 10 years. “I think we need to think about the animals. I would work (hard) to raise the money. Maybe I’m just more stubborn than you are,” she said.
“With all due respect, Jane, that’s not a good answer,” Tomita said. “I don’t doubt the passion is out there.”
Paying for a feasibility study to determine the potential amount of funds that would be raised for the project was discussed, a move Tomita said would be wise.
“If they come back and say we have the capacity, we could look at borrowing then upfront,” he said. “You say you’ve been working for 10 years, but it doesn’t look like it because this is stuff you could have had last year.”
Gordon asked if it would be easier for the county if the board voted to buy the property. “You could (then) say, we’ve got the property, now we just need to put a building on it,” he said.
Tomita said that action could make it harder because the valuable piece of the project is the building. “The comment (to media) that you were going to do it with or without the county was not helpful,” he said.
Van Brocklin moved to pursue a feasibility study at a cost of up to $16,000, and to purchase the North Roan Street property for $500,000 using funds committed by the city and reserves from the Animal Control Board.
Vice Chair Beverly Green seconded both motions, and Tomita asked to vote on the motions separately. The motion for the feasibility study passed unanimously, with Tomita and Wolfe voting against the purchase of the property.
Tomita repeated his concern the following night during the City-County Liaison Committee meeting.
“I’m not against the project or the location, but maybe we’re jumping the gun,” he said.
County Commissioner Lee Chase, who was moderating the discussion meeting, said he had received an equal number of calls from those who support the shelter and those concerned about that piece of property.
“We’re well aware, but we’ve been in a concentrated process for the last year, and nothing else is coming forward,” Van Brocklin said.
Stout said the proposed site adjoins no residential property. “I’m sick of people vilifying this property. It’s such a cop-out,” he said.
According to City Manager Pete Peterson, the city offered a spot near the landfill as a possible site. “Debbie (Dobbs) said, ‘how does that help in South Central?’” he said. “We asked Debbie how she can deliver her services as cost-effectively as possible.”
County Attorney John Rambo asked Peterson the city’s position on a joint deed with the county.
“I haven’t been able to talk with the other commissioners, but I don’t see it as being a big impediment at all,” he said.
However, he added, titling it in the Animal Control Board’s name would eliminate questions regarding ownership.
Chase asked how the county’s decision on funding will hold up the process.
“It won’t hold up the purchase (of the land), but it’s very important we have it,” Van Brocklin said.