Sullivan County Commission considers asking for halt of construction at new high school

J. H. Osborne • Mar 24, 2019 at 2:42 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Late in the Sullivan County Commission’s monthly meeting Thursday evening, Commissioners Hershel Glover, Dwight King and Joyce Crosswhite made public their resolution seeking to halt construction of West Ridge High School.

The trio introduced the resolution on “first reading,” meaning no vote was expected or taken, but a lengthy and sometimes terse conversation ensued. Some topics were within those mentioned in the somewhat rambling two-page resolution. Others not so much.

Glover said the goal isn’t to stop West Ridge’s construction forever — just until the Board of Education brings commissioners proof it has the money to finish both West Ridge and the new Sullivan East Middle School. Glover also connected the need to slow the school work to the “emergency situation with the Sullivan County jail overcrowding” — in essence saying any cost overruns from the school construction projects will cause an additional tax burden on top of whatever the cost of renovation, expansion or new construction of a jail will cost.

Glover said the resolution seeks to have the BOE come to the commission’s meeting next month and bring financial statements to show it has the money to finish West Ridge and the middle school. If the money isn’t there, Glover said, West Ridge should be put on hold while the BOE focuses on completing the middle school. Construction of West Ridge would resume when finances permit, Glover said.

Commissioner Sam Jones said he had recently talked with the architect for West Ridge and the project was moving ahead.

Glover asked Jones if that meant Jones would support raising taxes if the BOE comes to the commission next year and asks for $20 million or $25 million to finish the school construction projects in a manner promised to county taxpayers when a $140 million bond  issue was approved. Jones said Glover just pulled those figures out of the air and now they would be swirling around publicly. Jones described Glover’s doing so as “irrational” — which garnered Jones a calling out from County Mayor Richard Venable, who told him that type of speech would not be tolerated.

Later, Commissioner Angie Stanley said a major concern for her remains how West Ridge students will get to the school safely. Stanley asked if the county is going to spend millions and millions to provide better access roads to the school. Venable asked if she were asking him and went on to remind Stanley she is one of 24 voting members of the county commission before saying he didn’t have a plan for getting students to the school and that is not the county commission’s job, but that of the BOE.

Stanley also mentioned the Kingsport Metropolitan Planning Organization had recently sent a request to the state asking for renewed study of the extension of State Route 357 (Airport Parkway) and if Venable had heard anything about that. Venable said he had sent a request to the state asking that the MPO’s request be considered.

“Do you have a problem with that?” Venable asked Stanley.

“No, but I think it should have been done earlier,” Stanley said.

Glover said recent change orders to the West Ridge project are a “red flag.” King said there are “all kinds of red flags flying out there,” specifically saying the “general contractor has taken over for the dirt contractor.”

Commissioner Mark Vance said he didn’t like the image or message that would be sent to the public by mentioning the jail project, which could be perceived as putting the jail over the schools.

Vance asked that the BOE’s project manager be on hand next month to answer questions and that while he supported the $140 million bond issue and school building plan, now “they have to make it work. I agree with wanting to hold their feet to the fire.”

Glover said he wants to make sure the county has enough money for the schools and the jail (the county has not identified funding for major jail construction).

“This commission is going to have to come up with a lot of money next year,” Glover said, followed later by “The jail is a priority not just for the safety of the residents, but for the safety of the officers working in it. It’s a time bomb getting ready to happen. It’s our fault if we don’t do something about it.”

One of the closing comments about the school projects came from Commissioner Alicia Starnes, who said she was quoting a member of the public who told her, “We were promised a Cadillac Escalade and it seems like we’re getting a Dodge Neon with wheel spinners.”

The resolution to ask the BOE to halt work at West Ridge will be up for debate by the commission’s committees in coming weeks before coming for a potential vote next month.