Sullivan commission votes yes on $50M bond issue

J. H. Osborne • Jan 16, 2007 at 9:42 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Don't try to take it to the bank.

That's the county attorney's advice on a "yes" vote Tuesday by the Sullivan County Commission on a proposal to issue $50 million in bonds for school construction projects.

The commission voted "yes" on that - but County Attorney Dan Street said trims and amendments left it virtually no more than a message of future intent.

Sullivan County Mayor Steve Godsey warned commissioners before the vote that their debate of the issue - amendments were made, then themselves amended, and efforts to table action, meaning the bond issue couldn't even be discussed by the commission again for one year, failed twice - had "diluted" and "convoluted" it to the point he'd be hard-pressed to explain exactly what the vote meant.

"I'm not sure any of us are going to be able to explain it," Godsey said.

Street echoed Godsey's point, seeking affirmation of commissioners' comments that a future vote would take place before an actual bond issue.

Commissioner Ralph Harr, who first proposed the $50 million for schools last month, amended his resolution Tuesday morning so that it would have approved the bond issue in that amount, but delayed actually issuing the bonds until up to Dec. 1 so a study of school needs could be conducted.

The commission asked for such a study more than 18 months ago, but it never materialized - some have said the commission's allocation of $12,000 for the job just wasn't enough for a serious stab at it. The city of Bristol recently spent about $130,000 for a study of its school system's future needs.

After several commissioners said they couldn't support Harr's proposal because they think the study is needed - and will take longer to complete than 10½ months - Harr agreed to remove the Nov. 30 deadline for its completion, as well as the Dec. 1 date for the bond issue. The resolution would be dateless for the vote.

Harr also agreed to remove specifics about what the county's share of the $50 million is to be spent on. His proposal had indicated it would be used to build two new elementary schools for the county - one in Piney Flats and one in Bloomingdale.

Street said he was afraid there would be questions later about the vote on the resolution, as amended.

"I'm not sure what it means myself," Street said at one point.

Moments after after the vote Godsey banged the gavel for a short recess, and Street's fears were realized as members of the audience, including Kingsport Board of Education member Pat Turner and Sullivan County Board of Education member Betty Combs, approached Street for an explanation of what the vote meant.

"I was asked by one person if it could be counted on this money is forthcoming," Street said. "And I told her ‘no.' You showed your support for a bond resolution. Can you take it to the bank? No. "

Harr's resolution for the $50 million bond issue needed 13 votes for approval from the 24-member commission. Twenty commissioners voted "yes" on the amended no-dates, no-locations version. Commissioners Wayne McConnell and John McKamey voted "no." Commissioner Bill Kilgore passed on the vote. And Commissioner Terry Harkleroad was absent.

Kilgore, McConnell and McKamey had voted to table the resolution, pending completion of the study - and/or a direct request from the Sullivan County BOE for money for school construction. Others who voted to table were Cathy Armstrong, Sam Jones and Michael Surgenor - all of whom voted in favor of the resolution when the motions to table failed.

Commissioner Linda Brittenham said the "yes" vote for Harr's resolution was important as a signal that the commission is ready to step up and fund school building needs.

McConnell disagreed.

"The Board of Education hasn't said they need a dime," McConnell said.

Harr's resolution, in part, says the County Commission:

"Hereby authorize(s) the issuance of school bonds in the aggregate principal amount of not to exceed 50 million dollars ($50,000,000): making provision for the issuance, sale and payment of said bonds; establishing the terms thereof and the disposition of proceeds there from...."

Combs, the county school board member, spoke briefly to the commission after the vote. She said the study sought by commissioners is needed, and the BOE has a work session scheduled Jan. 25 to talk about prioritizing school repair projects at the county's 28 schools. She said there's much to be done, systemwide.

The $50 million bond issue would be split among the county's school system, Kingsport's city school system, and Bristol Tennessee's city school system. The amount each system would receive would be based on average daily attendance in that system. Law requires the money be split because city residents pay county property taxes - which would be used to pay back the $50 million.

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