Play ball! Funding for West Ridge athletic facilities OK'd by Sullivan Commission

J. H. Osborne • Aug 20, 2018 at 8:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — When does recess mean accomplishing a challenging task? When it happens at the Sullivan County Commission. At least on occasion. And one of those occasions came on Monday.

It took a 20-minute recess to resuscitate the Sullivan County Board of Education’s request to use $4.8 million of its estimated $10.9 million undesignated fund balance to pay for construction of athletic facilities at West Ridge High School.

After a lengthy discussion, the request first failed to get the 16 yes votes needed for approval. That’s a two-thirds majority of the 24-member commission and that’s what it takes to get a resolution approved on first reading.

The resolution fell three votes short on the first vote. Eight commissioners voted “no.”

One thing that became clear prior to that vote might have pushed some of those eight just over the edge toward “no” — the county school system has more total fund balance than some of them realized. The catch: Much of it is designated for other projects.

During discussion, many commissioners had raised multiple concerns and questions about the school system’s request:

• Will spending that much of the system’s fund balance leave it cash-strapped in the event of an emergency? Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and the school system’s Business Manager Ingrid DeLoach said no. DeLoach repeatedly explained the $10.9 million is undesignated funds, not the total funds on hand. Some commissioners seemed to struggle to understand the difference between funds not designated for a particular use and those already designated for a particular project.

• Commissioner Mark Vance asked if there will be money left after spending the $4.8 million to complete needed sewer construction at the new middle school. Rafalowski said the BOE set aside $2.4 million last month to fund that work. And DeLoach said that $2.4 million, because it is designated for a particular use, is not included in the $10.9 million.

• Commissioner Eddie Williams voiced surprise about the $2.4 million. “If there’s $2.4 million we don’t know about, I’m not voting for this resolution,” Williams said. “I’ve never heard that.” Longtime chairman of the county’s budget committee, Williams had earlier said by his calculations spending the $4.8 million, coupled with the school system’s other obligations, would leave it with a zero fund balance. “There’s no more money in surplus and there won’t be any more surplus until we close another year out. If we approve this today, you all are going to have to basically live with that until next year,” Williams said. DeLoach explained the $10.9 million figure is what is left after other obligations are accounted for, including the roughly $2.5 million the state requires the school system to keep on hand. Rafalowski said the system normally doesn’t cut its budget so close, but the importance of this issue justifies it.

• At least two commissioners subsequently said Williams’ comments caused them concern.

• Commissioner Bill Kilgore wanted to know how the county could be spending $63.8 million on the new high school, but not include $28,000 for door locks. Rafalowski said the door locks (an item listed as an alternate on the construction bid) would be installed, ultimately, but they won’t be paid for out of the bond proceeds. Kilgore asked why not. “We’ve exhausted those bond dollars,” Rafalowski said. Kilgore later asked if the $63.8 million includes the more than $1 million listed for “food equipment” as an alternative on the bid. Rafalowski said no.

• Commissioner Larry Crawford asked if there’s a maintenance plan for the new school considering "the lack of maintenance" throughout the school system’s existing facilities. Rafalowski said the system's intent is to have its own in-house grounds crew as well as the custodial crew, with the number of custodial staff increasing — and the system’s maintenance department includes plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers. Rafalowski noted the system will be downsizing from 22 facilities to 17, closing some facilities that require a lot of time and resources — which should make it easier to maintain the remaining facilities.

• How much did the county school system receive from the $140 million bond issue approved by the county commission in 2016? Bond proceeds were $67,190,889. The city of Kingsport paid the county school system $20 million even for Sullivan North High School. 

• How much has been spent? $9,265,064.

• Commissioner Angie Stanley asked if any of the $87.2 million would be left over after the high school and middle school are built, and if the contract for the high school includes any furniture or Career and Technical Education (CTE) equipment, and if the $4.8 million would pay for sports or band equipment. Rafalowski said attached CTE equipment is included, but no on the rest. Some furniture will be brought to West Ridge from Sullivan North and Sullivan South, Rafalowski said.

After the resolution failed on the first try, County Mayor Richard Venable called a 20-minute recess, during which courthouse hallways hosted scattered groups of commissioners, school officials and members of the public. 

When the meeting reconvened, Venable said progress had been made and the floor was open for another vote on the issue. It was approved. Those voting “no” were Michael Cole, Mack Harr, Terry Harkleroad, Cheryl Russell and Stanley. Bobby Russell and Bob Neal were absent.