Would Johnson City voters raise sales tax to fund school security needs?

Zach Vance • May 21, 2018 at 10:30 PM

With yet another school shooting weighing heavy on their minds, Johnson City commissioners on Monday discussed the prospect of holding a referendum in November to give city voters the chance to raise their local sales tax by .25 percent to fund school security measures. 

The discussion came during a budgetary meeting with the Johnson City Board of Education, in which school officials presented their latest proposal that included $240,000 in reoccurring safety requests.

With that $240,000, which city commissioners agreed to fund, the school board wants to add two school resource officers for Science Hill High School and a school resource officer at two elementary schools, with each costing $50,000 for salary and benefits. The remaining $40,000 would be used to fund a mental health counselor from Frontier Health. 

Since the city will be operating on a tight budget next year, balancing it with nearly $1 million from its fund balance, the discussion then centered around funding future school safety requests, based on the results of an upcoming 89-point safety analysis and a physical building inspection. 

“We talked a little bit last meeting about how ... you establish a consistent source of funding for the schools that’s more robust than what we can do by pulling it out of our general fund monies,” Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said. 

“To me, obviously school security is hugely important to everybody in this room. It’s important to everybody on the school board. It’s important to everybody on the commission. I would hope that it’s important enough to our community that they would go ahead and pass a voter referendum on that last quarter-cent local option sales tax, with that then used to support what those security needs are.”

To get the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, City Manager Pete Peterson said city commissioners would have to pass an ordinance on three readings before July 13. 

If the city decides to put it to a referendum, Washington County would have 40 days to determine whether it also wants to try and increase the local option sales tax from 2.50 percent to 2.75 percent, the state-mandated maximum. 

If the county opts out of the referendum and the city passes its referendum, Peterson said the local option sales tax revenue could generate an additional $4.5 million to $5 million for the city’s general fund. 

However, if the county chooses to pursue the local option sales tax and it passes countywide, Peterson said the additional tax revenue would be roughly split in half, with the city receiving roughly $2.25 million.

If the countywide referendum fails, Peterson said the city could try its referendum again during a later election. Similarly, if the county chooses to opt out, it could always come back and try to capture the remaining quarter-cent during a later election. 

The referendum would need a majority vote to pass. 

Washington County’s decision to create a capital projects fund — where it accumulates cash to partly fund school capital projects and isn’t required to share as much of bond proceeds with the city — was cited by several commissioners and school members as the reason the additional local sales tax revenue is needed.

“I think the message that all our citizens should understand is our pie has remained relatively the same size, but the slice coming out for safety and security is getting bigger. Therefore, it’s taking away from instructional needs,” Commissioner Jenny Brock said. 

“We can’t wait on somebody to solve this for us. We know our people, we know our students, we know our schools, and we have the will to do something about it. We just have to have the resources now. We can’t take the money away from instruction to do this. But we have to do it, so we’re going to the people.”

In August 2012, voters overwhelmingly rejected Washington County’s likewise attempt to raise the local sales tax option by 0.25 percent to fund education needs, with 6,937 voting against and 3,962 voting for it. 

The City Commission ultimately asked Board of Education members to compile a report justifying the need for the additional local option sales tax revenue.

Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Safety and Mental Health Greg Wallace said he hopes to complete the state Department of Safety & Homeland Security’s 89-point safety analysis before the end of June, possibly sooner.

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