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Bond deferral for Expo Center fended off

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Discussing the outcome of Monday night's debate on the bond issue for the proposed Wilson County Expo Center are, from left, Commissioners Jim Emberton (District 25), Frank Bush (District 8) and Dan Walker (District 10), all supporters of Bush's amendment to defer the bond issue until four guaranteed revenue streams could be established. Photo by John Butwell
County Mayor Randall Hutto and District 23 Commissioner Annette Stafford, chair of the county commission's Education Committee, honored David Wright with a certificate at Monday night's commission meeting for being the county's longest-serving bus driver, "and possibly the state's, as far as we can find out," Hutto said. Wright, who started driving for Wilson County Schools in 1967, will be back again next fall - "he's not retiring," Hutto added, "he knows every road in the county, and he's very much in demand for out-of-county field trips." On his way back to his seat, Wright also received a congratulatory handshake from another Wright - Dr. Donna Wright, county director of schools. Photo by John Butwell
District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines urges his fellow commissioners to vote down a deferral proposal and then approve the bond issue for the proposed Wilson County Expo Center, calling deferral a delaying tactic and "the oldest trick in the book." Photo by John Butwell

The Wilson County commissioners were in a contentious mood Monday night. They hotly debated both the bond issue for the proposed Expo Center and a proposed amendment to the bond ordinance. But in the end, they turned down the amendment by a 16-8 vote and approved issuing the bond, 17-6.

Supporters of building the Expo Center without further delay fended off the amendment which had been proposed by District 8 Commissioner Frank Bush that would have required four different guarantees of revenue streams before the bond could be issued but would have delayed the vote 30 days.

Bush said that since the center had been passed by the majority last month he was now "100 percent for it," but he wanted to propose an amendment which would insure its financial success.

'Oldest trick in the book'
However, right before the commission ended its lengthy debate on the proposals and voted on Bush's amendment, District 14 Commissioner Jeff Joines said he would vote against it because it would defer construction of the Expo Center.

"That's the oldest trick in the book," Joines told the commission. "If you can't defeat something, put it off."

When the ordinance first came up for discussion Monday night, District 11 Commissioner John Gentry said he's sure the Expo Center couldn't make money and he opposed issuing a bond to build it. According to the original proposal, he said, it would only make $135,000 per year and would cost about $500,000 to operate.

Joines responded that the $135,000 figure does not represent the center's potential earnings but is, in fact, the actual amount that was lost last year because the Ward Agricultural Center didn't have the space to accommodate groups that wanted to come to Wilson County and had to be turned away - space that the Expo Center would provide, Joines said.

"The plan also proposes adding a dollar to all admissions at the fairgrounds," the commissioner said. "That would raise an added $400,000. These are numbers we can be sure of."

Together, those estimated revenues exceed the estimated $500,000 annual operating cost for the center, and those figures do not include potential funds from possible rentals of the center, Joines told the commission.

Bush's four stipulations
That was when Commissioner Bush announced his own "100 percent" support of the center, adding that he wanted to propose an amendment which would insure its financial success.

His amendment had four prerequisites and would require deferring the bond until those requirements were met, Bush elaborated.

"Number one, I want an ordinance passed adding $1 to every admission to events at the fairgrounds for the next 10 years," he said. Next, Bush added that he wanted an ordinance removing the ban on alcohol sales at the fairgrounds for the next 10 years as well.

He also proposed requiring a commitment for Wilson County Promotions to pay $100,000 per year for ten years to help fund the project, and finally, for the City of Lebanon to pass an ordinance agreeing to pay $100,000 per year for 10 years as well.

"Before we obligate ourselves, we need to make sure we have a revenue stream to make this a winner," Bush said. That stream could dry up "once the taxpayers are on the hook" and other revenue sources see no incentive to contribute to get the job done, he warned.

In response, Joines told the commission about an email that has been sent to all the commissioners and others that he had decided was too negative and divisive to discuss in the commission meeting.

'Kill the Expo Center'
"It starts out, 'Kill the Expo Center,' then it says, 'Kill the possibility that the City of Lebanon would build one,' but this is all one county," Joines continued. "If something good comes to Watertown, it's good for us all. If something good comes to Lebanon, it's good for us all. When Marriott comes to Mt. Juliet, it's good for us all."

