Three years ago, then Sullivan County Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri told county commissioners that a new road to the proposed West Ridge High School, which would be eclipsed in size only by Dobyns-Bennett in Kingsport, was not up for debate.
“Doing nothing about a road to this school is not an option,” Belgeri said in March 2018. “Doing nothing does not undo a resolution that was taken and passed by this commission over 15 months ago (to build the school). I know it is not popular. But it is what was passed by this commission. There are no existing roads that can service this school. Not under any circumstances can an existing road serve this school. So, ladies and gentlemen, there is going to be a road. And I believe there is going to be a high school. Whether I like it or not, that is the way it is.”
At the time, Belgeri had not just a plan for the new road but the money to build it, some $3 million he said could come from his department’s fund balance, thus preventing a county tax increase. Then Commissioner and now Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull said at the time that Belgeri was offering the best alternative. “If the (school) location is set in stone ... if we turn down (Belgeri’s) route, where does that leave us?” Shull asked.
The answer is a new school opening in but seven months with not a spade of dirt turned on the new road to service it. And the $3 million Belgeri had available to pay for it? Those dollars are long gone.
The Sullivan County Commission refused to approve the road not because the plan was faulty or that it would raise taxes, but because some commissioners didn’t like where the new school would be built. This newspaper and many other community voices repeatedly appealed for the commission to take action, but commissioners sat on their hands.
While Belgeri was later defeated as highway commissioner, he still supports the new road. Indeed, he again has proposed building the road. But now, he would legitimately profit from the commission’s failure. And county taxpayers will pay for that — only they will pay a lot more.
Belgeri, spokesman for and a member of Jericho Partners LLC, offers a public/private plan to extend Jericho Road from Airport Parkway to the school entrance on Lynn Road. Jericho would buy property and build the road to be reimbursed by the county school board and/or commission. Time is of the essence to get such a project done in so short a time.
The county school board has approved an amended plan with Jericho and will ask the County Commission to approve up to $6 million in rural bonds to be repaid by non-city residents. It would fund the road across an 8-acre parcel for which Jericho has a purchase option. Jericho was to have kept the land surrounding most of the road to develop or sell, but that was amended for the school system to buy the whole 8 acres with a completed road on it, subject to approval of the County Commission.
The cost? About $4.6 million up front with the bond repayment length and ultimate cost yet to be determined. Also to be determined is whether commissioners will approve it, or continue to sit on their hands until the school opens, posing an unsafe situation for some 2,000 students and school staff, even as the cost continues to rise.
Inaction by the past commission has already cost taxpayers potentially millions of dollars. Will this commission finally do what’s right and get this access built? Time will tell. We hope they have the good sense and commitment to their sworn jobs to get this road built to West Ridge High School so students have safe passage on opening day.