Getting road to new school appears Sullivan Commission's problem to solve

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

BLOUNTVILLE — It was a bit like watching a vintage episode of “Divorce Court” as the Sullivan County Commission met Thursday afternoon to discuss who should foot the bill for a new road to the county’s under-construction 1,700-student West Ridge High School, scheduled to open in two years.

The discussion, between county commissioners and county school system officials — primarily Sullivan County Board of Education Chairman Micheal Hughes (who is up for re-election in August) — often seemed like opening statements, testimony, and cross-examination.

There was finger-pointing on both sides. Each voiced surprise the other didn’t consider who would plan, build and pay for a road to the new school before the site was chosen and a bond issue approved to cover its construction.There were some “what did you know and when did you know it” moments. But in the end, it boiled down to a custody battle — with neither side wanting sole responsibility.

In that regard, after more than two hours of verbal wrangling, it appeared the school system won the stare-off.

“It looks like this is in the county commission’s lap,” County Mayor Richard Venable said. “It’s in the commission’s hands now and we know what the school board thinks about it.”

Venable later told the Times News getting a new road to provide a more direct access route to the new school’s site off Interstate 81’s Exit 63 is the commission’s problem to solve.

“And we will solve it,” Venable said, adding he’s already spoken with a Tennessee Department of Transportation official about having the state agency’s help in creating a concept for the access road. That official will be in town today on a different issue, Venable said.

For several months, a resolution has languished on the commission’s monthly agendas, deferred multiple times as supporters tried to rally others to join them. It would give Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri permission to hire an outside firm to design the road, based on a roughly drawn path that would connect Highway 357 (on the opposite side of the exit from Airport Parkway) to Lynn Road at the school site. That path would pass Second Harvest Food Bank (the former Sam’s Club), curve right, then left to go around Waste Management, then require construction of a new section of roadway to reach Lynn Road.

Belgeri has referred to it as the Jericho Trail Extension and estimated it would cost about $3 million. The resolution calls for $300,000 to pay for the design work. The county’s purchasing office weeks ago opened requests for qualifications from interested firms and picked one. Belgeri had offered to fund the $3 million from the Sullivan County Highway Department’s $6 million surplus.

But some commissioners say that money needs to be spent on paving roads countywide. And others say Belgeri, who lost his bid for re-election and will leave office after August, won’t be around long enough to get the project underway. His successor, Scott Murray, campaigned against having the highway department provide sole funding for the project.

There was an effort last month to amend the resolution on hiring the design firm to include the $3 million for construction along with the $300,000 for design work — with half the money coming from the highway department’s surplus and the other half coming from the school system’s $11 million surplus. That effort failed.

On Thursday, Hughes repeated what other school system officials already had said: The school system can’t legally spend money on what is a public road (not on school property).

Venable hinted at a potential solution: The county could buy the land needed for the new stretch of road leading to the school’s entrance and deed it to the school system — making it legal for the system to help pay for the road construction.

The school folks said nope.

Commissioner Angie Stanley asked if the current commission can go ahead and approve the road and “encumber” the $3 million from the highway department’s surplus to pay for its construction — before Murray takes over as highway commissioner and a majority-new commission is seated in September.

Venable said yes, but added, “The new commission can undo that in about three minutes.”

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet in regular session at 9 a.m. Monday, July 18, on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.