BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s shot at an “inside track” on foreign fruit might be dying on the vine, based on reaction so far to a plan to give county property to a foreign city.
All three of the Sullivan County Commission’s primary committees discussed the issue in the past week. That means, theoretically at least, all 24 commissioners have had a chance to consider the proposal. Most voted “no action” on the matter. One committee endorsed the proposal by a 4-2 vote.
The resolution’s primary sponsor later said he doubts he’ll have the necessary 13 “yes” votes to gain full commission approval when it comes to a vote next week.
He and others supporting the plan have said they think those opposed to it — both taxpayers and elected officials — just don’t understand what’s really at stake.
“Transfer” ownership of several pieces of county-owned highway equipment — four trucks and a paving roller deemed “surplus” property by the county’s highway commissioner — would go to the county’s “sister community” of Siguatepeque, a city in the Central American nation of Honduras.
Proponents say the equipment is “basically our garbage,” “antiquated,” “worthless,” and “obsolete” — but say this plan is a classic example of “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” and the equipment would be highly useful and appreciated by people of third-world Siguatepeque. The people there, unburdened by regulations, would “rig” the equipment for use in paving the developing city’s streets, proponents say.
Opposition to the plan has centered around: questions of whether it’s legal for the county to give property — originally purchased with taxpayer money — to a foreign government; concerns that there are local residents, businesses or nearby governments that would be interested in purchasing the property at auction; and interest in finding out if the county could best recoup some of the taxpayers’ money by selling the equipment for scrap.
Commissioner Joe Herron, of the Kingsport area, is lead sponsor of the resolution to give the equipment to the foreign city.
It was Herron who last week said “This gives us an inside track ... to get vegetables and fruit in here if we ever need it. This is to secure a lot of things. There is a benefit back to Sullivan County. This is not a one-way street.”
Bonnie Hilger is a member of “Sister Community Project Inc.,” a nonprofit group formed here to help coordinate assistance efforts and other aspects of the county’s “sisterhood” with Siguatepeque. Others interested in the sister communities include: Hilger’s husband, a dentist employed by the Sullivan County Regional Health Department; Kenneth Hill, president and general manager of WHCB 91.5 FM; and Allan Pope, Sullivan County highway commissioner.
THE SISTERS’ HISTORY
Hill said last year that his more than 21 years of mission work in Honduras precipitated Siguatepeque’s interest in the Sullivan County/Tri-Cities area. In July 2006, he met Guillermo Martinez Suazo, mayor of the Honduran city of Siguatepeque , Hill said. “I did my usual chamber of commerce, tourism, economic development spiel,” Hill said, touching on various points about the Tri-Cities region, including major business interests and import/export opportunities. “I found out the guy was really trying to work hard for his community, and I was impressed with that. He’s a nice guy, so I invited him to come up.” Suazo came the next week, Hill said — his only entourage a translator — and stayed for several days, lodging at Hill’s parents’ home at night and being toured around the county by Hill during the day. “I introduced him to a number of people, including then-sitting state Representative Steve Godsey,” Hill said. Suazo decided he wanted to bring a group of officials from his city and nation to see the same things he saw on that first trip, Hill said. A second visit, in December 2006, brought Suazo and several others to Sullivan County — where another meeting occurred with now-County Mayor Steve Godsey.
It was on that trip when Suazo first raised the idea of a sister community program between Siguatepeque and Sullivan County, Hill said — and Godsey listened, and county commissioners got on board pretty quickly.
The Sullivan County Commission later OK’d an agreement between the two governments to become sister communities, and Suazo and several others from the city and the Honduran government attended a signing ceremony in Blountville.
A group of Sullivan County officials later traveled to Honduras. Those who went included Godsey, Pope, Herron, and County Commissioners Cathy Armstrong, Linda Brittenham, Moe Brotherton, and Bill Kilgore, and Dr. and Mrs. Hilger.
Last week, Hill said he continues to negotiate with the Honduran government on various potential economic development opportunities.
At a Budget Committee meeting May 8, Commissioner Buddy King said the whole purpose of entering into the “sister community” agreement “was to do business with them.”
SISTER CITIES INTERNATIONAL
The county’s relationship with Siguatepeque, OK’d by the County Commission last year, is not recognized by and is not connected to Sister Cities International, Herron confirmed to the Times-News last week. He said Sullivan County did not go with that well-recognized program because that organization’s focus is on fostering city-to-city relationships, and the county-to-Siguatepeque agreement didn’t seem to fit that mold. Sister Cities International’s Web site, however, includes counties among the government entities it recognizes for participation — under the guidelines of its program.
Proponents of the plan say state law says the county can transfer property to another government, or to a nonprofit group. They also say a state agency that offers advisory assistance to Tennessee’s counties has said state law does not bar transfer of property to a foreign government, although the law doesn’t actually mention foreign governments. County Attorney Dan Street has said he would have been more comfortable with the proposal if the county were to give the equipment to a nonprofit agency. Herron said that route wasn’t taken because he didn’t want to open a Pandora’s box and have every nonprofit in the county asking for surplus property. Other commissioners told him they think giving the property to a foreign government will more than open that box.
TO SCRAP OR NOT TO SCRAP
Pope says the county would spend more prepping the equipment for the scrapping process than it would get back. He said his department sold some old vehicles as scrap metal a few months ago and got about $2,882 for about 18 tons of scrap — but he estimates his payroll for the prep work on those items exceeded $3,000. His only other option to get rid of the equipment was to dig a hole and bury it.
THE AUCTION BLOCK
The county typically sells surplus property at public auction. One is scheduled next month.
Asked by the Times-News last month what the items in question might be worth, county Purchasing Agent Nelda Fleenor said while it’s difficult to place comparison values on property without having them side by side, her search of Internet listings found similar items with average selling prices of $4,000 to $5,000 each. She pointed out, however, that county surplus sales are “absolute auctions,” which means items sell no matter how small the final bid.
Pope said the county’s highway department last sold trucks at public auction in 1999. At that time, he said, four trucks were sold for $5,400 total. But he said the department’s mechanics spent a week working on the trucks prior to the auction, and the trucks had to be towed to the auction site. Pope said the trucks being considered for giving to Siguatepeque probably get about 4.5 miles per gallon. “I can’t see anybody wanting to fool with them right now,” Pope said.
The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet May 19 at 9 a.m. on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse. For more information about county government, including how to contact individual commissioners, visit www.sullivancounty.org.