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Road for West Ridge Wolves blocked by division over route, funding and politics

J. H. Osborne • May 22, 2018 at 8:49 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County commissioners haven’t yet decided what, if anything, will be done to provide a better access road to the site of a new county high school off Interstate 81’s Exit 63.

So even though property was purchased, ground broken, and site preparation is ongoing for West Ridge High School, it isn’t yet a sure thing there will be any road improvements to access the site in time for the school’s projected opening in 2020.

But there’s likely to be a special called meeting of the Sullivan County Commission soon to try and settle whether the body will resolve the issue before a majority of sitting commissioners leave office in August. There is open speculation that the massive turnover in county government due to this year’s election cycle (at least 15 of the county commission’s 24 members won’t be returning in September, there will be a new highway commissioner who campaigned in part on not building the road, and there also could be a shift in power on the Sullivan County Board of Education) the overall future of the new school might change.

The Sullivan County Commission spent hours discussing the new road Monday. Commissioner Sherry Grubb is lead sponsor of a resolution to hire an engineering firm to design a road from Highway 357 (north off Exit 63) to the West Ridge site on Lynn Road. After about two hours of debate over potential amendments to Grubb’s proposal, County Mayor Richard Venable called a one-hour lunch break — then announced he would spend the time in his office meeting with Grubb and various other county officials, including other commissioners, to hash out details of how to proceed. Under Tennessee’s Open Meetings  or “Sunshine” law, the get together Venable suggested qualified as a public meeting.

The location was shifted to a small conference room. But before it began, County Attorney Dan Street told Venable the discussion probably should take place back in the commission room to allow anyone who wanted to listen to do so.

Gathered around the table and mainly participating in the conversation were Venable, Grubb, Street, Commissioner Mark Vance, Commissioner and Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams, Commissioner Larry Crawford, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri.

Originally

When the school board first chose the site off Lynn Road and the County Commission approved a bond issue and tax increase to fund the new school, Belgeri sought help from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to improve access. The roads to the site are two-lane, hilly and curvy. TDOT declined.

A few months ago Belgeri offered $3 million from his department’s estimated $6-plus million surplus to build the road. Grubb, with Vance as co-sponsor, introduced the resolution to hire an engineering firm to design what Belgeri called the Jericho Road extension, which would improve existing roadway and right-of-way between Highway 357 past Second Harvest Food Bank and in front of Waste Management, then create a new road across a portion of property owned by the Shriners Jericho Temple to connect with Lynn Road at the new school’s entrance.

Design work was estimated at up to $300,000 and the county’s purchasing agent advertised, received and reviewed requests for qualifications from interested engineering firms. One is ready to move on the work as soon as a thumbs-up is given from the commission.

Opposition

Opponents say the County Commission doesn’t have a dog in this race — that road improvements to the new school are the school board’s to work out and fund.

Some say they’d support building a road, but not along the route Belgeri has used as a starting point for design (based on existing right of way, topography, and environmental concerns, like a creek). And there are those who simply don’t want the new school, period.

That last point is where politics come in. Almost every county commissioner who voted for bond issue to fund the school and ran for re-election were defeated in party primaries earlier this month (the general election is in August).

Funding

Some, including both supporters and opponents, have an issue with the $3.3 million cost coming from the highway department’s coffers. They say it should come from the school system’s own surplus. Among this crowd are those who say the $3 million from the highway department should be spent on paving existing county roads. That, too, was a political factor in the primary, which Belgeri lost to Scott Murray.

On Monday, Belgeri said the surplus wasn’t built by his administration’s lack of paving, which he said actually increased during his tenure. Instead he attributed the growth to God-given good weather (which reduced winter road maintenance costs) and a worldwide political and economic climate that had lowered oil costs (cutting fuel costs).

Vance also pointed out the highway department this year will receive $1 million from the state in new money thanks to the gas tax).

A compromise?

Vance, who dropped out as Grubb’s co-sponsor last week, moved to amend the resolution on Monday to include total funding and specify where the $3.3 million would come from: half from the county’s general fund surplus; and the commission would “request” the county school system provide the other half from its fund balance.

Crawford then attempted to amend Vance’s amendment to make it clear the engineering firm would be tasked with studying the best route when designing the new road — and not just design a road along the route described by Belgeri. Crawford said making students traverse an “S” curve made no sense.

Street pointed out changing the scope of the project could very well change the cost and that would impact Vance’s intentions to have the school system pay half (Vance had stipulated $1,675,000 for each side’s payment in his amendment).

Failure

During the lunch break get together, Crawford agreed to cease pursuit of his amendment. Rafalowski, citing case law and an opinion from the County Technical Assistance Service, said it is the school system’s understanding that school funds cannot be used to build a road (except on school property).

Street said he thought there could be a way to work around that. And those in the discussion reached a consensus to go ahead and seek a vote on Vance’s amendment as a trail balloon — to see how much support its compromise on funding got from the full commission. Back in session, Crawford removed his amendment proposal, and Vance presented his for a vote. It failed by a wide margin.

A final challenge

With the failure of Vance’s amendment, action turned back to Grubb’s original resolution and Venable recognized Grubb. At the same time, Commissioner Mack Harr signaled for recognition to speak, Venable asked him for what, and Harr said “point of order.”

Venable asked if it could wait until Grubb, who he had already recognized, spoke. Grubb asked to roll her resolution to the next meeting of the commission. Harr then said his “point of order” was that he wanted the issue to come for a vote immediately. It has been the commission’s longstanding practice to allow a resolution sponsor the right to defer a vote. Harr, however, pushed the matter and eventually got a second to try and force a vote. Harr’s motion failed 3-21.

What next?

Venable said he will call a special meeting of the commission to take up the issue, hopefully after nailing down answers to many of the questions commissioners say are preventing them from knowing how to vote on the proposed road.

 

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