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Sullivan mayor, attorney offer advice to new commissioners

Rick Wagner • Jul 20, 2019 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street and Mayor Richard Venable had some words of advice for county commissioners Thursday night, ranging from urging specificity in resolutions to abiding by the opening meetings law and possible studies of consolidated schools, local governments and new or increased taxes.

Yes, you read that right. An elected official talked about looking at the idea of increasing taxes, albeit some via a referendum.

WHAT WAS THE SEWER STINK ALL ABOUT?

Much of the regular meeting, aside from zoning, focused on a successful but amended resolution that rescinded a $584,000 appropriation toward the Board of Education’s sewer line project to serve Sullivan East Middle School. The measure was amended also to approve the commission spending $1,025,200 in reserves for the project that will move forward with smaller lines, including a 4-inch force main rather than a 6-inch one, and a section of 8-inch gravity flow lines to serve Sullivan East High School.

Hershel Glover, co-sponsor Dwight King and other commissioners said they thought they were voting to appropriate the money to be used to install the larger lines to serve more customers in the future. An attachment to a resolution gave costs for the larger lines, but nowhere in the resolution did it say 6-inch or 8-inch lines would be used. Commissioner Colette George, BOE Chairman Michael Hughes (not there but interviewed earlier Thursday) and Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the engineers for the project said the larger lines would lead to odor issues unless the sewer flow was substantial.

“If that’s the way they want to play, we’ll pull the money back,” said Glover, the resolution’s prime sponsor. “I’m sorry that all this happened. I don’t know where it went wrong.”

Commissioner Todd Broughton, a former BOE member, said, “What it boils down to is trust — or lack of.” 

However, Street during the discussion and again at the end of the meeting said the issue was ambiguity, what Commissioner Andrew Cross called a “gray area on both sides.”

Hughes said the contract signed in June called for 4-inch lines because engineers recommended that and that doing otherwise might lead to citizens complaining about a sewer stench along Weaver Pike.

WHAT WERE STREET’S OTHER POINTS?

Street, who said the 24-member commission, with 15 new members who took office a year ago, has a “steep learning curve.” He urged commissioners:

— Follow the Tennessee “Sunshine Law,” which he said does not allow commissioner conversations about resolutions and county business in hallways, around the coffee machine or one-on-one during meetings. Some commissioners had questioned a closed-door meeting in the office of Venable and Commissioners Mark Vance and Hunter Locke before the commission approved a 2-cent property tax rate increase.

“It’s unbelievable that law goes as far as it does,” Street said. “It’s a huge burden on your back.”

— Question procedural matters in “real time,” not hours or days after a vote is taken at a meeting. Some commissioners had questioned if two commissioners who work for the county should have recused themselves from a recent budget vote that included a 2-cent property tax rate increase.

—  Object to a resolution sponsor accepting an amendment, forcing a vote, if they want, and force a vote on the “call for the question” if a commissioner wants discussion to continue. He said any one of the 24 commissioners has the ability to do that while “no one person can stop debate” unless there is no objection from the floor.

WHAT DID THE MAYOR SAY?

Venable, in his remarks following Street’s, told commissioners:

—  They have the ability to look at the ideas of consolidated governments and consolidated schools in Sullivan County. Votes on both have failed in the past, but Venable said that was not a reason not to discuss and consider them again.

“This body has the power to look at that,” Venable said of a potential referendum on the issue, which would require city governing body approval, too.

—  A move may be underway to look at possibly merging courts held in Kingsport, Blountville and Bristol into a larger facility in Blountville, saying Sullivan County is among about 30 counties out of some 3,600 in the United States with courts in three localities.

—  The county could implement a hotel tax since all hotels in the cities also are in the county, as well as look at “equalizing” via a referendum the sales tax across the county and provide extra income for the county. Currently, the cumulative sales tax in Kingsport is 9.75 percent, a .25 percent increase city voters approved to help fund the construction of the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center. The sales tax in Bristol and non-city Sullivan County is 9.5 percent.

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