School board approves bid; discusses wheel tax

By Stephen S. Glass

Star Staff

   The Carter County School Board approved a bid Tuesday to build a new band room at Hampton High School.
   Architect Tony Street, of Beeson & Beeson Architects in Johnson City, presented board members with 7 bids for the project, recommending that members approve the lowest offer--$297,859--given by WKM Construction in Kingsport.
   However, Street said he had "concerns" about the low bidder, and presented the offer as something of a gamble for board members.
   "My firm has no experience with the bidder," said Street. "They do not have experience with schools, although they have had some experience with [large] healthcare projects and churches."
   With that in mind, Street told the board that WKM had sweetened the deal by offering things--in addition to the lowest bid--that other contractors had not.
   Street said that WKM had "given an aggressive schedule of 110 days" to complete the project
   "If they live up to the 110 days, it would be beneficial to the school system just to get students in the band room as soon as possible," Street said.
   Street also told board members that WKM has a staff electrical contractor who "should help speed up the project."
   "It looks like they have qualified people, and they have the proper licensing," said Street.
   "I see no reason not to hire them, although we should probably keep a close eye and police them, at least through the first phase of the project. Hopefully we will develop a good working relationship."
   The board voted unanimously to accept the bid on a motion made by Bobby McClain.
   Street also told members that his firm would begin accepting bids on October 16 to build an auxiliary gymnasium at Happy Valley High School.
   In other matters, Board Member Stephen Chambers reminded his fellow members that early voting on the upcoming wheel tax referendum begins next Wednesday.
   "I've tried to tell people all that I know about it," said Chambers. "I've tried to tell them we have three options: a wheel tax, which is fair for everybody; increased property tax; or we can watch commissioners sit back and do nothing.
   "We need more money for our teachers and things for our schools. But instead we get a double whammy with cuts in state funding and Carter County being ranked close to the bottom in the state for funding schools. We owe it to the children, and I think we need to push to get this tax and get some things done."
   According to projections given by the schools' financial director, Jerome Kitchens, a wheel tax in Carter County would net county schools $205,240 this year. City schools would receive an estimated $74,760 this year. Kitchens' projections were based on estimated wheel tax revenue for six months and would double once the tax was instated for a full year.
   In a recent letter to Mayor Sam Laporte, Kitchens presented the schools' case in favor of a wheel tax.
   "Insurance costs, utility costs, and increased services [mandated by the state] have created tremendous pressure on the expense side of operations, while the revenue side of the books has shown no significant increase. Over time even the best-run organizations will experience inflationary pressure," wrote Kitchens.
   "Up until the 7 cent increase in the tax rate [voted by commissioners in August,] there had been no increase since 1992. While there was an increase this year, it was in no way comparable to increases such as 28 cents in Johnson city.
   "The county projected a need of 31 cents and only got 7 cents. Although cuts were made this year and services remained unaffected, the simple truth is that increased costs with no additional revenue will result in reduced services.
   "Here in the school system, the board was forced to cut $400,000 from our budget. We [have now] received notification of a 25 percent increase in medical insurance. This will result in an additional $100,000 in unfunded costs.
   "Most commissioners have stated that a wheel tax broadens the tax base and will spread the cost of services over a greater number of people. It may not be just as simple as voting for a wheel tax or no tax, it probably is a choice of wheel tax or property tax."