Who'll pay for new Sullivan East Middle School sewer line?

Rick Wagner • Dec 1, 2018 at 6:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Take a more than 22-year-old city-county sewer agreement, mix in a 2019 Sullivan County middle school sewer project and then a handful of county commission concerns and the thoughts of two lawyers, and what do you get?

The answer is a recipe that generated the following convoluted question: Which entity should or could pay for a $1 million sewer line to serve the new middle school: a, the Bristol, Tennessee, city government, b, the Sullivan County school system or c, the Sullivan County government.

Director Schools Evelyn Rafalowski took a proposal to allow the school system to spend $1 million in fund balance on a sewer line that would serve the new East Middle, which is slated to open in January of 2020. However, at a commission work session commissioners balked at the plan and asked it be “rolled” or delayed, and the next day County Attorney Dan Street said three commissioners talked with him about the 1996 sewer agreement among the county, Bristol, Bluff City and Kingsport.


After reviewing the 1996 document for the first time in years, Street explained at a school board retreat Thursday, the county attorney came to the conclusion that the county would have a good legal argument that Bristol should pay for the line to serve Sullivan East Middle, which under the low bid is to cost about $1 million. However, Board of Education member Matthew Spivey, a private attorney, asked if the commission would be willing to go ahead and let the school system move forward with the sewer project using the school system fund balance, with the explicit understanding that if the county sought and got sewer line payment from the East line the county would give that to the school system.

Street said he’s sure the commission would do that but said the school board should have faith.

Another issue some school board members and others have asked is whether a 4-inch line is large enough. However, East Middle School architect Dineen West of Cain Rash West Architects said the plans for the 4-inch sewer line have been approved by Bristol sewer engineers and that the line is sized to serve the middle school, Sullivan East High and up to 50 homes or small businesses that might tie on in the future.

Under the 25-year sewer agreement, which sunsets itself April 23, 2021, the county would pay for sewer trunk line designated in the agreement as 10 inches or larger, while the cities would pay for sewer collection lines designated in the agreement as those 8 inches or smaller.

Street said he’s heard that some folks argue the agreement is no longer in effect, but said he could find nothing in the agreement that would nullify it. Although, he admitted that the “smart-growth” annexation law that came along after the agreement negated most of the reasoning for it since that law allowed cities to annex freely into non-city areas of the county. That law, in turn, was superceded by another law that pretty much put a halt to annexations by cities except by request or referendum.


In a nutshell, the agreement pushed by then-County Executive Gil Hodges as a 1994 campaign promise and agreed to by the three cities says that the county will pay for trunk lines anywhere in the county, including inside the cities, and the cities would pay for sewer collection lines anywhere in the county, including the non-incorporated areas.

The idea was the county gave up its claim to having party ownership of the city sewer plants since the county had helped get federal sewer grants used to improve and enlarge those plants. It came during the “annexation wars” that raged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, events that pitted the county against the cities and vice versa. Even cities against one another when two or even three would try to annex overlapping parcels such as happened among Bristol, Bluff City and Johnson City in the Piney Flats community.

The 1996 agreement specifically includes Sullivan County Schools, although the school system was not a party to the agreement under which the county spent $20 million on trunk lines, with the last one listed from 2006.

Street said that if the county tried to force Bristol to pay for the East feeder line, the cities then could try to force the county to pay for past, current or future trunk line projects. Member Mark Ireson said he thinks that the agreement is open ended when it comes to cities being responsible for collection lines but that the county was responsible for trunk lines only by agreement. Street said regular joint meetings, called for the in the agreement to hash out trunk line projects, apparently ended around 2006.

Either way, Spivey wondered out loud why the school system should be paying for the line when the agreement says sewer lines are to be funded by the county or cities. At least, he said, the commission in December should approve the school system using its fund balance to pay for the East sewer line.