Although Joines did not say so, the email was the one that Jeff Hartline of the Wilson County Republican Party's executive committee sent out to drum up support for a petition drive to hold a countywide referendum on the Expo Center.

If the petitioners get enough signatures to request the referendum within 20 days of the commission's bond issue vote, a referendum will be held under state law.

In an interview and in his email, Hartline estimated that 15,000 signatures would meet the requirement. The possibility came up briefly at Monday night's commission meeting, when District 3 Commissioner Bobby Franklin asked County Attorney Mike Jennings if the commission voting on the bond issue had been legally advertised.

Jennings responded that it had, but the notice which the county must publish alerting the public that it could request a referendum had not been published yet, because the commission had not yet voted to approve the bond.

Same majority passes bond
Joines concluded his statement to the commission with his comment that deferring a project is "the oldest trick in the book," and at that point the commission voted 16-8 to turn down the deferral amendment, quickly followed by passing the bond issue itself, 17-6.

District 10 Commissioner Dan Walker abstained in the 17-6 vote because he said his company has a contract with Marriott, which has broken ground for its own (but considerably smaller) convention center as part of its new hotel in Providence.

Bush, Gentry, Franklin, District 4 Commissioner Chad Barnard, District 25 Commissioner Jim Emberton and District 16 Commissioner Diane Weathers also voted no, echoing their earlier votes in April against building the Expo Center - and District 23 Commissioner Sue Vanatta, a longtime and vocal supporter of the center, was absent on a long-planned trip.

New fire trucks also debated
There was also considerable debate Monday night about the nearly $1 million purchase of two new fire trucks recommended by the Emergency Management Committee. Several of the commissioners said the trucks should have been on the top of the WEMA needs list in the current fiscal year's budget, which is about to expire.

District 15 Commissioner Mike Justice said while he recognizes the need for new trucks, bringing the matter up now before the new budget is approved is not the right way to do things.

He said the trucks should be replaced based on a regular plan.

District 9 Commissioner Sara Patton agreed, saying, "There is no doubt the east end of the county needs fire trucks, but the trucks should have been on the WEMA needs list last year."

However, District 22 Commissioner Wendell Marlowe pointed out that there's no reason the commission could not approve this purchase and still create a plan to deal with future needs.

"I've been talking about the need for trucks for several years," he said. "And the previous WEMA director asked for a funding plan, but we didn't do it. I don't see that as a reason to put this off. We can purchase now and plan for the future."

'One truck won't pump'
District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich told the commission that both the Emergency Management and Budget committees had voted unanimously to buy the new trucks. And WEMA Director Joey Cooper said the need for the trucks is almost an emergency, since a county fire truck recently failed its pumping test and could not provide water if it went to a fire.

Plus, it takes about eight months from the time a new truck is ordered for it to arrive, Marlowe said.

Finally, the commissioners voted 15-9 to buy the trucks, with Justice, Franklin, District 1 Commissioner Becky Siever, District 2 Commissioner Adam Bannach, District 12 Commissioner Terry Ashe, District 20 Commissioner Annette Stafford and District 13 Commissioner Sonja Robinson opposed.

The commission also unanimously passed a resolution guaranteeing funding for the county's insurance fund. The Insurance Committee was scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday this week to discuss how to continue to provide insurance for county employees.

Ambulances to be regulated
Likewise, after some debate the commission passed an ordinance, but not unanimously this time (18-6), requiring all ambulances providing convalescent transportation in the county to be approved by WEMA.

The only ambulance services affected will be those providing service in the county.

Those running in Lebanon, Watertown or Mt. Juliet will not be required to obtain the permit.

Supporters said the ordinance will guard against "fly by night" shady operators while opponents said the State of Tennessee already licenses all ambulances in the state and the county will only be unnecessarily regulating private businesses.

Finally, in her report to the commission, Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright warned with a touch of humor that the latest sign of the county's growth, which eventually will require new school construction, is advance kindergarten enrollment.

About 840 new kindergartners have already registered, which is up by about 80 kids from this time last year, and that doesn't count the children of new residents who will trickle in over the summer, Dr. Wright reported.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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