Johnson City Commission approves wishlist for 111th General Assembly

Zach Vance • Dec 9, 2018 at 12:04 AM

With the 111th Tennessee General Assembly scheduled to convene Jan. 8, Johnson City commissioners passed their legislative wishlist of policies they, along with Kingsport and Bristol city leaders, would like to see enacted during the session.

“Historically, Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport work cooperatively to draft a legislative agenda. We have found that it is much more effective to speak with one voice in Upper Northeast Tennessee than it is with three individual voices,” City Manager Pete Peterson told the commissioners.

Assistant City Manager Bob Wilson said Tri-Cities leaders spent several months crafting the 2019 Joint Legislative Policy of the Tri-Cities, which covers urban growth and planning, education funding, local revenue, public safety and health and public transportation.

“We spend several months of meetings trying to refine those issues that are of importance to us, those that we’d like to see implemented as well as those issues that others have suggested that we find might not be in our best interest,” Wilson said.

Urban Growth and Planning

Wilson said the cities’ position on urban growth and planning policies remains relatively the same as previous years, in regard to de-annexation, annexation and planning. One new topic added this year, according to Wilson, is eliminating blight. While the Tri-Cities’ policy offers no specific fix, it does support the creation of new and enhance mechanisms for local governments to deal with blighted residential and commercial properties.

Unless a city has failed to meet its plan of services, or failed to allocate the necessary capital to extend services, the Tri-Cities group opposes any de-annexation. When it comes to annexation, the legislative policy states there needs to be some more clarification, such as defining a “qualified voter” to make it clear who is entitled to vote in an annexation referendum.

The Tri-Cities Joint Legislative Policy also voices opposition to any state law that would reduce the authority of regional planning commissioners to regulate land use within a cities’ urban growth boundaries.

Education Funding

This year, the joint legislative policy removed a provision requesting a fix to a section of Public Chapter 305, which currently allows counties to pay for one-time educational expenses without sharing with their city counterparts. As Washington County recently did with its latest property tax increase, it created a capital projects fund to build up cash to pay for certain educational projects. In the past, counties have typically issued debt for educational capital projects, and that debt has to be shared proportionally with the city school system based on student population.

Wilson said Public Chapter 305 is a very complex topic that basically pits county schools against city schools, and currently, state lawmakers are reluctant to step in and take sides.

The policy does request some clarification on maintenance of effort laws, which requires local funding bodies allocate at least the same dollar amount to school districts as they did the previous funding year. Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol want the legislature to make it so a funding body cannot reduce revenues going to a school system, whether city or county, once the school system’s budget has been approved.

In 2017, Sullivan County changed its method of funding schools in August, and it resulted in a reduction of funds going to Kingsport and Bristol schools, even though both city school systems had already approved their budgets for the year. The comptroller was then asked to weigh in and interpreted the maintenance of effort law to mean local revenues must be maintained regardless of its source.

“This requirement has the potential to throw the budgets of cities that have school systems into turmoil, because of a decision by the county, over which the cities have no control,” the policy states.

Local Revenue

With the Hall Income Tax eventually being eliminated, cities are having to get creative to build up their revenue streams. The Tri-Cities’ biggest ask of the legislature this year, in regards to revenue, is to implement a policy for collecting online sales tax, especially considering the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld South Dakota’s online sales tax collection statute, and appropriate that additional revenue into K-12 education.

“As we all know, this is not a new tax. As part of this discussion, we strongly urge the legislature to refrain from further reducing the state sales tax or any other tax in order to offset all or a portion of the internet sales tax revenue,” the policy states.

Other suggestions for revenue sources proposed by the three cities include: Raising or eliminating the single-article sales tax cap, implementing a local option restaurant tax, implementing a local option tax on tobacco products and reducing or eliminating trustee fees.

Public Safety and Health

Once again, the Tri-Cities legislative policy requests that buprenorphine clinics and providers, who treat those addicted to opiods, be required to obtain a certificate of need from the state before operating, similar to a methadone clinic.

Washington County currently has roughly 65 buprenorphine prescribers and Sullivan County has an estimated 35.

Even though the policy provides no factual evidence, it states that Sullivan County and Washington County have become a “destination for individuals seeking to obtain buprenorphine for criminal purposes as opposed to legitimate treatment.”

Another recommendation is to expand the second-degree murder statute to cover individuals “criminally responsible” for illegally distributing any schedule drug that if consumed with another drug results in the death of a user. It also asks the state to increase funding for drug education, prevention and law enforcement efforts.

As with previous years, this policy also opposes any legislation that would limit local governments’ ability to seize assets related to drug and DUI arrests prior to a conviction.

“In the event seizures are not allowed to occur until after a conviction, it will limit the intended impact of such seizures, especially since convictions in criminal cases can take months and sometimes years. Currently, seizures are subject to judicial review before a forfeiture warrant is issued,” the document states.

Public Transportation

Extending a rail service into the Tri-Cities, particularly Bristol, is once again gaining traction, and the Tri-Cities are asking lawmakers to consider forming a separate Department of Rail and Public Transportation department to focus on passenger and freight rail efforts.

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