Sullivan cancels called meetings on road to new school

J. H. Osborne • May 30, 2018 at 8:49 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Never mind. But maybe later.

The Sullivan County Commission was set to hold a special work session Thursday, followed by a special called meeting Friday morning to talk about and maybe vote on the proposed new road to the new West Ridge High School.

But County Mayor Richard Venable’s office announced Tuesday afternoon that both meetings have been cancelled. “You will be notified when these meetings are rescheduled,” the brief message concluded.

Debate about the road consumed most of the commission’s regular monthly meeting last week. A resolution seeking to fund engineering and design work has languished on the commission’s agenda for several months, including the portion of this year’s election cycle that included party primaries.

Multiple commission incumbents lost in the primaries, and some observers believe the overall new school project played a role in their defeat.

In late 2016, the Sullivan County Board of Education chose the site off Lynn Road for the high school, which will be funded by a bond issue and tax increase the commission approved to support various school projects. The bond proceeds were shared with Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.

Soon after the site was selected, Sullivan County Commissioner of Highways Jim Belgeri soon after sought help from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to improve access to the property. 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 million-plus surplus to build the road. County Commissioner Sherry Grubb, initially with County Commissioner Mark Vance as cosponsor, 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 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 the commission gives a thumbs-up.

Opponents say the commission doesn’t have a dog in this race — that road improvements to the new school are the BOE’s responsibility to work out and fund. Some say they would 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’s where politics come in. Almost every county commissioner who voted for the bond issue and ran for re-election was defeated in party primaries earlier this month (the general election is in August).

Another sticking point is that some 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 instead. Among this faction 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.

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

Vance dropped out as Grubb’s cosponsor two weeks ago. Last week, he sought to amend the resolution 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. Vance’s proposal ultimately failed by a wide margin when it came for a vote by the full commission. Grubb asked to roll her resolution to the next meeting of the commission.