Ground was broken for West Ridge High School a few weeks ago. The site was purchased more than 18 months ago. It’s located off two-lane Lynn Road, off Interstate 81’s Exit 63. Highway Commissioner Jim Belgeri first raised the issue of getting a better, safer, more direct connector road from Highway 357 (to the west of Exit 63) to the school site shortly after the commission approved a $140 million bond issue that, in part, will pay for the new high school.
Belgeri first sought to get the road built by applying for a grant through the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a step approved by the county commission in March 2017. Ultimately, the state denied the grant request. Speaking during the called meeting Tuesday, Belgeri said one reason TDOT denied the grant was that the proposal didn’t go far enough in providing adequate connectivity — such as creating a connection to State Route 126.
The called meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd, and several members of the public spoke. Most said they don’t want the school built at all and would prefer that the county spend the money on current schools. Most also said there’s no truly safe way for students to get to the school, with a desire to keep their children from driving on the interstate often cited. Some added it isn’t the immediate area of the new school that is most bothersome when it comes to access, but voiced concerns instead about how students from the far reaches of the county’s west end will get to the Exit 63 area.
Debate among commissioners, as it has for several months, focused on the proposed road’s potential route and from which taxpayer pocket funding would come: school system money, highway department money or a combination of the two.
As amended from the floor by lead sponsor Commissioner Sherry Grubb, the resolution voted down Tuesday called for appropriating $3.3 million from the Sullivan County Highway Department’s estimated $6 million surplus to pay for engineering, design and construction of the road. Belgeri has offered all along to use that surplus to fund the road.
County Commissioner and longtime Budget Committee Chairman Eddie Williams, however, said taking more than half the highway department’s surplus would cut too close to the $2 million he said the department needs to keep on hand for cash flow. Plus, Williams said, the $3.3 million should be spent paving and patching existing county roads — an opinion echoed by several other commissioners.
Williams also said when school officials sought the $140 million bond issue (which was shared with the cities because city residents pay county property taxes), he had understood them to say they would not ask for any more money for the new schools plan.
Seven commissioners did not attend the meeting: Mark Bowery, Darlene Calton, Larry Crawford, Joe Herron, Baxter Hood, Matthew Johnson and Angie Stanley.
Nine voted against funding the road: Michael Cole, Terry Harkleroad, Mack Harr, Dennis Houser, Bill Kilgore, Bob Neal, Cheryl Russell, Mark Vance and Eddie Williams.
Eight voted in favor of funding the road: Bryan Boyd, John Gardner, Sherry Grubb, Andy Hare, Kit McGlothlin, Randy Morrell, Bobby Russell and Pat Shull.