Sullivan County Commissioners will support creation of consolidation charter

J. H. Osborne • Jan 16, 2007 at 10:21 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - The Sullivan County Commission voted Tuesday to support creation of a charter to consolidate county and city of Kingsport governments.

That task would be done by a committee appointed by County Mayor Steve Godsey and Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips.

But for the effort to move forward and eventually come before city and county voters, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen must approve a similar resolution.

That doesn't appear likely based on a discussion the BMA had during a work session later Tuesday.

Kingsport Alderman Pat Shull spoke to commissioners prior to Tuesday's vote. He said the county and city should focus on preserving separate school systems - and making sure there are no changes in state education funding that would adversely affect the city's ability to continue funding its "outstanding" system.

Shull said County Commissioner Joe Herron asked him to speak to the commission about metro government, and he appreciated the opportunity to do so.

Shull said he didn't expect answers Tuesday to questions he raised but wanted them on the table for consideration.

He thanked the commission for "recent assistance to the BMA in areas of mutual concern including annexation and economic development."

"I'm convinced that we can accomplish a great deal in the public interest by working cooperatively together," Shull said.

But Shull said he wasn't "totally clear" on what has spurred recent discussions by the commission on consolidation.

"From reading about your discussions in the newspaper, it appears that potential dramatic changes in the method of state secondary education funding may be the driver of this dialogue," Shull said. "My colleagues on the Kingsport Board of Education are better able to speak to this subject than I. However, my view is that our focus should be on preserving viable separate city school systems. I encourage our Northeast Tennessee legislators to work toward that end, especially by ensuring that any changes to the current ... funding formula enacted by the state legislature do not adversely affect the ability of Kingsport to continue funding our outstanding system."

Consolidating governments also would change the way residents are represented and how other governmental services are delivered, Shull said.

"Again, it is not clear to me what is broken and needs to be fixed with respect to the city/county division of responsibilities in providing services to our citizens," Shull said. "On the other hand, I believe there is merit in looking at old issues and structures with a fresh perspective, and seeking improvement in all that we do. In fact, I wrote a paper proposing structural change within Kingsport's government. If the commission reaches the conclusion that it would like to study consolidated government, I recommend that it conduct an informal study without the need of a charter or formal Kingsport BMA approval. I further suggest that you invite Mr. Pat Hardy, Northeast Tennessee MTAS (Municipal Technical Advisory Service) representative to speak on this subject. And another important consideration - a significant part of Kingsport is in Hawkins County, including our newest elementary school."

Shull said he believes the County Commission and the BMA are composed of "dedicated, talented people who genuinely want to serve our citizens."

"Therefore, the test for a local government is - can it effectively represent our citizens' interests and provide services in a timely, cost-efficient manner? This brings me back to the idea of cooperation. Simply put, are there areas where we can cooperate and improve in serving our citizens which can be accomplished without consolidation? For example, Tennessee state law provides sufficient latitude for the county and city school systems to enter agreements in any number of areas of mutual interest. This means that we could share Sullivan North High School if we wanted. Another example, the county covers ambulance service for the city. Or, potentially the city could bid to provide garbage removal for citizens in the east end of Sullivan County."

Shull said those were only illustrations to emphasize that the most important thing is to serve the citizenry.

"I am not inclined to support city/county government consolidation unless I was absolutely convinced that the citizens of Kingsport would be better served, at lower costs, than the current arrangement," Shull said. "But I am absolutely and enthusiastically open to possibilities for better city/county cooperation in the best interests of our citizens. Finally, I believe that the government that is closest to our people can and should be the most responsive. Please bear that in mind as you go forth with your duties."

Commissioner Wayne McConnell later asked Herron to explain why Shull thinks Kingsport's school system is better than the county's school system.

Herron said he didn't get that inference from Shull's comments - and Shull told the Times-News that's not what he meant. Shull later sent an e-mail with a text of his comments to other members of city government. In that e-mail Shull said: "As soon as I sat down I was misquoted by a commissioner."

The resolution voted on by the County Commission was sponsored by Commissioner John McKamey. It needed 13 "yes" votes for approval from the 24-member commission. It got 17.

Voting against creation of the consolidation charter committee were Commissioners Ralph Harr, Elliott Kilgore, Buddy King, Mark Vance and Eddie Williams.

Commissioners Howard Patrick and Terry Harkleroad were absent from the vote.

All other commissioners voted "yes."

The last time metro government was on the ballot for voters was 1988, but it has been less than 10 years since consolidation of local governments was publicly debated.

In 1999 there was an effort to launch a citizen-driven push for metro government in Sullivan County.

State law would have permitted creation of a committee to create a charter for consolidated government if at least 3,095 registered voters signed a petition asking for that action.

The petition failed to produce enough interest, however, for the issue to move ahead.

The Sullivan County Commission had voted in September 1998 to support creation of a consolidated charter commission.

But to become effective it required subsequent approval by the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen. And the BMA never formally broached the subject.

Two consolidated government efforts in the 1980s were instigated by elected officials. Both met with failure when presented to voters throughout Sullivan County.

In 1982 voters rejected two consolidation questions, one to consolidate Kingsport with the county, another to consolidate Bristol and the county.

A total of 26,692 people voted in that election, with 2,917 being in favor of consolidation of Kingsport/Sullivan County and 2,654 being in favor of consolidation of Bristol/Sullivan County.

In 1988, the issue resulted in three questions on the Nov. 8 general election ballot - all of which were defeated by both county residents and municipal residents.

Model City voters rejected consolidation of Kingsport with Sullivan County by a vote of 9,101 to 2,492. Voters throughout the rest of Sullivan County rejected the question 20,553 to 11,182.

Bristol voters rejected consolidation of their city with the county 5,705 to 1,585. Voters throughout the rest of Sullivan County rejected the question 22,305 to 10,908.

And Bluff City voters rejected consolidation of their city with the county 231 to 161, while voters throughout the rest of Sullivan County rejected the question 28,094 to 12,639.

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