Sullivan County Commission considering how and when to fund $80 million for jail

Sullivan County is to receive a bonus check in the amount of $30,757,243, and commissioners can’t even decide which commissioners should determine how to spend it. So here’s a thought: All things including government revenue comes from the taxpayers, so let the taxpayers help decide.

This latest batch of cash — $350 billion — is being borrowed from our children who are not yet of tax-paying age and generations not yet born. It’s called the American Rescue Plan and is being divided up among states, counties and cities to “help turn the tide on the pandemic, address its economic fallout, and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery.”

In other words, there are rules as to how it can be spent. Otherwise, Sullivan County could relieve itself of a major embarrassment and dash off a check for around $3 million to solve the access problem to West Ridge High School. And maybe that’s possible through some imaginative thinking.

But first, the county says it needs a committee to decide how to spend the money. While Commissioner Mark Vance suggested who should be included in a new committee, other commissioners pointed out that the commission already has such a committee. But, said Vance, that committee will be appointed anew in October and changing members could impede its work, compared to a special committee that could remain with the same membership longer. But not much longer.

Vance’s argument rings hollow. Accounts and Budgets Director Larry Bailey said spending this money will be a “tremendous challenge” that will take three to four years to complete. Next year, voters will retire some number of commissioners, so it’s largely irrelevant which committee takes up the work.

But Vance said something else that voters in the county’s three cities of Kingsport, Bristol and Piney Flats especially should keep in mind. He said his plan would not only get more people involved in the process of deciding how to spend the money, but that it would benefit mostly rural areas since the cities are getting their own share of the money.

Really? Are we back to the old county vs. cities approach? Since city residents also pay county taxes they should share equally in the distribution of the county’s allocation. For that matter, while the county receives taxes from families of some 69,900 rural residents, it receives more in taxes from families of some 88,448 city residents.

At some point, the squabble among commissioners over which of them gets to provide input on spending all those millions of dollars and thus curry favor with voters will be settled, and the committee will begin its work.

But will it ask you, the taxpayers, how you think this money should be spent? Probably not, so we’re asking.

The government says this money must be used to support public health expenditures, for example by funding COVID-19 mitigation efforts and medical expenses; address negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic including economic harm to workers, households and small businesses; replace lost funding to government services; provide premium pay for essential workers; or invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

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